Brooklyn man sentenced to four years for religious divorce scheme


A Brooklyn man was sentenced to four years in federal prison for attempting to violently coerce a recalcitrant husband into giving a religious divorce.

Moshe Goldstein, 32, was sentenced Monday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, NJ.com reported. He pleaded guilty last year to committing extortion and to restraining, assaulting and injuring a man in 2011 on behalf of the man’s estranged wife.

Goldstein, his brother and seven other men, including two Orthodox rabbis, were arrested in October 2013 in an FBI sting operation. He is the first of the group, which is charged with running an operation that used threats of kidnapping, beatings and stun guns to pressure recalcitrant husbands, to be sentenced.

An Orthodox woman cannot obtain a divorce without receiving a “get” from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, or “chained women.”

Rabbi Mendel Epstein was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and Rabbi Martin Wolmark pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Both will be sentenced in December, along with three other members of the group.

Israeli who faked own kidnapping indicted for incident


An Israeli man who faked his own kidnapping, and his accomplice, were indicted in a Jerusalem court.

Niv Asraf, 22, of Beersheba was indicted on Wednesday in Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for the stunt in April. His friend, Eran Nagauker, also was indicted.

He is accused of giving false evidence, breach of public order and obstruction of a police officer’s performance of duty.

Israeli security forces were alerted to Asraf’s disappearance on April 2 by Nagaukar. He said Asraf entered the Palestinian village of Beit Anun, near Hebron, to get help after they became stranded with a flat tire.

Nagaukar originally said his friend staged the kidnapping to get the attention of a former girlfriend, but Asraf later said that he ran because he

Prosecutors seek 2nd trial in Etan Patz case following mistrial


Prosecutors requested a second trial for the accused killer of 6-year-old Etan Patz after a mistrial was declared.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley declared the mistrial on Friday after twice ordering the jury to continue deliberating when it said it could not reach a verdict. The jury had deliberated for 18 days, since April 15.

The suspect, Pedro Hernandez, will remain in jail while awaiting the second trial.

“We are frustrated and very disappointed the jury has been unable to make a decision,” said Stanley Patz, Etan’s father. “The long ordeal is not over,”

Jury members said afterward that the vote was 11-1 in favor of convicting Hernandez, 54, a disabled factory worker who confessed in 2012 to killing Etan in 1979. The defense claimed that the confession was the result of Hernandez’s mental incapacities exacerbated by several hours of police questioning.

Etan, who was Jewish, went missing on May 25, 1979, in the SoHo area of New York City after walking to a bus stop by himself for the first time. He was among the first missing children to have his face pictured on a milk carton. His body and personal effects were never found.

Jose Ramos, 68, a convicted pedophile who served a 20-year prison sentence for molesting a young boy, was declared responsible for Etan’s death in a 2004 civil case.

Israel catches kidnapper behind murder of the three teens


The West Bank man believed to be the leader of the cell that kidnapped and killed three Jewish teens was arrested.

A gag order on reporting the arrest more than three weeks ago of Hussam Kawasme was lifted on the evening of Aug. 5, according to Israeli media.

Kawasme, of Hebron, was apprehended while attempting to flee with the help of his family to Jordan under a false identity, Ynet reported.

He reportedly admitted to serving as the leader of the cell that perpetrated the murders of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach. Kawasme said that funding for the attack, which he used to buy weapons, came from Hamas in Gaza.

In his interrogation, Kawasme said he helped to bury the bodies on a plot of land he had purchased two months prior to the murders. He then helped the two men who drove the car and shot the teens to hide.

Security forces are still searching for the two men — Kawasme’s brother, Marwan, and Amer Abu Aysha. Marwan Kawasme, who is active in Hamas, was freed in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange and deported to Gaza, The Times of Israel reported.

Another suspected cell member, Hussan Dofesh, also was arrested a month ago in Hebron.

Following a massive search, the bodies of the three teens were discovered on June 30 in a shallow grave in a field near Hebron 18 days after they were kidnapped and murdered.

Kidnapped Israelis shot 10 times with silenced gun, U.S. lab says


Three Israeli teenagers who were abducted by Palestinians in the West Bank last month were shot at least 10 times with a silenced gun in what appeared to be premeditated killings, a U.S. official involved in the investigation said.

The disclosure clashed with speculation by some Israeli and Palestinian commentators that the captors intended to take hostages for a prisoner exchange but panicked and shot them.

The killing of the three Jewish seminary students followed the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April.

One of them, 16-year-old Naftali Frenkel, also held American citizenship.

Israeli police believe the killings led far-right Jews to kidnap and burn to death a Palestinian youth in revenge, and the incident also contributed to an eruption of three weeks of clashes between Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military.

Missing since hitch-hiking home on June 12, their bodies were discovered on June 30. Israel blamed Hamas for their deaths but the Palestinian Islamist group has neither confirmed nor denied the allegation.

One of the three Israelis, Gilad Shaar, 16, telephoned police and said “They've kidnapped me!” after he, Frenkel and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach got into a car which investigators suspect was driven by a Hamas militant posing as a religious Jew. A second disguised gunman sat in the front passenger seat.

A U.S. official involved in the probe said the FBI, whose mandate includes Americans abducted abroad, received a recording of the distress call from Israel within days and sent it for audio analysis in the United States.

Distorted, tinny reports heard on the tape after an Arabic-accented male voice shouts “Head down!” in response to Shaar's attempt to raise the alarm were found to be consistent with shots from a silenced firearm, the U.S. official said.

“There were 10 gunshots,” added the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The use of a silencer led U.S. investigators to believe the captors planned to kill the three teenagers from the outset, the U.S. official said.

Israeli officials declined to respond to the American account of the investigation, saying it was still ongoing.

“We haven't even caught the kidnappers yet, so we're not going public with anything more now,” said an official with the Shin Bet security service, which is in charge of the case.

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Israel names two Hamas militants as key suspects in kidnappings


Israel on Thursday named two Hamas Islamists as leading suspects in the June 12 kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers, in the most concrete report yet of results after weeks of searches in the West Bank.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed reports that troops were seeking Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha, militants in their 30s from the Hebron area of the West Bank, both of whom have served time in Israeli prisons in the past.

