Disengaging From Democracy


On July 12, at 3 a.m., Asher and Chava Vodka heard a loud knock on the door of their small apartment in Bat Yam, a poor town on the Mediterranean Sea near Tel Aviv, where they had been asleep with their two young children.“Open up. Police,” they heard.

The young couple — he is 26, a full-time student at Netivot Yisrael, a local yeshiva, and she is 27, an English teacher — opened the door to find seven or eight men and a woman who insisted on searching the apartment and interrogating Asher.For the next two hours, according to Chava, the increasingly intimidating officials ransacked the apartment searching for documents and refused to let the terrified couple make any phone calls. She later learned they were from Shabak, the Israeli internal security service also known as Shin Bet.Then, without a word of explanation, they took Asher, several cell phones and the couple’s two computers and left.“I was shocked that Jews could behave like this with other Jews,” Chava told me the other day.

“There’s something very strange going on in this country.”Through the help of a grassroots volunteer organization called Chanenu, which provides legal assistance to victims of politically motivated arrests and their families, Chava learned where her husband was being held and when his hearing would take place.According to Shmuel Meidad, the founder of Chanenu, several hundred religious young men have been jailed in recent months on suspicion of planning anti-government activities regarding the Gaza pullout.

Meidad said he sold his business about four-and-a-half years ago to create the organization, expanding the work he had been doing as a volunteer for more than 20 years in helping soldiers and civilians having “problems with the police.”Another Chanenu volunteer, Ephraim Rosenstein, a psychologist, said the group has helped about 1,200 people arrested over the past three months in regard to the disengagement, 850 of them under 18, who were jailed at demonstrations, 100 of them between the ages of 12 and 14. Rosenstein estimated that about 100 young men, almost all Orthodox, like Asher Vodka, remain in jail.

Vodka and four other Orthodox men in their 20s were arrested the same night and brought to a hearing together the next day. He was charged with “right-wing ideology in opposition to the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and suspected of thinking of or planning to obstruct roads, an act which could lead to endangering lives,” according to the translation of a charge sheet.

A news story in The Jerusalem Post said the five, according to the police, were “right-wing activists believed to be the key organizers behind a series of roadblocks” against disengagement.A spokesman for the Israeli Consulate here said that “all arrests [related to the disengagement] are made according to normal, democratic procedures, and only if the law has been broken.”Chava Vodka said her husband has attended anti-disengagement rallies — as have tens of thousands of Israelis — and handed out orange ribbons symbolizing the cause, but has not been involved in any illegal activities.

She said he spends his time learning Torah, volunteering with Ethiopian immigrants, helping needy families and teaching Judaism to those who want to learn more about their religion.She said Asher was brought to the initial closed-door hearing in handcuffs and ankle shackles, not allowed to speak with or exchange glances with her, and ordered to remain in a Petach Tikvah jail for seven days of interrogation. At the end of that period, the order was renewed, twice, for another seven days each. (His next hearing is set for July 31).

According to Chava, Asher has been held in a solitary cell with no toilet, allowed no visits, no phone calls, no direct connection with family members, and no books. His siddur, she said, was confiscated.Michal Teichman, 23, told me that her husband, Nadav, also 23 and a student at the same yeshiva as Asher Vodka, was arrested by the police May 16 and has been jailed since then, charged with obstructing traffic related to a disengagement protest.

She said the charges are false.“He’s a yeshiva boy” whose only “crime” was to attend disengagement rallies on occasion and wear orange, the color of protest, Michal said. Nadav’s trial is set to resume in September.There have been allegations that none of the young men being held on charges or suspicions of anti-disengagement activity will be released until after the evacuation of Gaza, set to begin Aug. 17, is complete.My initial response upon hearing that so many religious young men detained in this way was one of surprise, as these arrests have attracted scant media attention. Those opposed to the disengagement say the press in Israel leans leftward and has no sympathy for those who have been jailed.

The head of Shabak, Avi Dichter, warned months ago that opponents of the disengagement were planning to make trouble by pitting settlers vs. the army. And officials have said they plan to employ liberally the administrative detention law — allowing prisoners to be held for extended periods of time and without trial, a measure used primarily until now against Arabs — against disengagement opponents as the Aug. 17 date approaches.Based on my deep respect for Israel and its security forces, part of me assumed that if Israeli officials were arresting people, there must be a good reason for it. And that may well be true.

I don’t know Asher Vodka, the son of Russian immigrants whose father served three years in a Siberian prison as a Zionist “enemy of the state,” but I do know Chava’s parents, George and Lila Lowell, and siblings. We all lived in Baltimore some years ago, and I remember Chava as a teenager. The Lowells are accomplished, rational and credible people, committed to Jewish and Zionist ideals, and that is why, when Chava’s parents told me of this situation, I chose to pursue it.

Part of the irony and tragedy of these difficult times in Israel is that both sides in the disengagement conflict accuse the other of being undemocratic and dehumanizing, and of undermining the foundations of Zionism.After describing how her husband has been treated, Chava wrote to me: “I no longer feel that I can call Israel ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ ” She said Jewish settlers and their supporters are portrayed in the media and by some politicians as selfish, violent and hate-filled, when in fact most of them are sincere, law-abiding citizens in deep anguish over their imminent uprooting.(The Orthodox Union, in a letter this week to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, said it was “stunned by reports of security forces singling out persons displaying outward appearances of religious observance for disparate harsh treatment.”)On the other hand, the decision by two leading Orthodox rabbis in Israel to encourage religious soldiers not to take part in evacuating Jews from their Gaza homes has been decried as seditious by a few officials.

The notion that a religious edict trumps military and state law is a combustible concept in a Jewish state that also claims to be a democratic one.What’s more, some disengagement activists have used highly inflammatory language, describing the government as a dictatorship about to carry out a pogrom against its people.Tensions are increasingly high as the protests escalate and the fear of Jew-against-Jew violence is palpable. Disengagement foes say the government is deeply worried about the power of the people, pointing to the very large, highly disciplined rallies that already have taken place, with more to come. Supporters of the government position say the Gush Katif folks and their supporters realize the game is up, that disengagement is imminent and cannot be stopped.Both views are accurate, but whichever side you are on, it should give you pause to hear from Asher Vodka’s mother, Malka, whose husband, Zev, was a Prisoner of Zion in Russia and whose son is being held in solitary confinement today.

“My husband was in prison from 1969 to 1972 because he wanted to come to Israel,” she told me.They came in 1973, and raised seven children, their sons all serving in the army.“We love this country,” Malka said, “but American Jews should know what is happening here. My husband has been told he must go to Petach Tikvah to be interrogated [presumably in connection with their son’s arrest].“In Russia it was the KGB. Here it is the Shabak. But this is worse,” she said, “because here it is the Jews doing this to us.”