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As Israelis Languish in U.S. Jails, Jewish Activists Wondering Why

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 petty infractions.

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 suspects.

Several Arab states are vital partners in the U.S.-led coalition to hunt down the Sept. 11 perpetrators.

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 time.

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 and Jews.”

The Zionist 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 heinous crime.”

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 his actions.

“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 system.”

There actually have been two separate situations involving Israelis.

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.

The Anti-Defamation League took the incident seriously, but not the suggestion that Israelis are being unfairly singled out.

“There’s 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, Abraham 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 danger.”

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 perspective.

“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 those held.

“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 laws.”

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