Listening to officials at the Jewish Agency for Israel tell it, the quasi-governmental Israeli social-service organization staged a made-for-movie rescue last week of a Jewish family being held captive by religious fanatics. But instead of whisking endangered refugees from impoverished or repressive states in Africa, the Arab world or the former Soviet Union, the agency’s mission this time was to save Yemenite Jews living in a chasidic community in Monroe, N.Y., just 55 miles north of New York City.
Agency officials announced last week that they had secretly organized the emigration to Israel of Naama Nahari and five of her 12 children, suggesting that the family had been held against its will, along with several dozen other Yemenite families, by the Satmar chasidic community of Monroe. Satmar representatives strenuously deny the allegation.
Michael Landsberg, the agency official who oversaw the June 1 operation, said it was a “sad situation” and claimed the Satmar chasidim were engaged in “unlawful practices,” which he refused to describe. In arranging for the departure of the Naharis, Landsberg said, he was merely fulfilling his duty to “assist my people in the most efficient way.”
Most Jewish organizations and relevant U.S. law enforcement authorities have declined to take a public stance on the issue.
An official with a mainstream Jewish organization who is familiar with the case said the situation was “murky” and that no documented evidence existed to prove that the Yemenites were being held against their will, thus precluding further communal or legal action.
The Nahari family came to the United States eight years ago from their native Yemen, after the regime allowed the country’s remaining Jews to emigrate. According to news reports at the time, the emigration had been arranged in contacts between the regime and representatives of the Satmar community, which is ideologically opposed to Jewish statehood before the arrival of the Messiah and reportedly promised the militant regime that the émigrés would not find their way to Israel.
However, after protests from the Jewish Agency, a compromise was hatched according to which the Yemenite Jews would resettle in Israel on the condition that they would not be scattered around the country. The Yemenites would also be allowed to attend yeshivas, according to an official involved in the talks. But several families nevertheless came to the United States, causing lingering resentment at the Jewish Agency, the official added.
The Satmar community is the largest chasidic community in America. Based mainly in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, it has a satellite community of some 15,000 in Kiryas Joel, an all-chasidic incorporated village in Monroe Township named for Satmar’s founder, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.
Jewish Agency spokesmen and leaders of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, an immigrant group funded by UJA-Federation of New York, charge that Yemenite immigrants are kept in Kiryas Joel and nearby communities by Satmar leaders without knowledge of their rights, have had their passports taken away and have been threatened with punishment if they attempted to leave.
Satmar representatives denied that their community was preventing Nahari or any other Yemenite Jews from leaving.
Calls seeking comment were not returned from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or from United Jewish Communities, which funnels more than $200 million raised each year by local charitable federations to the Jewish Agency. The Monroe police also failed to return a call.
Paul Larrabee, a spokesman for New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said his office was “aware” of the press reports regarding last week’s operation, but was “unaware” of any formal complaints filed regarding the Yemenites.
“The Jewish Agency is just telling lies,” said Isaac Freund, a Satmar resident of Monroe, who said he had helped the Nahari family settle in the United States. “We are not holding their passports; the families are free to go wherever they want,” he said. “The Jewish Agency is the one who has been intimidating the families not to come [to] or stay in the United States and instead to go to Israel.”
Moshe Friedman, secretary to the Satmar grand rabbi, Moses Teitelbaum, dismissed the Jewish Agency’s accusations as “ridiculous,” according to the Westchester Journal News.
Freund, who said he went several times to Yemen and has actively supported the Yemenite immigrants, said that Nahari and the children had in fact openly left for Israel to visit her ailing mother and wanted to come back. However, he said, Nahari was unable to return because she had violated U.S. rules by leaving the country while she was in the process of obtaining a green card. One Nahari family member was quoted in the local Journal News supporting this view.
Dalya Krinsky, an official with the New York-based Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, rejected the Satmar version of events. “Who are those people brainwashing the Yemenis?” Krinsky asked. “This is corruption going on big time, so why are Jewish organizations not acting? Do we need the Jewish Agency and Israel to do this?”
Jewish Agency officials insist that clandestine steps were needed to help the family leave Israel. Landsberg said the agency’s first attempt to bring the family to Israel in December was thwarted by Satmar chasidim, who took two of the younger children on a “play date” on the day the family was supposed to leave. Freund denied such claims.
This time, according to Landsberg, Nahari told Satmar community members that she wanted to visit an ailing parent in Israel. The five children left their house on the morning of the departure date, dressed in their school uniforms to avoid raising suspicion. They were then picked up by a van, reunited with their mother at the Jewish Agency office in New York, where their passports were waiting for them with visas granted by the Israeli consulate. The family then left to JFK airport to catch their flight to Tel Aviv, where the media was waiting for them.
Upon arriving in Israel, Nahari, her three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 2 to 11, first visited Nahari’s mother in the city of Rehovot and then settled into an immigrant absorption center in Ashkelon. Fifteen members of the Nahari family remain in New York.
Landsberg said they would receive special funds set aside for Jews coming from countries of distress. Asked whether the operation and the resulting Israeli media attention would hamper efforts to bring more Yemenite Jews, he said he was ready to continue helping them.
An official at the Israeli consulate in New York would not confirm or deny that his office had granted visas to the family. However, he added, Israel’s Law of Return allows the government to provide Jews who want to immigrate to Israel with the necessary documentation.
In a side controversy to last week’s episode, the Israeli airline El Al drew intense criticism after its representatives at JFK International Airport slapped the Nahari family with a $250 fine for overweight luggage. Israeli immigration officials involved in the operation condemned the fine. One such official complained: “Is this how El Al, Israel’s national airline, welcomes the new immigrants who arrive in the country?”
El Al, formerly a government-owned airline, was privatized in 2003 as part of an economic reform plan intended to bring the Israeli economy into conformance with American norms. Warnings have been issued over the last year that the privatization of the airline would reduce its commitment to serving such noneconomic goals as airlifting refugees and ensuring Israel’s links to the world, but they have mostly been dismissed by mainstream economists.
Ha’aretz contributed to this report.