Israelis Sue Over Sept. 11 Arrests

Paul Kurzberg, an Israeli from Pardess Hanna, was in the office of his New Jersey moving company on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Like many Israeli movers in the New York area, Kurzberg, who was in his late 20s, was not legally authorized to work in the United States. But on Sept. 11, that thought was distant from his mind as he and his friends piled into a company van after the second plane hit the World Trade Center to find a better vantage point to photograph the historic terrorist attack.

It proved to be a critical mistake.

Caught in a traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge, which connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan, the Israelis hailed a police officer to ask directions to Brooklyn. Police pulled the five Israelis from the vehicle, drew their guns and ordered the men to lie on the ground, according to the Israelis’ account.

It was the beginning of a nearly two-month ordeal, the Israelis said, that landed them first in a local jail and then in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn prison, subjected them to physical and verbal abuse and ended in their deportation to Israel.

Now, four of the Israelis are suing, demanding justice and compensation in a lawsuit filed Monday against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a host of wardens, police officers and corrections officers involved in their arrest and imprisonment.

"The infamous arrest of these young Israelis on Sept. 11 has been used by anti-Semites worldwide as ‘proof’ of Israel’s involvement in the World Trade Center attack," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the Israeli lawyer representing the four Israeli plaintiffs.

"Our clients are seeking compensation for the harm they suffered in the Metropolitan Detention Center by prison officials," she said. "In addition, the lawsuit will serve as an important public forum to debunk the lie that Israel or the Mossad was behind the Sept. 11 attacks."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, alleges that the Israelis were arrested without probable cause, subjected to harsh and unreasonable conditions, penalized for trying to observe Jewish traditions, denied the opportunity to post bond, despite the fact that they posed no danger or threat of flight, and were held far longer than necessary.

Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment, saying, "Our response would be filed in court." A Bureau of Prisons spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.

"I was in the hole for a month or so," Kurzberg, 30, said in an telephone interview from Israel. "To be in solitary for one month, you start thinking about lots of things, especially because you know you didn’t do nothing and why did they put you here."

Kurzberg’s comrades, including his brother, Silvan, Yaron Shmuel and Omer Gavriel Marmari, also are part of the suit.

The fifth Israeli imprisoned has expressed interest in the lawsuit but, as of its filing, hadn’t yet joined it, Darshan-Leitner said.

The group’s American lawyer, Robert Tolchin, a New York litigator, said the four waited to sue until now, shortly before the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations, because the political environment in the United States only recently began to support such lawsuits. Until now, he said, "the climate for litigation was not conducive."

The plaintiffs are not seeking a specific sum in damages.

Among their allegations, the Israelis claim they were denied use of prayer books for Yom Kippur, were harassed by guards who blamed them for the World Trade Center attack and were not given kosher food.

One says he had his eyeglasses taken away and could not see properly for two months. Another said he was thrown into a cell with an Algerian Muslim. The plaintiffs also spent more than a month in solitary confinement.

The way they were treated is not what America stands for," Tolchin said. "These people were arrested for things that people don’t generally get arrested for. Their only violation was that they were working with improper immigration status.

Tolchin said the case likely could take years to make its way through the courts. In a similar case filed in 2002 by a group of Muslims, a judge has yet to rule on a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. Only if the judge doesn’t throw out the suit can the Muslim plaintiffs begin to make their case.

Survivors Sue Claims Commission

Survivors are suing the commission on Nazi-era insurance claims, a commissioner has called for the resignation of its chief and Jewish officials handling the claims acknowledge serious problems.

But they also say there probably isn’t a better way to dole out the claims.

The anger and frustration some lawmakers and survivors feel toward the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims peaked last week when several survivors filed suit, claiming the organization was delaying payments.

California’s insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, a member of the commission, later joined the suit and called for the resignation of the commission’s chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Survivors Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Si Frumkin, all Los Angeles-area residents, charged that the ICHEIC improperly delayed or denied payments totaling more than $1 billion on policies held by the survivors or heirs of those who perished under Nazi rule.

"This is a commission that is supposed to help survivors," said William Shernoff, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. "But from what we see, they are helping the insurance companies more than survivors."