Israel's Shin Bet Security Agency said in a statement both men had been wanted and at large since the kidnappings, adding that several other Palestinians suspected of involvement in the abductions were being questioned.

Aysha was jailed without trial under so-called administrative detention for six months in 2005, about the time his brother was killed by Israeli forces as he attempted to throw explosives at soldiers, Israeli security officials said.

Kawasme once served a 10-month prison term and trained for military action in the Hebron area, in addition to being involved with Hamas recruitment efforts there, the officials said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the suspects were only part of the group behind the kidnappings and reiterated his call on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abrogate a unity pact with Hamas, a group that holds power in the Gaza Strip and calls for Israel's destruction.

Israeli authorities have been searching for two weeks for the youths aged 16 and 19, one of whom is a dual U.S.-Israeli national, who disappeared near a Jewish seminary at a West Bank settlement.

Israel scaled back its searches for the youths on Tuesday after arresting several hundred Palestinians in house-to-house raids throughout the West Bank which led Palestinians and some rights groups to accuse it of imposing collective punishment on civilians.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Andrew Roche

Cartoon: ‘Vigil’ candle business booming


Search for abducted teens faces complicated political landscape


Since the three teenagers were abducted last week, Israel’s goals have been simple: Find them and punish their kidnappers.

Realizing those goals, though, is far from a simple task.

The international community has condemned the kidnappings, and Israel has spread its forces across the West Bank to search for the teens. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to stop at nothing to find Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach.

But the effort is taking place amid an increasingly complicated period in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israel is holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for the incident, but also is working with it to find the teens. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping but now shares a government with Hamas, which has hailed the abduction. And while Israel has promised to do everything it can to bring the boys back, there are efforts in the Knesset to prevent prisoner swaps of the sort that freed hostages in the past.

The teens were captured on June 12, and in his first public statement on the incident, Netanyahu two nights later wasted no time blaming the kidnapping on the new Palestinian unity government formed as a result of an agreement between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas.

“We hold Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority responsible for all attacks against Israel that originate from their territory, whether this is Judea and Samaria or the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said he knew “for a fact” that Hamas perpetrated the attack and again pledged to hold the P.A. to account.

But Israel’s coordination with the Palestinian Authority on West Bank security has continued unabated. P.A. security forces are helping Israel comb the areas under P.A. control for the teens.

On Monday, Abbas and Netanyahu spoke for the first time in more than a year.

Shlomo Brom, head of the program for Israeli-Palestinian Relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said it was a mistake for Netanyahu to try to pin the blame on Abbas.

“That’s the last thing he should do because now we need the Palestinians,” Brom said. “The last thing we should do is weaken them.”

Netanyahu’s accusation that Hamas was behind the abduction was denied by Hamas leaders, though they also praised the kidnapping. On Sunday, the prime minister received support from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said “many indications point to Hamas’ involvement.”

Some experts suggested that Hamas was the only organization in the West Bank sophisticated enough to carry out the kidnapping but that it had nothing to gain from confirming Israeli claims. Taking responsibility for kidnapping children, they said, would not gain Hamas international sympathy and would encourage Israel to expand its military operation.

On Tuesday, Israel arrested 41 Hamas officials and placed additional restrictions on Hamas prisoners in Israel.

“It would have been easier had they kidnapped soldiers,” said Jonathan Fine, a counterterrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “That they kidnapped teens is not going to work in the international arena. They’re very quiet now because of tactical reasons, but also because of an escalating amount of fear over what Israel will do. If these kids are executed, Hamas will pay a very, very high price.”

While Hamas may be behind the kidnappings, it has been particularly uncomfortable politically for Abbas.


Palestinians militants from various armed factions, including Hamas, attend a news conference in Gaza City on June 17. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

He has forsworn violence but signed a unity deal with Hamas. He has condemned the kidnapping, but official organs of his Fatah party have published cartoons praising the kidnappers. And Abbas opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but is aiding the Israeli army in its search efforts there.

In the wake of the kidnapping, the Palestinian Authority froze ongoing reconciliation talks with Hamas. But Fine said Abbas is “walking a very thin line,” unable to publicly support the Israeli military efforts or Hamas.

“There’s no doubt he’s in a catastrophic situation,” Fine said. “He was working on the political level cornering Israel [diplomatically], and now Hamas comes up and screws up everything. Hamas backstabbed them.”

In the past, when military operations have failed to rescue hostages, Israel has turned to releasing Palestinian prisoners in return for captured Israeli soldiers or civilians.

In October 2011, Israel released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. Last year, Israel agreed to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners as a precondition to entering peace talks with the Palestinians.

But opposition to such exchanges has intensified among right-wing Knesset members who view prisoner exchanges as fundamentally unjust and strategically misguided. Days before the kidnapping, a bill proposed by Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party that would make it more difficult to release terrorists as part of such exchanges passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset.

Following the kidnapping, Jewish Home’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, doubled down on his party’s opposition to prisoner exchanges, telling Israeli Channel 2 Monday that “over the past 30 years, the fact that we’ve freed about 10,000 terrorists over the years got the other side used to the idea that if you kidnap, it’s worth it because you receive 1,000 terrorists, 100 terrorists.”

Should Israel prove unable to find the teens, said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University, public pressure to free the hostages could lead to a prisoner swap, even if it hurts Israeli strategic interests.

“I feel bad for these three boys, but this whole attack shows the bankruptcy of this policy” of prisoner releases, Frisch said. “[Terrorists] have an incentive. It’s like playing the lotto but knowing you’re going to win. All they need is to do something like this every eight or 10 years.”

Netanyahu prepares the nation: Finding the teens will take time


Finding the three kidnapped teenagers will take more time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address to the nation.

“We are in the middle of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the fact that it may take more time,” Netanyahu said Monday afternoon. “It is a serious incident and will have grave consequences.”

The teens, including one dual Israeli-American citizen, have been missing since the night of June 12. They were last seen trying to get rides home from a yeshiva high school in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu urged the international community to decry the kidnapping, which he blames on Hamas.

