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Suitcase of Risk

Just say no: A wily network taps vulnerable yeshivah kids to smuggle drugs

Khat is a plant chewed by millions of users from Yemen to Kenya. It’s been in use for thousands of years as a stimulant that produces a state of euphoria.

It is also legal in Israel, mainly due to the state’s large populations of both Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews. And that’s where the trouble begins.

Over the last few months, dozens of chareidi youngsters have been arrested in airports across Europe for smuggling khat into England, Denmark, and France, among other countries. In almost all the cases, they are just carriers, with no real stake in the smuggling operation. These youngsters have been approached by a chareidi smuggler who offers them NIS 1,000 to 5,000 to take either a small package or an entire suitcase full of the substance. If you’re caught, the smugglers advise, most likely you’ll be sent home without a punishment. And if you make it through unnoticed, you’ll have a nice sum of money to spend for a few days in a foreign capital.

The problem is growing so acute that community leaders in the countries most affected are considering taking the drastic step of withdrawing assistance from those who have been arrested. Meanwhile, Orthodox travelers complain they are being targeted for searches by airport authorities who are on the lookout for smugglers in religious garb.

According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, 95 Israelis have been jailed in Europe for khat smuggling since November 2018. Just in the last ten days, a dozen Israelis have been arrested, mostly aged 20 and under. Many minors, among them boys and girls as young as 15 or 16, fall prey to the khat smugglers. Up to a third of the Israelis in prison are girls, and a significant number are youths from chareidi or religious families.

Indeed, bringing khat into Europe, where it is illegal, is not as simple as the smugglers would have the couriers believe. In fact, it can land the unwitting carriers in jail and cause long-term shame and trauma.

Innocent Mistake

“It happened two years ago,” recounts Chaim, a Chabad chassid. “I was traveling to Germany before the chagim to stay at a Chabad house and help the shluchim. I stepped off the Nesher van at Ben-Gurion. Near the entrance to the airport stood a man in chareidi attire holding a sealed bag.

“ ‘Going to Germany?’ he asked. I nodded.

“ ‘Do me a favor,’ he said. ‘I have here parshiyos of tefillin written by a famous sofer. They were ordered by a European Jew who forgot them here during his last visit. His son is supposed to begin putting on tefillin next week. Take them with you. Either he or a friend of his will pick them up from you at the airport.’

“I took the bag. He asked for my name, wrote it down on a scrap of paper, and thanked me profusely.

“I continued on my way to the security checkpoint. There was a long line ahead of me, and I placed the bag inside one of my suitcases. When my turn came, I was asked all the usual questions.

“ ‘Did you pack your bags alone?’ I answered in the affirmative.

“ ‘Did anyone give you anything to take with you?’ I answered in the affirmative.

“The clerk, who had already started asking the next question, did a double take and caught herself. ‘Someone gave you a bag to take along?’ she repeated.

“‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Here, in the airport, on my way to security, a chareidi Jew asked me to take along some tefillin scrolls.’

“ ‘Come with me,’ she said, gesturing for me to follow her. We stepped to the side. She called up an inspector wearing a kippah, and he passed my suitcase through an X-ray machine. When he asked me to take out the bag I had been given, I opened my suitcase. He laid the bag aside and X-rayed the suitcase again. Then he turned to me: ‘What were you told was in it?’ he asked.

“ ‘Tefillin scrolls,’ I replied. He asked me to come to his side of the counter. In the X-ray I could see immediately that these were not tefillin scrolls. They were round tubes containing some unidentified substance.

“ ‘Wait here,’ said the operator. He soon returned with two kippah-wearing policemen who asked me to follow them.

“ ‘I have a flight,’ I pleaded.

“ ‘If you’re telling the truth, we’ll release you within 20 minutes,’ said one of the cops.

“The policemen were efficient. After asking me again when and where I picked up the bag, they quickly identified the transaction on the airport security cameras.

“ ‘You have more siyata d’Shmaya than brains,’ said one of the cops. ‘How do you take a bag from someone you don’t know?’

“I was silent.

“ ‘We know this man,’ said the other cop. ‘He doesn’t deal in tefillin. At any rate, by telling us that someone had given you a bag, you probably saved yourself from arrest.’

“I stood in embarrassed silence.

“ ‘Soon you’ll be late for your flight,’ said the cops. They called someone. In a minute a police officer arrived to take me back to the security checkpoint. I passed a quick security inspection, and my passport was stamped in a side room. The cop continued ushering me along. A small vehicle was waiting for me, which took me to the gate.

“ ‘Quickly,’ urged the flight attendant who accepted my boarding pass. ‘You’re the last passenger. We left the gate open just for you.’ All the other passengers were seated by the time I entered. The eyes of the whole plane were following me. The flight attendants helped me find a place for my handbag, and I sat down red with embarrassment.

