Wednesday, October 16, 2019

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

Zion, will you not ask after the welfare of your prisoners,
Who seek your welfare, and are the remnant of your flock? – Rabbi Yehuda Halevi

Israel still doesn’t have a government, and Turkish planes and artillery are striking civilian targets in Kurdish towns in northeast Syria, while Syrian Sunni militias fighting on behalf of Turkey clash with Kurdish fighters. My newspaper this morning mentioned these things, but pages and pages were devoted to another subject: Na’ama Issachar.

Na’ama, 26, was returning to Israel from India in April of this year, but when she changed planes in Moscow, a dog detected a small amount (less than 10 grams) of marijuana in her luggage. She was arrested, and at first charged with possession, a crime that normally draws a sentence of about a month in jail and a fine, if it is prosecuted at all. But at some point, the Russians decided to change the charge to drug smuggling, and last Friday she was sentenced to 7-1/2 years in prison.

The charge is ridiculous. Na’ama did not even have access to her luggage as she waited in the airport’s transit zone. She did not pass the border control. Can you convict someone of “smuggling” when they have not entered your country? Apparently the Russians can.

In a cute touch, the Russians scheduled court hearings for her case on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Na’ama was born in the US and moved to Israel when she was 16. She served in the army, and like many – virtually all – young Jewish Israelis, she wanted to travel the world and have adventures before settling down. She did not plan on this kind of adventure.

Some say that she was stupid to travel with any marijuana at all. In retrospect it was a bad idea, although as far as she knew, she and her luggage were going to Israel, where possession of less than 15 grams is not generally enforced, and possession of small amounts for “personal use” is punishable only by a smallish fine. And she certainly didn’t expect that her freedom would become a bargaining chip in a larger international drama.

The rub is that Israel is poised to extradite to the US a real Russian criminal, a hacker named Alexey Burkov, who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from Americans in a credit card scheme. He was arrested while visiting Israel in 2015 – he says he was “hijacked” although innocent – and held for extradition. The Israeli Supreme Court has approved the request, and he is expected to be shipped off to the US, whose federal justice system is known to be severe (ask Jonathan Pollard or Bernie Madoff). The Americans want Burkov badly and there are no further legal obstacles to his extradition.

Russia is more like a combination of a medieval kingdom and the Cosa Nostra than an actual country, and Burkov apparently has powerful friends who do not want to see him spend the next 20 or 30 years in an American federal penitentiary. They would like Israel to “extradite” him to Russia instead of the US, and they have let it be known that if that happens, maybe Na’ama will have her sentence reduced. Since she is both Israeli and American, she is the perfect hostage.

PM Netanyahu will raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That will put Putin in an interesting position. The government of Israel doesn’t want to irritate the Americans, so maybe they will find something else that Israel can give Russia in return for Na’ama. Or maybe not, in which case a way will be found to send Burkov to Russia.

Israel has a relationship to its children like no other nation. No culture that I am acquainted with dotes on them to the same extent, from the time they are born until well into adulthood. The national feeling about Na’ama is a complicated story, involving the commandment to redeem captives (pidyon shvuim) and the echoes of history, including the Holocaust. It’s often said that our soldiers are “everybody’s children” and she falls into that category. Like Gilad Shalit, who was held captive by Hamas for five years before Israel fought a war and ultimately traded more than 1000 convicted terrorists for him, including mass murderers, the Jewish nation will not let her sit in a Russian prison.

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