“I call on those in the international community that condemn us for building a porch in Jerusalem to clearly condemn this kidnapping,” he said.

Netanyahu said he spoke Monday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and thanked him for condemning the abduction.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon assured the public that Israel would find the terrorists that kidnapped the teens — Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19.

“This abduction will not pass without Hamas paying a big price” as a result of the current Israel Defense Forces operation, he said.

Also Monday, Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, visited the families of Yifrah and Shaar.

Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told the families how he felt the support of world Jewry while he was being held in Siberia.

“When I was in prison, in full isolation, I felt strong because I knew that world Jewry was standing strong with me. I am certain that Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali are feeling the same powerful support of world Jewry today,” he said. “World Jewry is coming together to support you and your sons at this difficult time.”

At prayer vigils, Israelis gather in moment of unity over kidnapping


On the rolling green fields of a suburban Tel Aviv park, hundreds gathered to pray for the imminent rescue of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers.

Rabbis delivered speeches, singer Yonatan Razel performed two pieces based on liturgical invocations of God’s mercy, and a prayer was recited for the safe return of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach, who were kidnapped last week while hitchhiking from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion.

Nearby, the calm warmth of summer in Israel seemed to take the edge off the anxiety a little. Children played and babies cried. Adults snapped pictures on their smartphones.

Such a beautiful day, such a terrible thing.

Last week’s kidnapping brought Israelis together as few things do in this divided nation. Thousands joined prayer vigils across the country, including a massive one Sunday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

News — or lack thereof — about the kidnapped teens is dominating life here, from news reports to conversations among friends in cafes, prompting a rare thaw in the political and religious debates that typically overshadow Israeli discourse.

Rabbis at the vigil in this Tel Aviv suburb on Sunday night mostly stayed away from politics, sticking to broad mantras of solidarity with the prisoners — two 16-year-olds and a 19-year-old — and faith in God. The only exception was Rabbi David Stav, who called for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American defense contractor convicted of spying for Israel in 1985. Pollard’s case is controversial in the United States, but the call for his release is a near-consensus issue in Israel.

“It’s like we were all kidnapped,” said Rabbi Eliezer Elbaz, the chief rabbi of Givat Shmuel. “This did not happen for nothing. This must awaken us to soul searching.”

Most politicians steered clear of divisive statements, too. The boys belong to all of us, said government ministers from left and right. On Facebook or in speeches, they repeated safe declarations of zero tolerance for terror and expressed sympathy for the families, even refusing to answer questions about what this means for deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian relations.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time in a year. Netanyahu has blamed the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party for creating conditions that enabled the kidnapping, but most other Israeli government ministers have avoided such statements.

Coming from people who just days ago accused each other of bringing the country to ruin, the constant declarations of unity seem a little performative. And the solidarity evident across the country feels fragile, threatened to be forgotten amid the small inconveniences of daily life or swallowed up by the existential questions that serve as the backdrop to this tragedy.

Radio reports from the Israeli military’s chief of staff came sandwiched between the latest pop music hits. Even at the vigil, as Razel came onstage, hands holding smartphones rose up from the crowd to record the performance.

Israelis, of course, are experts at this sort of juxtaposition, famous for reboarding buses or casually sipping espresso in cafes that were recent scenes of terrorist carnage. Surely this national focus on the teens’ plight too will pass and we’ll all soon enough return to the ideological battles that are the norm here.

Writing on Facebook, Yesh Atid lawmaker Meir Cohen all but promised as much.

“There’s no need for politics,” Cohen wrote. “There’s no need to assign guilt. There’ll be time for that later.”

Netanyahu demands assistance from Abbas, who condemns kidnapping


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he expected his assistance in the return of three teens believed to have been kidnapped.

Monday’s conversation was the first between the two leaders in more than a year. Abbas later released a statement condemning the kidnapping — his first such statement, according to Haaretz.

Israel has accused Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, of carrying out the abduction.

“I expect you to assist in returning the abducted youths and in apprehending the kidnappers,” Netanyahu told Abbas, according to a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office. “The Hamas kidnappers came from territory under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territory under Palestinian Authority control.

“This incident exposes the true face of the terrorism that we are fighting against. Terrorists abduct innocent Israeli children while we save the lives of ill Palestinian children in our hospitals. This is the difference between our humanitarian policy and the murderous terrorism that is attacking us.”

Speaking of the new Palestinian unity government with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Netanyahu added, “The consequences of the partnership with Hamas must be understood; it is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad for the region.”

The three Israeli teens, including one dual Israeli-American citizen, have been missing since the night of June 12. They were last seen trying to get rides home from a yeshiva high school in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.

In a statement given to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, Abbas “condemned the latest escalations in the West Bank, including the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers and the ongoing series of violations, by Israeli soldiers and settlers, against innocent Palestinian civilians and against prisoners, held in Israeli jails.”

The statement called on all sides to refrain from violence and restated Abbas’ position “to continue with the extensive efforts to ensure the release of Palestinian prisoners, held in Israeli jails, when a final peace deal with Israel is signed.”

Also Monday, the Israel Defense Forces called on the Israeli public to “behave responsibly and not take part in the promotion of unsubstantiated rumors” on social media including Facebook and Twitter.

The IDF also confirmed Monday that Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian the previous day near Ramallah after Israeli troops came under attack from Palestinian rioters during a raid of a Hamas target. The Palestinian was killed as he attempted to throw a brick at Israeli soldiers, according to the IDF.

The International Red Cross on Sunday night called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the three Israeli teens.

“We are very concerned by the fate of the teenagers. International humanitarian law prohibits abduction as well as the taking of hostages,” said Robert Mardini, head of ICRC operations in the Middle East. “They must be treated humanely, and their lives and dignity protected and respected.”

Rabbis arrested in kidnapping, beating of recalcitrant husbands


Two Orthodox rabbis and two others were arrested for allegedly kidnapping and beating men in order to force them to grant their wives religious Jewish divorces.

The men were arrested Wednesday night in a monthlong sting operation in which a female FBI agent posed as an Orthodox woman trying to get a religious divorce, or “get,” from her husband.

Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark, along with the two alleged accomplices, were due to appear Thursday in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J. Six others could be charged, according to reports.