They also are seeking Eagleburger’s resignation, saying his salary — which they estimate at over $300,000 — is paid for by the insurance companies. The plaintiffs believe Eagleburger is working in the insurance companies’ interests.

"This is blood money stolen from survivors," said Frumkin, chair of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jewry.

For his part, Eagleburger says he has no intention of resigning. His aide, Anais Haase, said that time and resources planned for investigating claims would be diverted to defending against the lawsuit if the survivors persist in fighting them.

"We don’t believe we are mistreating survivors or their heirs," Haase said. "We offer the only option available at no cost to survivors and their heirs."

The plaintiffs are asking the ICHEIC to place more pressure on Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali to divulge more unpaid life insurance policies. The ICHEIC has published 9,000 names of Generali policyholders, but the claimants suggest the list could exceed 100,000 policies.

Shernoff said Holocaust survivors and their heirs should also maintain the right to use litigation to gain money owed them, rather than working through the ICHEIC.

The suit was filed under California’s Unfair Business Practices statute, but it’s unclear whether the ICHEIC can legally be defined as a business.

A Generali official in New York called the lawsuit baseless and misleading, saying that thousands of claimants "have and will continue to be paid and offered generous amounts through ICHEIC, which is supported by leading Jewish Holocaust restitution organizations and the State of Israel."

Stuart Eizenstat, a special representative for Holocaust issues in the Clinton administration, said the lawsuits could wreck the ICHEIC system if the suit nullifies the agreements the commission has reached with the insurance agencies.

"It continues to cast a cloud of debate over the exercise," he said. "It diverts energy and attention from filling claims."

Eizenstat said he appreciates that the suit is an expression of frustration over the slow process of paying claims. But he and others contend that the insurance companies, not the ICHEIC, have made the process more difficult by withholding names.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

"There is no bad faith here," he said of the ICHEIC. "There is bad information after 50 years."

Singer acknowledged that the organization has had trouble completing its mission.

"ICHEIC has a mammoth task, and it’s bigger than we ever thought it was going to be," Singer said. "We couldn’t have known it at the time."

He suggested an ombudsman might be able to bridge the gap between the ICHEIC and the Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC, founded in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, has had some problems in the past two years. Eagleburger threatened to resign last year after difficulty securing cooperation from German insurance companies.

Congressional representatives and others also have chastised Eagleburger and the commission for its slow progress, especially considering the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC also has been criticized for spending $56 million in five years, and Eizenstat agreed that the organization cannot be considered a model of efficiency.

But both Eizenstat and Singer defended Eagleburger.

"Larry has earned every nickel and then some," Eizenstat said. "He’s had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."

California Gov. Gray Davis issued a statement Saturday accusing the ICHEIC of "not meeting its mission.

"The system does not work, claims are not being investigated and survivors are not being paid,” Davis said in the statement.

Edwin Black and Tom Tugend contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

$58 Million Sought in 2 Slayings at LAX

The city of Los Angeles has been hit with claims of more than $58 million, stemming from the deadly shooting rampage last July 4 at Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al check-in counter.

Killed in the attack were two Israeli Americans, Yaacov (Jacob) Aminov, a 46-year-old owner of a jewelry distribution company, and Victoria (Vicky) Hen, 25, who had worked as an El Al ticket agent for less than two months.

They died in a hail of bullets fired by Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant, who opened fire on passengers waiting in line. He was killed within seconds by an El Al security guard.

Claims by the Aminov family and companions total more than $38 million, while the parents of Hen are asking for $20 million.

Beverly Hills attorney Richard I. Fine, representing the Aminovs, charged in his complaint that the city had failed to provide any police presence at the terminal and that it took officers 15 minutes to respond to the shooting.

Should the city reject the claims within the 45-day deadline, Fine said he would bring a lawsuit in federal court. The case could be expanded to target Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist organization and tap assets frozen by the U.S. government.

Shortly after the July 4 attack, the London-based Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, published an article indicating that Hadayet had met with Bin Laden’s top aide in 1995 and 1998.

