Washington — Gathered outside a Bolivian diplomatic office in New York, several hundred Jewish protesters raised signs and chanted slogans calling for the release of Jacob “Yankel” Ostreicher, a Brooklyn businessman held without charge for a year in the South American nation.
A video of the May 3 demonstration reveals a sea of yarmulkes and black hats. Women stood at the far end of the protest, not mixing with the men.
The rally strikingly illustrated the fact that the Orthodox and Hasidic communities have spearheaded efforts to protest Ostreicher’s imprisonment while the rest of the Jewish community has largely stood silently.
The Ostreicher case, which has begun to gain national attention in recent months, has posed a dilemma to Jewish organizations: Are the arrest and detention of an American Jew without charge or trial cause for mobilizing the community? Or should Jewish activism kick in only in clear cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bias?
Mainstream groups clearly think they should stay out of the Ostreicher fight.
“The factors that would activate traditional defense organizations to take action are absent in this case,” said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. While expressing humanitarian concerns over Ostreicher’s fate, Salberg noted that there is no evidence of the businessman being singled out because of his Jewish faith.
Bolivian authorities arrested Ostreicher, a 53-year-old flooring contractor from Boro Park, in June 2011 when he was visiting a rice farm in which he had invested and that he oversees. Bolivian prosecutors alleged he was involved in money laundering, but no charges have been filed. A hearing scheduled for June 11 was postponed, as have many previous hearings.
Ostreicher is being held in the notorious Palmasola prison, a large facility that holds accused murderers and drug dealers. Press reports say Palmasola is run largely by the prisoners themselves and that Ostreicher, who was recently visited by an reporter from ABC’s “Nightline,” had to pay to rent a cell in prison. He is the only American, and the only observant Jew, in Palmasola.
“I’m absolutely 100% innocent,” Ostreicher said in the interview, after eating matzo and kosher food brought to him by his wife during Passover.
After his arrest, Ostreicher’s family tried making private appeals to Bolivian authorities in order to win his release. But after months without progress, the family turned to American lawmakers, the media and human rights organizations. The ultimate goal is to get the U.S. State Department to pressure the government in La Paz to bring an end to his ordeal.