The arrests were accompanied by a series of searches executed by the FBI, including one at Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, in New York’s Rockland County. Others were in Lakewood, N.J., Brooklyn and elsewhere. In the yeshiva raid, the students, of high school age, were forced to remain outside for the bulk of the law enforcement operation, the Journal News reported. 

According to the complaint unsealed Wednesday morning, the rabbis charged $10,000 to persuade the rabbis on the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping, and another up to $60,000 to pay for others to handle the kidnapping and beating and other physical torture, The Star-Ledger newspaper reported.

Orthodox Jewish women cannot remarry without a writ of divorce granted by a rabbinical court.

Epstein is a divorce mediator in the Orthodox community, according to The Star-Ledger.

Americans in Yemen fear kidnappings


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Luke, an American photographer and editor for an English-language local newspaper, lives in one of the tall historic buildings in the city.  With increased kidnappings of Westerners in Yemen, he also lives in fear.

The number of kidnappings has increased recently, with tribesmen or Al-Qa'ida terrorists using hostages either as bargaining chips for the release of imprisoned members or as a way to get a lucrative ransom.

Several foreigners have been abducted this year by either Al-Qa'ida gunmen or disgruntled tribesmen. Last month a Dutch couple was abducted here. Their location is still unknown. In May, gunmen abducted two South Africans in the southern province of Taiz. Three members of the Red Cross, including a Swiss citizen were also briefly held captive as well that month.

Although they refused to give an exact number of Westerners living in the country, Yemeni foreign ministry officials said that the number of Westerners here has plunged in recent years.

For the Westerners who live here despite the threats, the fear is always there, but they try to live as normal a life as they can, and believe reports of violence in Yemen are exaggerated by the media. 

Luke, 31, who arrived in 2011, says the situation has taken a toll on him. “There's no denying that as a foreigner, in particular a 'Westerner,' you stick out in Yemen. But while such news is certainly disturbing, it is clear to me that carrying around such worry or concern is neither helpful nor healthy.”

Luke says he tries not to think about the fear of kidnappings.

“I live my life as normally as I can,” he told The Media Line. “The fact that so many of the people who surround me on a daily basis are kind, helpful and genuinely curious [about me] helps in this regard.”

“I do sense that as long as foreigners aren't secreted away in compounds or constantly surrounded by security details, the unparalleled warmth and generosity of the Yemeni people can serve to assuage most daily fears or concerns about such things,” he told The Media Line.

Luke is hardly alone in facing down the fear of kidnapping in Yemen. Hundreds of Westerners here have to worry about increased violence and a growing lack of security.

“We pray every day for God's protection. And we feel that God is guiding our steps. That said, we also have to be careful and use our common sense regarding where to go,” a 47-year-old American teacher who requested anonymity, told The Media Line.

The language teacher, who has been living here for nine years, said Yemen's security and economy took a turn for the worse after the revolution in 2011 that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“When we first came to Yemen, we would go in the car and visit cities and villages…But now we can't go out of the city due to the bad security situation,” she recalled.

The kidnappings and growing lack of security here have taken not only a psychological toll on the Westerners, but has hurt them economically as well.

Susan Coleman, co-owner of the Coffee Trader, a well-known coffee shop in Sana'a and one of a handful of businesses owned by Americans in the country, told The Media Line that kidnappings have hurt her business, which attracts foreign and Yemeni customers alike.

Coleman, 47, said she came here with her husband to study Arabic and teach English. But when they noticed there were no Western-style coffee shops in Yemen, they decided to open one in 2007.

She said that the coffee shop was a hit from the beginning, but business has fallen off lately because of the opening of rival coffee shops and the fear of kidnapping.

“We used to have people from embassies come, but now due to the security situation they don't come here because they fear for their safety.”

Despite putting up a positive front, Coleman refused to be photographed for security reasons and she says Westerners' need to maintain a low profile. She added that if security improved Yemen could become one of the biggest tourist hubs in the region.

Stan, from Washington, D.C., who arrived this summer to study Arabic, also thinks the country gets a bad rap, but exercises caution anyway on a daily basis.

“I arrived in Yemen just this summer, right in the thick of the current spate of kidnappings. I vary my schedule, keep solitary travel to a minimum, and stay in touch with friends and colleagues, particularly when I'm in a new or unfamiliar part of town. This is definitely distinct from my daily life back home.”

Besides his interest in learning Arabic, “I was really excited by the incredible developments Yemen is undergoing right now. Between the transitional government, the national dialogue and impending new constitution and elections, this is an incredible time to be in Yemen and I wanted to take advantage of it.”

He refuses to allow the fear of kidnappings to get in the way of his goals. “The kidnapping of Westerners is something that saddens me but does not ultimately affect my daily life. Hearing about kidnappings is a reminder of a number of things.  It's a reminder that there are risks being a foreigner in Sana'a, It's a reminder there are groups in Yemen that are willing to use foreigners to further their political or ideological goals,” he told The Media Line.

Nonetheless, Stan, 24, refuses to let the tension scare him away from his goal of learning about the country and its people. “I came to Yemen to meet Yemeni people, experience Yemeni culture and society, and improve my Arabic. I cannot do those things from the safety of my dorm room, nor do I think that remaining indoors is substantially safer than living prudently in greater Sana'a. The kidnappings don't worry me, because I feel that worrying doesn't accomplish anything. They simply remind me to be safe, while also inspiring a hope that current hostages will be returned safely and soon.”

Reacting to accusations that Yemen is a major terrorist center, Stan said: “The presence of terrorist groups does not a 'terrorist hub' make. The US and its media outlets love the words 'terrorist' and Al Qa'ida and are eager to report on these things with inflammatory news bites and oversimplified headlines. …We're used to relying on the media to tell us everything about other countries, and we do the same for Yemen. So when an attack by Al-Qa'ida is mentioned as having taken place in Yemen, it fits in nicely with the narrative the media has started to build, and which Americans in general have accepted, that Yemen is a desert country with terrorist groups running around everywhere.”

He says the international community should take a closer look at Yemen.

“It's easy to assume the worst about a people or country halfway across the world; I would want to start correcting those assumptions,” Stan told The Media Line.

