The mother of the 18-year-old Israeli American suspected of making hundreds of fake bomb threats at American Jewish institutions said she wants him to undergo brain surgery to get rid of the tumor his family claims impelled him to create the hoax, but the boy exhibited unusual behavior long before the tumor was diagnosed.
One expert says that such a tumor usually causes sensory issues and not behavioral problems. “I’m not saying it is impossible,” said Jeffrey Cohen, chair of the neurology department at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire. “It would just be in the realm of something so rare, we would write a medical article about it.”
The mother’s claim that her son did not know what he was doing was challenged Thursday, as police revealed that the teenager had millions of shekels in a Bitcoin account he used to make the threatening calls, an indication that he might have been paid for the acts. Police also said that he made sophisticated use of the internet and the “dark web,” a hidden network accessed by software or special authorizations, in order to carry out the cyber threats, according to news reports.
The teen’s lawyer, Shira Nir, said the revelations were further “proof that he is not a normal person,” adding that the brain tumor had a “big effect” on his behavior. She said that an Israeli court ordered the teen, whose remand in police custody has been extended to April 18, to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Nir isn’t the first one to blame alleged criminal behavior on a brain tumor. A new book, “The Brain Defense,” recalls the 1990s case of Herbert Weinstein, whose lawyer suggested before the trial that Weinstein’s brain tumor explained why he strangled his wife and threw her body out the window. A judge allowed the brain tumor scans to be shown in court, but the prosecutor offered a plea deal before they were displayed, worried that they would sway the jury.
“The fact is, we are dealing with someone who is very sick and he has no control,” the suspect’s mother said.
The Forward interviewed her in the family’s apartment in Barnea, an upscale Ashkelon neighborhood dotted with single-family homes, towering stone apartment buildings and real estate offices beckoning newcomers. The suspect’s family home was decorated sparsely, with two paintings of Jerusalem’s Old City and a shelf filled with Harry Potter books, which, according to his mother, the teen would read aloud.
In the teen’s room, the parents had created an arrangement on a bedside table — his bar mitzvah certificate, his knitted skullcaps, tefillin (the little black boxes and leather straps used during prayer) and an embroidered bag for a prayer shawl — to prove to reporters and other visitors that the teen is not an anti-Semite, or even, his mother said, a “self-hating Jew.”
His mother said he is someone who “loves Judaism” and that she herself had become religious after her son’s brain tumor was discovered.
Sitting on a beige couch and wearing a beige skirt, stockings and a black shirt, the mother, a 57-year-old Israeli-American originally from New York, said she hadn’t slept since her son was arrested March 23. She licked her lips as she spoke, and picked at the skin on her fingers, pausing for long intervals to recall the exact words she wanted to use. Her husband, who is under house arrest on suspicion that he knew about the calls, sat on the patio, speaking with Nir. He declined an interview with the Forward, but said, “We are very sorry about what happened.”
The mother described her only son as an antisocial teenager with no friends; he was obsessive, withdrawn and occasionally brilliant. She gave birth to him when she was nearly 40; she wanted other children, but didn’t carry another pregnancy to term.
She noticed her son was different at age 1, when he quickly solved a 30-piece “Teletubbies” puzzle. When he was 4 he read her anatomy textbook and remembered the names of different bones, making a game of reciting them back to her.
But the youngster couldn’t sit still in class, and his kindergarten in the United States, where he was living at the time, sent him home after a month. His parents began to home-school him. Back in Israel they tried to place him into first grade, but the same thing happened.
In later years he became a collector, accumulating cats off the street, marbles, foreign coins, and bus and train tickets from Israeli transportation. He also became obsessed with maps, sketching intricate fantasy grids in colored pencil. He constantly explored Google Maps and Google Earth.
According to Nir, the teen has a benign tumor in a part of the brain known as the foramen of Monro, which is a passage for spinal fluid. A tumor in that spot can block the flow of spinal fluid and cause a condition called hydrocephalus, which can affect consciousness and lead to headaches, visual problems, weakness and memory loss, Cohen said. He stated that it would be “very unusual” for a tumor in that region to cause a person to make violent threats, though not totally out of the question.
Martin Lazar, a neurosurgeon in Dallas, said that there is a “reasonably plausible argument” that such a tumor could cause “behavioral abnormalities.” Lazar said he knew of a small number of cases where this occurred.
“That does not excuse or condone criminal behavior and none that I have seen were accused of criminality,” he said in an email.
The teen’s mother said the brain tumor was discovered when her son was 13, after he developed an extreme sensitivity to light and received an MRI. Following a doctor’s advice, she and her husband decided to forgo what she called a “life and death surgery” to remove the tumor, in order to wait to see what other symptoms developed. Now, she believes, her son’s threats to Jewish community centers are “symptoms” of the tumor, and evidence that it needs to be removed.
“At this point, with the horrific symptoms I am more than ready to go forward with surgery,” she said, bursting into tears. “With the help of God and the help of modern medicine that they will save my son.”
In an interview with NPR, Kevin Davis, the author of “The Brain Defense,” said that the brain tumor defense doesn’t always sway a court case, but it can offer “some understanding” to the public or to those wounded by the defendant’s actions.
The suspect’s parents, who appeared for the first time in Israeli media last week and have been giving interviews ever since, seem to be making exactly such a bid for public sympathy.
His mother, who maintains that she had no knowledge of the threatening calls, said she would sometimes ask her son what he was doing on the computer. He always told her he was on Google Maps or reading the news. When he set up a large antenna on a balcony window — which he used to access the internet to make the calls — she believed he was using it to watch television or surf the internet.
Throughout his adolescence he went through periods of knocking his head on hard surfaces, screaming, and rocking back and forth. A year and a half ago he was diagnosed with autism, which his parents treated with high doses of Omega 3. The Israeli army rejected him for military service because of his psychological issues, but he didn’t care.
“There was no reaction,” his mother said. “He never cried. There was no laughter.”
She said that neighbors recognized him as the boy who would always keep his eyes lowered. In the building, few people seemed to know the suspect, and those who did said their interactions began and ended with a hallway hello.
Sofie Assef, who works as a cleaner in the building, was shocked to learn that the teen was suspected of carrying out bomb threats in America.
“Oh, my God,” she said. Assef had an assessment very different from that of the teen’s parents: “He seemed like a normal guy.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.