Of the total of $38.5 million in claims in the Aminov case, $10 million is earmarked for Aminov’s widow, Anat, and $17 million for their five children, ranging in age from 2 to 10, all North Hollywood residents. In addition, Anat Aminov, who was three months pregnant at the time of her husband’s killing, cited the loss of her unborn child.

A further $3 million claim is on behalf of the victim’s three children in Israel from his first marriage.

Compensation for emotional trauma and loss of income was sought by four San Fernando Valley residents: Arie Golan, who wrestled the gunman to the ground; Michael Shabtai and Moti Harari, who stood next to Aminov and barely missed injury or death; and Harari’s 6-year-old daughter, Shiran, who, for her safety, was thrown by her father over the counter, where she landed on top of Hen’s body.

Attorney Stephen Jamieson, representing Avi and Rachel Hen of Chatsworth, cited "unsafe and dangerous" security conditions at the airport — despite the heightened alert following Sept. 11 — and also inadequate medical care in the wrongful death of their daughter, Victoria.

Airport officials declined comment, but the Los Angeles Daily News reported that security had been beefed up since July 4 by the addition of 60 uniformed officers to complement the 240 existing airport police.

Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said the claims had just been received and no comment would be forthcoming until they had been reviewed and analyzed.

The FBI has not issued a final report on the case, to the frustration of the victims’ families and Israeli officials, who view the shooting as a clear act of terrorism. From the beginning of the case, FBI spokesmen and the Israeli officials have been at odds on how to label the shooting and on Hadayet’s motives.

Yuval Rotem, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, asserted within hours of the shooting that "from the way the attack was conducted, the way the gunman skipped dozens of other foreign airlines, our experience tells us it was terrorism."

The FBI has taken a more cautious approach. The day after the shooting, FBI Special Agent Richard Garcia said, "We are not ruling out a hate crime, we are not ruling out terrorism completely, and we are not ruling out that it may have been a random act of violence."

The direction and slow pace of the investigation was criticized by New York Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who complained that he was "deeply troubled by the FBI handling of this case in its immediate aftermath."

Relatives of the slain victims also expressed their unhappiness with the investigation.

Ofra Bacher, a sister of the widowed Anat Aminov, said that the July 4 attack was "obviously an act of terrorism. The gunman came to a specific terminal at a specific hour to kill. He couldn’t have come for anything else."

Aminov left behind no insurance or savings account, said Bacher, adding, "Anat was a homekeeper since her marriage, and now she has to handle everything herself. It is very difficult, and she is surviving through the help of her family."

An FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles said last week that the results of the local investigation had been sent to headquarters for evaluation.

Dung and Sympathy

Art has a wonderful way of bringing us back to our roots. Take that controversial modern-art exhibit now showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s making monkeys out of everyone concerned.

The exhibit, alert readers recall, has ignited a holy war between New York’s second-largest museum and its hyperactive Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor says parts of the show are pornographic and “sick.” As a cure, he’s cut off the museum’s city funding. He’s also suing to evict the 175-year-old museum from its landmark city-owned building. The museum has countersued, claiming that the mayor’s acts threaten freedom of artistic expression in the nation’s art capital.

The disputed exhibit, “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” includes a dissected cow, live maggots and statues of children sprouting genitalia from their faces. What really upsets the mayor, though, is a portrait of the Virgin Mary festooned with elephant dung and porno magazine clippings. He considers it anti-Catholic.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s one of those classic New York shouting matches that periodically rivets the nation, a perfect combination of big-issue morality tale and Big Apple freak show.

The mayor insists that this isn’t about free speech but about misuse of government funding. His critics say he’s just grandstanding in advance of next year’s Senate race. The museum claims that elephant dung is a spiritual medium in Nigeria, the artist’s ancestral home. If so, it’s not catching on in Brooklyn.

Allied with the mayor is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which calls the Virgin Mary painting “Catholic-bashing garbage.” Supporting the museum is the American Civil Liberties Union, which calls the mayor’s tactics an assault on the First Amendment.