The American embassy won't provide numbers of Americans residing or visiting the country either.  But US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein said: “Al-Qa'ida has consistently made clear it wishes to harm American citizens and we take such threats very seriously. As a matter of policy, we do not publicly discuss our security posture.”

Despite the kidnappings, Stan hopes Yemen can earn a better reputation among foreigners.

“The most important thing for me would be to inform Americans that Yemenis distinguish between the American government and an average American person. Many Yemenis strongly dislike the former, but I have not met a single Yemeni who disliked me for being the latter. Every Yemeni I've spoken to has been gracious and welcoming. They have gone out of their way to make sure that  they do not harbor ill will toward me because of the actions of my government, and that they are glad that I have traveled to Yemen,” Stan concluded.

Cleveland kidnappings: No one loves the stranger


I know what happened with those three women in Cleveland, how one man was able to imprison and torture them in the middle of a residential neighborhood for 10 years, even though he had grown children, brothers, cousins who visited the house for hours at a time. It’s not a pretty tale, but we’ve all heard it, although to a lesser degree, countless times before. 

Remember the command in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord your God loves the stranger … and you shall also love the stranger, for you were a stranger yourself in the land of Egypt”? Well, that’s not true in L.A., and it apparently wasn’t true in Cleveland, either. 

For years after I had moved here from Iran, I drew suspicious smiles and “are-you-just-weird-or-do-you-have-a-hidden-agenda?” glares. A mother at my kids’ school would spend half an hour in the parking lot telling me about the husband who had just left her because she was ill, and now she was alone with toddlers and no one to care for them or her, and I would ask if I could help in any way. The neighbor across the hall from me would cry over lunch about her son who had been in a coma for 15 years and how she cared for him at home and could hardly get away, and I would offer to fill in for her from time to time. Or I’d see a colleague get mistreated at work, a child teased, an old lady yelled at by her caretaker at the grocery store for taking too long to decide which brand of milk to buy. If I rose to their defense, it wasn’t just the tormentor who resented me; often, the one I thought I was speaking for was distrustful to the point of being hostile. 

I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I thought of every possibility but the most obvious one. 

Societies function through a set of entrenched boundaries. Some of these are spelled out and written into law; they are meant to create order and safeguard rights. The other boundaries, born of culture and custom, are often unspoken, even instinctive. Cross them and you’ll be sent into some form of emotional exile. 

In most traditional societies, these boundaries separate each tribe (the extended family, the members of an ethnic or religious minority) from all the others. Within, you suffer from a sometimes total lack of privacy but benefit from an equally formidable emotional support system. Their map looks like a jigsaw puzzle: Oddly shaped pieces fit together by some peculiar logic evident only in retrospect. 

In America, on the other hand, the map looks like a page from a grid notebook: Each individual or couple, while part of a larger whole, is ensconced safely, if alone, in a single little box. A person may expose herself, needs and vulnerabilities and all, to a near stranger, or on television and on the Web. She may do this merely to unburden herself, or to arouse the public’s sympathy or to become famous. But just about the only thing she doesn’t want is a display of pure empathy or an offer of guileless aid. 

Where I grew up, you did things for others because you were human and so were they. You relied less (or not at all) on government and institutions, taxpayer-funded organizations or troops of volunteers. The government was usually there to make you more, not less, miserable; rich people didn’t pay taxes, and the poor just paid to make others rich. You had only each other and your (and their) basic humanity. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as the Western model, but often it was more effective. Back there, if someone’s child disappeared, people remembered and remained vigilant long after the police had closed the case. They talked about it and asked questions and told the story to every newcomer for three generations. 

Back there, if you had a brother who had multiple locks on the basement door, you would know one way or another what he was guarding. If your father disappeared for an hour during a meal at his own house, or if your neighbor had naked women crawling around his yard, or an old man turned up at the park with a 6-year-old who resembled him, you would likely know enough about him to be able to connect the dots. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. Time and again here in L.A., I’ve seen one person look irritated and change the subject when another began to talk about a painful event or personal tragedy. An old friend of mine once sent out a mass e-mail to announce he did not want to hear about anything unhappy that went on in anyone’s life; bad news, he said, weakens one’s life force. 

So, yes, I may be completely wrong about Cleveland, there may be parts of this story that have yet to surface, but given what we know so far, I can tell you those women remained captive because the people on the outside didn’t care enough. The man’s family didn’t care enough about him or what he did to others to find out what lay behind the locked doors. The police didn’t think the girls mattered enough. And the neighbors? The neighbors were asleep in their little grids. That’s unfortunate, but it gets worse: The people on the outside didn’t care enough because they’ve been taught not to; because if they do, they’ll get punished for it in one way or another. 

Americans are a uniquely generous bunch. They’re splendid at organizing and effectuating aid, at answering a call to duty and committing acts of pure heroism. They rushed toward exploding bombs to save bleeding victims in Boston, drove across the country and inhaled poisonous debris for weeks at a time to sift through the rubble at the World Trade Center. They organize search parties for missing children and walk all night in mud and sleet, put their Ivy League educations to use in refugee camps and war zones. They’re good at donating and raising money for just about any cause. 

Then the battle is won, the search is over, and the once-formidable army of selfless and valiant givers breaks back up into a thousand lonely, self-sufficient cells. The lucky ones go home to a nuclear family — a spouse, a couple of kids who’ll leave home the minute they turn 18, maybe an aged parent. The rest have no one, or no home, to go back to. They might have saved 100 strangers from death or heartache, but they have no intention of saving themselves or each other from the neverland between intimate relationships and institutionalized charity. It’s the old pioneer spirit — break with the familiar, pack up your wife and children in a wagon, and do or die alone on the prairie. 

But the pioneer, make-it-on-your-own, build-a-new-world-or-kill-yourself-trying spirit, while hugely liberating and uniquely empowering, has its downside: Sit on the porch with a shotgun on your lap long enough and you’ll end up defending an empty, forgotten shell of a home separated by desert from other empty, forgotten shells. Or approach the lunatic on the porch and get shot at enough times and you’ll go home and put a dozen locks on your own door, live and let die. 

