Inside story'Even ordinary Jerusalem passersby realize it was a murder'

Mourning Navalny, Russian expats hope to invigorate Israeli opposition to Putin

Memorials to the leading Kremlin critics have popped up across the country, eliciting interest and sympathy, even as Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv allegedly tries to squelch support

Demonstrators carry placards during a protest following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, on February 16, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Demonstrators carry placards during a protest following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, on February 16, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

It took almost no time for the memorial rallies to begin.

On the night of February 16, thunderstruck Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Netanya, and Karmiel to express their grief and outrage.

The cause of the anger, agony and heartache: The death, some 4,300 kilometers away, of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a Siberian prison camp.

“The news of Navalny’s death was a shock to me,” said Sergei Zhourkovsky, a resident of Karmiel in northern Israel who, like Navalny, had been opposed to the rule of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “I could only compare my feelings with those on the morning when Russia invaded Ukraine. I just couldn’t believe it. I sat down and cried for a few hours.”

In Netanya, home to a Red Army memorial dedicated by Putin during a visit to Israel in 2012, one activist said her husband burst into tears on hearing the news. The pair went to a central square, where dozens were gathering spontaneously to mourn and protest.

“We felt like our last feeble hopes for a better future had been shattered,” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of repercussions for speaking out against Putin publicly. “We just stood together in the rain.”

A protest following the death in jail of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, on February 16, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In Tel Aviv, that same wet Friday evening, hundreds gathered outside the Russian embassy chanting “Murdered, not just died” and “Putin to The Hague.” Posting on social media, people from all across the country sought to catch rides to the rally.

Home to one of the largest Russian diasporas in the world, Israel was a natural place for Putin opponents to gather to memorialize Navalny and protest against the Kremlin. Through charisma, honesty, courage, and hard work the dissident had won world plaudits as Putin’s most prominent opponent. Now, a year after a documentary about a previous attempt to assassinate him had won an Academy Award, he was dead of unknown causes in an Arctic penal colony.

His wife, aides, supporters and many world leaders insist Putin is personally responsible for Navalny’s death after years of trying to quash the person who had challenged his iron grip on Moscow, and the death has galvanized the Russian President’s opponents.

“Even ordinary Jerusalem passersby realize it was a murder, let alone pretty much any Russian opposition supporter worldwide,” said Natalia Belenkaya-Greenberg of Jerusalem.

A memorial to Alexei Navalny in Acre, Israel. (Courtesy)

In the days since Navalny’s death, memorials have popped up in at least 10 cities, including Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Lezion and Acre. Day and night, people do to light candles and bring flowers, photographs and handmade signs.

Non-Russian-speaking Israelis who stop by the memorials are friendly and sympathetic, said Zhourkovsky.

“They are interested, they ask questions,” he said. “Many told me they knew who Navalny was, but didn’t realize he had so many supporters in Israel.”

In Russia itself, some have also attempted to hold rallies or even just lay flowers in his memory, leading to a sweeping crackdown and the arrest of some 400 people, according to press reports.

Police officers detain a man laying flowers for Alexei Navalny at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (AP Photo)

“In Russia, copies of the only newspaper that dared to print Navalny’s obituary were recalled,” said Belenkaya-Greenberg. “People get arrested for laying floral tributes in memory of Navalny, and the flowers get thrown away.”

Similarly, a makeshift memorial in Tel Aviv across the street from the Russian embassy disappears every night, the flowers, candles and portraits stuffed into the nearest garbage bin.

Protesters suspect this is done by embassy employees apparently annoyed by the support for the dissident Navalny. Activists have vowed to keep rebuilding the memorial.

The embassy did not respond to requests for a response to the charge.

A memorial to Alexei Navalny outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

The activist from Netanya, who visits the vigil almost every day, said Israelis with no connection to Russia were also taking part in the memorials, their illusions about Putin “shattered” by Navalny’s demise.

“I saw a lot of Israelis from outside of the Russian community come here and light a candle, or kiss their hand and touch the portrait,” she said. “Israelis do not understand what a monster he is. The more people worldwide realize he is a crazy dictator, the better; the more help will come to those who oppose him.”

The Russian leader was once welcomed in Israel with open arms — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned on his close relationship with the Kremlin as late as 2019 — but many Israelis’ opinions of Putin had been plunging well before February 16.

According to the Democracy Perception Index, between 2022 and 2023 public opinion of Russia fell further in Israel than in any of the other 54 countries polled on attitudes toward Moscow.

Apart from the invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s adoption of antisemitic rhetoric like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that Hitler was partly Jewish, Israelis have also soured on Russia due to Moscow and Tehran’s increasingly cozy relationship. The depth of the Kremlin’s ties to Israel’s enemies was laid bare by Russia’s decision to host senior Hamas officials following the October 7 massacre. This week, Hamas officials were back in Moscow for unity talks with Fatah.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during their meeting in the Kremlin on December 7, 2023, in Moscow. (Sergei Bobylyov/Pool/AFP)

“No one doubts that there is a direct link between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Well, the ties between Iran and Russia are just as evident,” said Zhourkovsky. “The existence of such a regime as Putin’s, with their hatred for the Western world to which Israel undoubtedly belongs, unleashes organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.”

The death of Navalny, though, was a klaxon not only to Israel but the whole free world, the Karmiel resident argued.

“Such an outrageous deed as the murder of the opposition leader is a signal to the rest of the world: you can just kill those who support democracy and Western values,” he said. “Everyone must see that Russia’s regime is just normalizing evil.”

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