On one thing both sides agree: This isn’t about Catholics and Jews. Some folks, unfortunately, seem to think it is — perhaps because of who the players are. On one side, Mayor Giuliani, Cardinal John O’Connor and Catholic League President William Donohue. On the other side, Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman, board Chairman Robert S. Rubin, famed free-speech lawyer Floyd Abrams and New York ACLU Director Norman Siegel. Not to mention the collection’s owner, Charles Saatchi, British ad mogul and leading Jewish philanthropist. It looks pretty ethnic.

But that would be the wrong conclusion, say all involved. In fact, the Catholic League’s Donohue and the ACLU’s Siegel held a joint press conference this week just to denounce such ethnic innuendo.

Siegel says he proposed the press conference to Donohue after receiving a batch of letters and phone messages that blamed “the Jews at the ACLU” for the museum mess. “Donohue and I disagree 100 percent on this thing,” Siegel said, “but we wanted to make sure New Yorkers discuss the issue in a respectful manner.”

This, of course, is a dead giveaway. When they start insisting it’s not about Catholics and Jews, you know it’s at least partly about Catholics and Jews.

But the lines aren’t clear-cut. Supporters of the museum — or, rather, opponents of the mayor’s threats — include most of the city, even most Catholics. Jews play lead roles, but that’s not unusual in New York.

Nor is the other side only Catholic. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America takes the mayor’s side, opposing government funding of “cultural pollution.” Others stop just short of that. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, condemns the painting as anti-religious, but he doesn’t back the mayor’s sanctions. Neither does the cardinal, he notes.

Most divided are the traditional Jewish defense agencies, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. Sources said members and donors in the three agencies were pressing last week for a public defense of the First Amendment, but staffers were balking. The ADL’s Abraham Foxman wrote a letter of sympathy to the cardinal that didn’t endorse any action.

The donors’ view seemed to reflect widespread Jewish belief that protecting free expression is the best defense of Jewish rights. Agency staffers, by contrast, were wary of creating a Catholic-Jewish blowup. They were also reluctant to condemn a tactic — silencing bigots — that they themselves had perfected. Hypersensitivity to insult has been a staple of Jewish self-defense for decades.

And it works. Just last month, the Dallas Cowboys were made to apologize for an in-house publication that compared a rival team owner to Hitler. Some local Holocaust survivors had complained that Jewish suffering was demeaned. Mainstream Jews privately dismissed the survivors’ complaint, but nobody spoke up, leaving the Cowboys to assume they faced the combined wrath of American Jewry.

Some battles are deadly serious. In 1994, the San Francisco Jewish community rose up to protest an anti-Semitic mural on the student union building at publicly funded San Francisco State University. Unlike the Brooklyn Museum, San Francisco State backed down.

The Jewish success record makes others envious, none more than the Catholic League. The league regularly complains of public apathy toward Catholic-bashing, often contrasting it with the sympathy Jews get. “The artistic community would never dream of offending gays, Jews and blacks,” read one 1998 league ad.

Language like that makes Jews cringe. What’s worse, the league has an uncomfortable penchant for picking on targets that happen to be Jewish. One of its hottest recent battles was against “Priest,” a film produced by the Weinstein brothers of the Disney-owned Miramax films. This week, the league opened a new campaign against yet another Weinstein-produced film, “Dogma.” It’s also busy defending Pope Pius XII against “unfair accusations” that he didn’t save Jews during World War II.

It all leaves Jews wondering why Catholics are so willing to pick on Jews these days. But then, Catholics wonder why Jews are so willing to pick on Catholicism.

Mostly, Catholics don’t understand why their complaints aren’t taken seriously. When Jews feel maligned — or blacks, or gays — they get joint resolutions of Congress. When Catholics feel maligned, it turns into a three-ring circus. Look at the lines outside the Brooklyn Museum.

It’s not hard to explain. Jews and blacks evoke images of victimhood and vulnerability. Catholics don’t. Most folks have a hard time thinking of a billion-member church as an embattled minority. Maybe it’s unfair, but civil rights movements require an underdog.

Jews should pay attention because they’re headed that way soon. Holocaust memories are fading, Israel is winning acceptance and most Jews have left Russia. We’re entering a new era.

You’ll know we’ve reached it when somebody festoons the Temple Mount with elephant dung. Stay tuned.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.