I still care about what happens to the “stranger,” but I know better than to step up and offer a hand. I find it at once sad and telling that the neighbor who responded to one of the women’s cries is being hailed as a hero. As if he did something most other normal beings wouldn’t do — aren’t expected to do. As if the normal course of duty is to hear a call for help and, because it comes from inside someone’s house, walk away. 

It would be easy for me to condemn such callousness except that I fear I’m increasingly guilty of it myself. I haven’t forgotten the awkward reactions or outright rejections I received from people when I believed we’re all bound together by our humanity. The woman crying about her husband in the parking lot never spoke to me again after I said, “I’d like to have you and your kids over for Shabbat dinner some time.” The neighbor with the son who was in a coma dialed the wrong number (mine), mistook me for someone else and said, “My neighbor called to ask if I need help; I wonder what she wants.” These days, I reserve my expression of empathy for close friends and family. I donate to charities and nonprofits knowing that this kind of aid, while important, is no substitute for a personal connection. Yes, it makes me less of a person. I believe this kind of detachment diminishes all of society, allows crimes large and small to go undetected. 

The only thing is, I’m still haunted by the anguish of the abandoned woman, the suffering and confusion of the old lady in the grocery store, the unjust firing of the colleague. I would much rather have had a part in helping heal the wound than spend years wondering what became of those people. I do see the distrustful neighbor from time to time, and though we only exchange polite greetings now, I can tell you that she seems no happier for all her well-guarded boundaries.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Modern slavery: Answering the cry


Modern slavery is everywhere, and women principally are its victims. 

Whether kidnapped by a single deviant, as appears to be the case in Cleveland, or trafficked en masse across national borders for purposes of labor or sex exploitation, women’s lives are being stolen from them. Unlike Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, whose ordeals currently dominate the national news, most victims suffer — and sometimes die — in silence and anonymity.  

In the last decade, human trafficking and enslavement worldwide has exploded, rising from more than 12 million victims in 2005 to nearly 21 million victims in 2012. Everyone from organized crime syndicates to street gangs has (re)discovered the cheap cost of a reusable good — human life. 

According to a 2012 report by State Attorney General Kamala Harris, global profits from human trafficking surpassed $32 billion last year with almost 18,000 people smuggled into the United States destined for forced labor in industries and homes across our country. Shockingly, thousands more are American citizens — most often vulnerable girls, many of them runaways — who are lured via social media and other means into forced prostitution. 

These statistics are daunting, but there is hope — hope born of human kindness. 

“S” was brought to the United States from Indonesia to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple in La Cañada — a suburb of Los Angeles. The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home and forced her to work without pay 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street. 

The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home. … If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.  

Despite these threats, “S” repeatedly tried to escape. The first time, she approached members of a construction crew working across the street, asking them to take her to the Indonesian Consulate, but they did not know where to go. Her next attempt was with a local plumber working down the block. 

Plumber: A lady approached me across the street with a note and request me to call the embassy. I called, and they claim they did not know her. I told her I had to finish my job. I’ll try to come back out to talk to her more. 

Attorney: What happened when you came back out?

Plumber: She was gone. I never saw her again.

This testimony was taken from the trial of a civil lawsuit brought by Bet Tzedek Legal Services with pro bono co-counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Ultimately, “S” was freed because those initial encounters gave her courage to call an American friend, who alerted the police. The traffickers were prosecuted criminally and were sued civilly by Bet Tzedek, resulting in what is believed to be the first successful civil jury verdict under the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005. At trial, the traffickers claimed that “S” was a guest in their home and argued that she fabricated the enslavement story in order to obtain a T-Visa, a special visa reserved by the federal government for trafficking victims.

“S” is among many victims whose stories have a happy ending because complete strangers recognized their plight and took action. The next three women, all clients of Bet Tzedek, never would have escaped without help. 

“A” was trafficked from Peru by a college professor who forced her to work as an unpaid domestic servant. A tenant on the professor’s property sensed something was wrong and gave her Bet Tzedek’s phone number. Following a series of secret meetings between “A” and her attorney, the professor became suspicious, drugged “A” and dumped her in Tijuana. Bet Tzedek found “A,” alerted the Peruvian Consulate and secured her release.  

“J” was brought to Los Angeles from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Once here, she was confined to the family condo, without pay, without her passport and without access to a phone or computer. Her first attempt to escape failed when “J” panicked and rejected the assistance of a health care practitioner who tried to help her. A second attempt succeeded when the condo doorman, who asked her if something was wrong, helped her to sneak out of the building and run away. 

“M” left an abusive husband in Ethiopia to work as a domestic servant in California, even though she spoke no English. Her employers beat her repeatedly, causing multiple injuries, including broken teeth. After one particularly brutal beating, she kicked open the back door of the house where she was being held and escaped. “M” lived on the streets for almost a month before a woman in a park approached her to ask if she needed help and took her to Little Ethiopia, where community members found her shelter. During her captivity, she had frequented many public places with the family, including Disneyland.

“These stories are all too common,” said Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to trafficking victims and trains law enforcement officials, first responders and legal advocates how to recognize and assist victims. CAST has spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts resulting in the creation of stronger laws, including the 2005 Victims Protection Act and the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires any retailer or manufacturer with annual worldwide revenues of more than $100 million to disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.

These laws, and others at the federal level, form the backbone of a growing structure designed to combat trafficking. But laws are meaningless without civic participation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to slaveryfootprint.org or free2work.org.

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­bettzedek.org/volunteer or castla.org/volunteer


Elissa Barrett is vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Kevin Kish is director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper


It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Al-Qaeda claims kidnapping of U.S. aid worker


The leader of al-Qaeda took credit for the kidnapping of a 70-year-old American aid worker in Pakistan.

In a video posted on militant Web sites, Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed responsibility for the Aug. 19 capture of Warren Weinstein from his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Weinstein, of Rockville, Md., is the director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S. firm that advises a range of Pakistani businesses.

“I tell the captive soldiers of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and our female prisoners held in the prisons of the crusaders and their collaborators: ‘We have not forgotten you, and in order to free you we have taken hostage the Jewish American Warren Weinstein,’ ” Zawahiri said in the 30-minute video, which was translated by the nonprofit Site Monitoring Service.

