A Case of Pidyon Shvuyim – Our Son Is Being Held Behind Bars

We, Orthodox Jews, are accustomed to studying Talmudic laws from a theoretical vantage point. Many situations we study do not actually arise. A great example of this phenomenon is the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, redemption of captives.

This mitzvah has fallen right into our collective laps. It hasn’t taken place in Iran or Syria or some other place far away from any possible Jewish influence. It is going on right in Eretz Yisroel, in the modern state of Israel. The prisoners are being held by Israeli security forces. They are in an Israeli jail, being held for a six-month term that could be repeated endlessly, completely at the whims of whatever authority it is that decides these matters.

The prisoners are the young men of the Hilltop Youth, one of whom is our son, Mordechai. They are being held in what is called administrative detention, a relic of the era of the British Mandate. The Israelis have used it and still do against Palestinians whom they suspect of being involved in terrorist plots. In the past, they have also used it against Jewish citizens of Israel whom they suspect of anti-national plots against Palestinians.

The Hilltop Youth and settlers who live in the Shomron area are targeted and demonized by security forces on a regular basis. This group is the focus of the government’s scrutiny against Jewish “terror,” as it is routinely referred to in the Israeli media. So far, the only “terror” activities of which they have been suspected were actually cases of vandalism and not terrorism. The accusations include uprooting olive trees, writing graffiti on the walls of a church, and arson to a side room of a church.

Mordechai was arrested on two separate occasions – once in April, once in July – for two of these church vandalisms. In both cases, he was held for a week without the opportunity to speak to a lawyer and interrogated. In both cases, he was held for a total of two weeks and then released with no charges. In both cases, he was released to ten-day house arrest at our home, also typical procedure, for which we had to place a bond guaranteeing that he would stay at home the entire time. In both cases, we can testify that he never left the house. The second house arrest began on July 26, immediately after his release from jail and being cleared of all charges.

On the night following the end of his second house arrest (August 4), he was placed in administrative detention for six months. Administrative detention means that no charges are brought against the person involved. The person has no possible defense against the detention, because he is not accused of anything. There is nothing his lawyer can use as an alibi – no habeas corpus rules or anything of that sort – because he is simply being held on a whim that he presents a danger to the public. (This is precisely what the document we received from the security forces states.)

The detention must be approved by an Israeli judge, but this appears to be more of a veneer of justice than actual justice. The judge is chosen by the security forces. During each of the three hearings so far, our son’s lawyer requested to see the police evidence that he did anything criminal, and the security forces responded that they need more time to prepare the evidence. The evidence, whatever it may be, is considered “secret” – too dangerous to reveal to the likes of a lawyer for the detainee. There have been long gaps – up to 15 minutes – during which we, our son and his lawyer have been asked to leave the court room so that the judge can consult with the security forces and their lawyers. No reporters are admitted into the courtroom.

About three weeks ago, the procedure was enshrined as an official policy as a reaction to a horrific incident that happened on the night of July 30-31. This incident was an arson/murder that took place in the Palestinian village of Duma. The perpetrators are as yet unknown. A fair share of “settlers” – religious Jews from the area – have been brought in for questioning, but as of now nobody has been officially charged with the crime. The immediate reaction of the government was to pass the administrative detention decree to be enacted specifically against Jewish “extremists,” who they suspect of involvement with crimes such as this.

Recently, the Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya’alon, whose signature is on our son’s document putting him in administrative detention, gave an interview that was shown on a major Israeli television station. An August 21 article in the Times of Israel by Tamar Pileggi about the interview states, “This draconian step was necessary in this case, because if we hadn’t taken it, we would have seen a string of attacks against Arabs,” [Ya’alon] said. The defense minister said that he was confident that suspects in custody are connected to last month’s deadly arson attack on a Palestinian home blamed on Jewish extremists. “I have no doubt we are holding the correct people in administrative detention.”

In the court hearings concerning our son, nothing has been mentioned about Duma. Everything has concerned the almost unknown case of vandalism on a church in Yerushalayim that apparently took place in January. Our son was cleared of this vandalism after two weeks of interrogation. We believe that the Israeli security authorities are playing a kind of “double game.” In the secret hearings that take place in the courtroom, they focus on the Yerushalayim church, which is the only thing they have any so-called evidence for, though even this has not been made public or even available to his lawyer. In the widely-viewed televised interview, Ya’alon stressed the detainees’ involvement in the Duma incident, for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Our son, it must be stressed, was home that night on house arrest. Many people saw him at our home all through that night. We can personally testify that he was home all night long. The Israeli authorities know all this – they were the ones who put him under house arrest. Yet, Ya’alon is publicly insinuating that the blame for the Duma incident lies with him and the other Jewish detainees. They aren’t saying this in the secret court hearings. The double game is quite evident.

Nobody knows who committed that crime. Much public sentiment in Israel believes that it was the result of an internal Arab feud. The Hebrew graffiti found on the sight is a standard tactic used by Arabs to place blame for incidents like these on Jewish “extremists.” There are many other oddities about the case that make it extremely unlikely that anybody Jewish was involved. Despite all this, the Israeli Minister of Defense publicly implies that our son is in some way responsible, if not directly guilty. He cannot answer charges, since none have been brought. Is this not a case of pidyon shvuyim?

A breaking development in the situation occurred on Monday morning, August 24. A fire broke out in another house in that same village that happened to belong to the brother of the Arab man who died in the July 31 fire. While the Palestinian Authority claims the second fire was due to an electrical short, the initial reports indicate that it was arson resulting from a clan feud within the village. This may cast doubt on the assumption to blame Jewish settlers for the first fire.

We, his parents, have been assisted by fantastic legal help from the Honenu organization. On a public campaign level, we don’t really know what to do. If anyone has ideas, we are all ears. You can write us at: gsmeyer3@gmail.com. Letters have been written to members of the Knesset, along with the usual type of public advocacy that goes on here. We believe that we will get no sympathy from the left here, regardless of the fact that this is a clear-cut human rights issue. We also believe that the government largely ignores the right, since they know that the right will support them no matter what they do. Our only political hope for redeeming this prisoner, we believe, will come from outside the Israeli political system. Perhaps it will come from Jews who voice their frustration with the Israeli government and refuse to support it over this blatant disregard for the basic rights of Jews.

Please grasp the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim.