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New York, November 27, 2001
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
languish in U.S. jails, Jewish activists wondering
By Michael J. Jordan
NEW YORK, Nov. 27 (JTA) -- The
revelation that dozens of Israelis have been thrown
in jail since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has
some American Jewish leaders wondering if this is a
new government attempt at "even- handedness."
Most of the 50 or so Israelis reportedly jailed
in Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston and
San Diego are men in their 20s.
No one refutes the likelihood that they violated
visa regulations, but some have been in jail for
over a month for what normally would be considered
That leaves Jewish activists wondering if the
U.S. Department of Justice is straining to show
"even-handedness" in its investigation of the Sept.
11 attacks to appease Arabs concerned that
Washington is targeting only Arab and Muslim
Several Arab states are vital partners in the
U.S.-led coalition to hunt down the Sept. 11
Nevertheless, Israeli officials say they do not
believe Israelis have been singled out, and are
treating the incarcerations as a consular issue
rather than a political one.
"Israelis who break the law must understand
there will be consequences for their actions," said
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli
Embassy in Washington. "America is justifiably
looking much more closely at foreign visitors, and
Israelis who are here illegally or doing something
in contrast to their visa specifications should not
consider themselves immune just because of the
friendly relations between the two countries."
Israeli officials say they sent advisories to
their citizens in the United States after Sept. 11,
warning them to have their papers in order.
Still, that wasn't enough to reassure some
American Jewish leaders, who note that visa
violations typically do not result in jail
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft
refuses to disclose the names of detainees, but
Israelis are believed to be the largest single
national group arrested in a nationwide crackdown
that has netted at least 554 on visa violations --
and 55 charged with a direct link to the attacks --
since Sept. 11.
Reports of the arrests
seems to have seeped out beginning two weeks
ago, and some believed that as many as 150
Israelis had been arrested.
When he read about the Israelis in news reports
last week, "I couldn't see the connection. Why
would Israelis even be suspected of terrorist
activities here?" asked Leon Levy, president
of the American Sephardi Federation and former
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations. "It's very
confusing. I know I'm only speculating, but it may
be about giving a sense of balance between Arabs
Organization of America this week said it was
crafting a letter to the Justice Department
complaining that the large-scale arrests of
Israelis "play into the hands of anti-Semites"
because of the canard that Israel orchestrated
the suicide attacks and that 4,000 Jews were
warned not to come to their jobs at the World
Trade Center on Sept. 11.
"Why aren't we also arresting people from
Finland, Denmark or Sweden? There is no evidence,
historically or presently, that anyone from Israel
has ever been involved with terrorism against
America," ZOA President Morton Klein said.
"Clearly, America is bending over backward to make
it seem as if we are not targeting Middle
Easterners, although the evidence shows clearly
that it was Islamic militants who perpetrated this
Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of
Presidents' executive vice chairman, urged caution
in reacting to the arrests.
"There could be a real problem here but we don't
know yet," Hoenlein said. "In situations like that,
you have to be careful about the allegations you
make. We and others are still looking into it,
trying to ascertain the facts."
Ashcroft, in a news conference Tuesday, defended
"While I am aware of various charges
being made by organizations and individuals
about the actions of the Justice Department, I
have yet to be informed of a single lawsuit
filed against the government charging a
violation of someone's civil rights as a result
of this investigation," Ashcroft said.
"I would hope that those who make allegations
about something as serious as a violation of an
individual's civil rights would not do so
lightly or without specificity or without facts.
This does a disservice to our entire justice
There actually have been two separate situations
The first involved five Israeli men spotted
clowning around Sept. 11 along the New Jersey
riverfront, taking photographs against a backdrop
of the burning World Trade Centers.
The men worked for a moving company and happened
to have box cutters -- one of the weapons used on
the hijacked flights -- in their truck.
The men were imprisoned in Brooklyn, where one
reportedly failed a polygraph test when discussing
his Israeli army service.
The men were never charged with a crime, but
complained that they were treated like criminals
and even intentionally placed with Arab inmates,
who beat them up. After two months in jail, the
five were quietly deported to Israel last week.
League took the incident seriously, but not the
suggestion that Israelis are being unfairly singled
a war, a change of scenery, and the fact that
Semitic-looking people are caught in the web of
ethnic profiling is an unfortunate consequence of
the new reality," the national director of the ADL,
Foxman, said. "My only concern is that once
Israelis are arrested and detained, there needs to
be sensitivity not to put them together with Arabs
or Muslims, because their safety may be in
Then there are the dozens of Israelis arrested
nationwide, some of whom apparently aroused
suspicion because they worked for a company selling
trinkets that may have hired other young men from
the Middle East.
Regev, however, sought to put the events in
"Israelis, better than most, can understand the
problems involved with dealing with terrorism, and
I think Israelis can appreciate the enormous
pressure American authorities were under in the
weeks following Sept. 11," he said.
While not commenting specifically on the
Israelis, a spokesman for the Justice Department
told The New York Times, "We are taking
every step we can to prevent future terrorist
attacks. We are conducting the largest
investigation in U.S. history, and we are leaving
no stone unturned."
Yet the secrecy surrounding the detainees'
identities and the refusal to disclose the charges,
if any, are fanning suspicion about the arrests.
Some wonder if the Justice Department is arresting
almost anyone just to create the semblance of
progress in the Sept. 11 investigation.
Some Jewish activists say they are concerned not
only about the Israeli detainees, but with all
"In Judaism, we don't believe in collective
guilt," said Rabbi Avi Weiss, national
president of AMCHA -- Coalition for Jewish
Concerns. "If they've overstayed a visa or some
other infraction, deport them. But it's un-
American to hold people without charging them.
Maybe a day or two, but weeks or a month or two?
It's really unpardonable. It's contrary to what
America stands for."
Levy, too, was critical.
"If there is no evidence after a month of
incarceration, there has to be some explaining to
do," he said. "We're still a nation of
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