Zawahiri, who assumed leadership in June after Osama bin Laden was shot and killed by U.S. Navy SEALS, demanded that Israel ends its “siege” of Gaza; that the U.S. stop its airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; and that all al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners be released.

He said Weinstein’s relatives must pressure President Barack Obama to meet his demands “if you want to bring back your relative.”

A police official said on Aug. 23 that three suspects had been arrested, according to CNN.

J.E. Austin Associates said that Weinstein is in poor health —  including having a weak heart — and provided a list of medications that it pleaded with his kidnappers to provide.

Leiby Kletzky’s alleged killer reportedly tried to kidnap other boys


The man charged in the murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky reportedly tried to kidnap other boys.

A woman who lives three doors from Levi Aron in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn told the New York Post over the weekend that the confessed killer tried to kidnap her son in the last two years, but that she screamed, scaring him away.

The iPad news publication The Daily reported that Aron tried and failed to kidnap another boy a week before the Leiby Kletzky murder.

Aron likely will be indicted next week on murder and kidnapping charges, an unnamed source in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office told the NY1 television station.

His attorney reportedly said Aron hears voices. He underwent a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation over the weekend.

The family of the boy, which is sitting shiva in its Brooklyn home, has refused to make any public statements, but left a note outside its building which read, in part, “From the depths of our mourning hearts, thank you.”

Aron was arraigned July 13 on charges of murder and kidnapping. Leiby apparently struggled against Aron as he allegedly was being suffocated; scratch marks were found on Aron’s arms and wrists, according to reports.

Despite a confession to police, Aron pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Aron allegedly kidnapped Leiby after he asked for directions while walking home from day camp by himself for the first time. He later allegedly killed the boy and dismembered his body.

Israel attacks Hamas terror squad, killing 3


Israel’s Air Force attacked what it said was a terror squad planning to kidnap Israelis over the Passover holiday, killing three.

The Israeli military stuck the men riding in a car in southern Gaza early Saturday morning.

The IDF said in a statement that the three men killed in the attack, a joint operation of the army and the Shin Bet security service, were members of a squad of terrorists intending to “execute kidnappings during the upcoming Passover holiday in the Sinai Peninsula and in Israel.”

Hamas issued a statement saying the killed men were members of their organization. The organization said it would take revenge for the strike.

Israel’s Counter-Terror Bureau later on Saturday called on Israelis to leave the Sinai Peninsula immediately, saying that Israeli intelligence agencies had concrete information of plans by terrorists to kidnap or attack Israelis vacationing there over the Passover holiday.

“Hamas continues to operate in every way possible in order to harm Israeli civilians,” the IDF statement said. “The IDF will respond with strength and determination to any attempt to use terror against Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers. The IDF holds the Hamas terrorist organization solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip.”

Drive Opens to Free 11 Jews Held in Iran


Babak Tehrani was 17 years old in June 1994 when he hugged his parents and two younger brothers, left his home in Tehran and, guided by a well-paid smuggler, tried to slip across the rugged mountains from Iran into Pakistan.

He was joined by his friend, 20-year-old Shaheen Nikkhoo, who was hoping to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become a dentist. Iranian police caught both young men at the border town of Zahedan, and none of their relatives in Los Angeles have had a word from then since.

Tehrani and Nikkhoo are among 11 Iranian Jews, ranging in age from 15 to 57 at the time of their ill-fated flights, who were caught and arrested in the 1990s. All attempts to learn their fate or gain their freedom through personal pleas or backdoor diplomacy have been met with evasions or silence by Iranian authorities. However, reports from various sources inside Iran indicate strongly that the men are still alive.

Now, for the first time, their families and the Jewish organizations backing them have decided to go public and enlist the help of the United Nations and the media to free the 11 detainees.

For the families, the wait and the uncertainty are almost unbearable.

"When they caught Shaheen, they put all his family into a mental prison," said Ramin Nikkhoo, a Los Angeles chiropractor who is Shaheen’s older brother. "I wake up and think about him. I shower, I eat, I go to work and all the time I think about him. I feel the same anguish as I did on the first day, nine years ago."

Sia Tehrani, the younger brother of the missing Babak, works in his father’s shoe store in downtown Los Angeles and translated for his parents, Yousef and Elena.

"Babak was a top student; he liked to study and he liked to play soccer," said the brother. "Since he was arrested, my mom cries every night. She takes lots of pills for depression, and my dad has pains from the stress and nerves all over his body."

As the families voice their anguish publicly for the first time, their desperation is palpable.

"The Iranians can’t just get away with kidnapping men, they have to give them back to their families," demanded Ramin Nikkhoo. "This is the 21st century, this isn’t Nazi Germany."

Sia Tehrani, 21, pleaded with a reporter, asking, "Can you help us see President Bush? Is there any way to talk to him? For nine years we have heard nothing. Now we want to get involved. We need help. We need help."

Sam Kermanian and Malcolm Hoenlein understand the families’ frustration and desperation. For many years, they have been working behind the scenes and, despite criticism from more militant Iranian Jewish organizations, have been counseling patience and quiet diplomacy, lest public protests endanger the lives of the missing men.

In the last few years, Hoenlein, executive chairman of the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, have been focusing their attention on winning the release of the Shiraz 13, Iranian Jews jailed in 1999 for allegedly spying for Israel. All of the men are now out of prison.

"Although we have had contacts with Iranian officials about the 11 missing men, we couldn’t speak about it until the affected families themselves decided to go public," Hoenlein said.

Kermanian said that a major campaign is in the works to raise public awareness and involvement in the case in the United States among the general public and media and to build contacts with human rights groups.

The organizers also hope to influence European public opinion, although, as one knowledgeable source observed, "European governments have their own economic interests in Iran, and the general climate is quite anti-Semitic. Even the Jewish communities in Europe are afraid to speak out."

As one concrete step, Hoenlein and Kermanian dispatched a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over the weekend, to be followed by a nationwide news release on the case. The letter basically appeals to Annan to ascertain the whereabouts and condition of the missing men and then to obtain their release.

Kermanian has enlisted the help of the Farsi-language section of Israel Radio, widely heard in Iran, to broadcast a compassionate appeal by Elena Tehrani in Los Angeles for the release of her son, Babak, and an interview with Kermanian, himself, pointing out that the missing men are now in the hands of Iranian intelligence officials.

The event that tore the curtain of secrecy over the fate of the missing 11 occurred one month ago, when Ambeyi Ligabo, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, visited Tehran, mainly to check on the status of political dissidents in Iran.

However, in a widely publicized encounter, Ligabo also met with the mother of the missing Nikkhoo, who has remained in Iran with her husband and daughter and who pleaded for her son and the other missing men.

After this meeting was reported in the Iranian media, the other affected families in Iran and the United States decided to go public, together with Kermanian and Hoenlein.

Alleged Israeli Mob Member Faces Trial


An alleged Israeli mobster is facing charges in South Africa that include murder, kidnapping, robbery and intimidation.

The trial of Lior Saat next March will proceed following a ruling last week by Johannesburg’s High Court that it has the jurisdiction to try him. It is considered one of the highest-profile South African criminal trials in years and represents a potential point of embarrassment for the country’s Jews.

The trial has been dominated by a series of dramatic events: the daylight murder of a prominent Johannesburg socialite and key witness, allegations of police involvement in the kidnapping of the accused, a challenge to the jurisdiction of the court and the judge recusing herself. In addition, two other potential witnesses in the case have been slain.

Hazel Crane, a wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of ex-President Nelson Mandela, was gunned down last month near her home in an affluent Johannesburg suburb by an unknown assailant. She was killed while driving to court to attend the trial.

Crane, 52, was previously married to Shai Avissar, reportedly the head of the Israeli mafia in South Africa, who was murdered in 1999, although his body was only discovered in a shallow grave near Pretoria, about 30 miles from Johannesburg, in February 2000.

Saat is accused of murdering Avissar with a baseball bat and a gun, with the assistance of another Israeli mobster. One of the other charges against Saat alleges that he held a pistol to Crane’s head in 2000, threatening her life if she testified against him about Avissar.

Until her death, Crane was in court almost every day during the first three weeks of the trial, often accompanied by Madikizela-Mandela. Crane said her life had been threatened on several occasions, and bodyguards often accompanied her to court.

The day after Crane’s killing, police said they wanted to question Amir Moila, alias David Milner, in connection with the shooting. At the time Avissar’s body was discovered, newspaper reports said Moila was wanted for questioning in regard to that murder.

In the meantime, Saat had entered a special plea: neither guilty nor not guilty. He alleged that the South African courts had no jurisdiction to try him, because he had been arrested illegally.

He claimed that he had been kidnapped in Maputo, Mozambique, which shares a border with South Africa, and then was illegally brought into South Africa in April 2001. There is no extradition treaty between South Africa and Mozambique.

On Dec. 3, Judge Geraldine Borchers accepted the police version of the arrest, ruling that the court had jurisdiction to hear the charges against Saat. Borchers added, however, that she would not preside at the trial. She said her views on Saat’s credibility, including a finding that he was capable of dishonesty, could be seen as affecting her impartiality as a judge.

In court proceedings on the legality of Saat’s arrest, it emerged that he had fled South Africa in March 2000, shortly after the discovery of Avissar’s body, using a false passport under the name Jonathan Cohen. At the time of his arrest in Mozambique, he was using the name Yosef Eden and had another false passport, this time an Israeli one. Police said he was arrested in Mozambique because his visa had expired.

An apparent attempt was made on Saat’s life in downtown Johannesburg shortly after his arrest. An unknown gunman opened fire on the police vehicle transporting Saat and several other prisoners to court.

Saat was wounded in his buttocks. The prisoner next to him, facing a minor drug charge, was killed. No arrests have been made in the shooting. Saat now has a special police security escort at all times.

The Vatican and the Shoah


A boy goes missing on the grounds of a Jewish factory and his body is found riddled with wounds. "Science has established the time and the method…. It has indicated the goal … the murder was committed by people who wanted to extract the blood. Now of such people one race alone is known."

What type of person would repeat the centuries-old, outrageous ritual murder canard made against the Jews? An illiterate 13th century German country priest? An uneducated 19th century Russian Orthodox priest?

No, it was a 20th century Catholic scholar, the Rev. Paolo Silva.

It was published in 1914 in the Catholic journal Civilta Cattolica. And, writes author David I. Kertzer, professor of anthropology and history at Brown University, not only was that journal devoted to disseminating the pope’s views, but articles were sent to the Vatican to assure that they were in accord with papal views before their publication.

Kertzer, author of "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," the story of the 1858 shocking kidnapping of a 6-year-old Italian Jewish boy from his family by police acting under orders from the Vatican, says he was moved to write this book after the 1998 publication of "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," a report on the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust.

The report noted that the Holocaust had its roots in the rise of 19th century extreme nationalism and nonreligious, racial anti-Semitism, movements that the church did not support.

The idea that the church was responsible only for "negative ‘religious’ views of the Jews, and not the negative images of their harmful social, economic, cultural, and political effects — the latter identified with modern anti-Semitism — is clearly belied by the historical record," Kertzer writes in the introduction. "As modern anti-Semitic movements took shape at the end of the 19th century, the church was a major player in them, constantly warning people of the rising ‘Jewish peril.’"

The author then devotes the next 290 pages to very-persuasively supporting that statement.

After reading the recurring vilification of Jews by church officials in Catholic journals during the 80 years before the Holocaust, what is surprising is not that some Catholics sometimes used violence against their Jewish neighbors, but that these instances weren’t more widespread. After all, Jews were accused of conspiring to destroy the Christian religion.

The author notes two caveats to his research. First, he notes that the church is not solely to blame for the Holocaust. Germany had more Protestants than Catholics "and we know that anti-Semitism was widespread among Protestants as well."

Kertzer also notes that this is not a case of evil, because, in most cases, church officials "were convinced that they were doing God’s work.”

The same could be said for many Nazi officials.

But the real question this book raises is how far Catholic-Jewish relations can be improved when they are based on a distorted view of history?