“By the time we reached Germany, I managed to tell several friends what had happened. We agreed to leave the airport together. We gathered our bags, passed through customs, and left. Outside I noticed a man who was carefully scrutinizing the passengers streaming out of the exit. On seeing me, he advanced in my direction.

“ ‘Chaim?’ he asked.

“ ‘The bag is in Israel,’ I replied. ‘The police have it.’

“His face spasmed with anger. One of my friends, nervous that he would hurt me, started screaming ‘Polizei!’ The man instantly vanished among the crowds.

“The rest of our journey was peaceful. But I learned my lesson. I’ll never take something from a stranger ever again,” Chaim concludes.

A Growing Phenomenon

Unlike Chaim, Esty, a 26-year-old chareidi woman with a steady job in Bnei Brak, knew exactly what she was doing.

“A friend at work told me about a woman who pays NIS 1,000 to people who carry a suitcase of khat out of the country. She provides you with a hotel room in Denmark for the weekend, and you return on Sunday. It sounded like a great deal. I asked two friends if they wanted to take a trip abroad for the weekend. They agreed.

“I called the lady. We met. She told me it’s legal to sell this plant in Israel, and that a man would be waiting for us outside the airport to pick up the suitcase and give us 1,200 krone, the local currency, to be spent on shopping and entertainment in Denmark.

“She added that khat is a bit problematic in Denmark, because it’s defined as a recreational drug, but if we were caught, it wouldn’t mean jail time. They would admonish us, and that would be the end of it. Worst-case scenario, they would send us back to Israel. If a bunch of girls went together and chatted and laughed as we walked through the airport, we probably wouldn’t raise any suspicion. If something goes wrong, she instructed me, leave the suitcase in the airport and continue on your way.

“On Thursday the following week we headed out. I was given a locked briefcase with khat leaves. My friends packed my clothing in their bags. On the plane we saw a husband and wife saying Tehillim fervently. That made me a bit nervous, but I tried not to focus on it. We landed. There were cops at the gate, but we walked along innocently, just three friends traveling together. Outside we were met by a tall man with dark skin. He took the briefcase and gave us an envelope full of local currency in return. In the envelope we also found the address of a hotel.

“We went there, rented rooms, and on Friday morning we went to spend our money on shopping and entertainment. On Friday night we went to the local Chabad house. They hosted us very graciously and inquired for how long we had come and for what purpose. We evaded the question. Early Sunday morning we were on a plane to Israel, and we were back at work by afternoon.

“You have to understand,” Esty says, “this is an open secret among my chevreh. I have friends who did similar deliveries once a month. A young couple with an infant are the most sought-after messengers for this kind of delivery, because they can take a lot of luggage and no one will find it suspicious. The couple we saw on the plane were caught because they left and returned on the same day — that seemed suspicious to the authorities. I was approached again half a year later and asked if I would do another delivery, but I refused because my parents were opposed. But if you’re asking me if this is a growing phenomenon? It certainly is.”

In Jail with Little Hope

The mother of a young woman currently jailed in Copenhagen tells Mishpacha she was alarmed when she received a call from abroad on the day her daughter was supposed to land.

“Suddenly I recognize my daughter’s voice, crying hysterically,” she said. “From all her garbled words, I was able to piece together that she and her friend had been arrested on account of a suitcase someone gave them at the airport.”

According to the mother, the young woman has no idea as to the identity of the trafficker. She met him at the airport for the first time, where he asked her if she could do him a favor and take along a package. But after the arrest, she heard of many other cases of young chareidim getting into trouble this way.

“Just now my son heard about a young man who was about to get married and thought he could make easy money by delivering suitcases like this abroad,” she notes. “Even though we’re so consumed trying to get our daughter out of jail, I asked my son to get the number of this chassan so we could warn him not to risk it. I told him it’s not easy money. It’s a dangerous game of Russian roulette.”

Another parent, whose son learned in a yeshivah in Kiryat Sefer, described his son’s experience languishing for months in a French jail.

“He met the drug dealer in Kiryat Sefer,” he said. “When the authorities caught him, he couldn’t communicate — he doesn’t speak a word of English. His experience in jail was terrible — bad conditions, no kosher food, and he didn’t see another Jew for seven months. He was in a cell with hardened criminals who abused him systematically. When he returned home, he was shattered both physically and emotionally. There was no way he could just go back to yeshivah after what he went through. His life will never be the same.”

Despite intensive lobbying, it’s unclear what will happen to the two young girls currently under arrest in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. They might be in jail for months before they’re finally brought to trial, and there’s no saying what their sentence will ultimately be.

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenthal, head of the local Chabad mission, joined the release effort last week. “People are willing to risk their freedom for easy money,” he says, sighing.

Another chareidi youngster, a 17-year-old boy, is currently sitting in the same prison.

“When an Israeli citizen commits a crime abroad, Israel’s options for helping him are extremely limited,” said Ziv Shalvi, head of the Europe and consular affairs division at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Every country has a right to enforce its laws on its own territory, so our intervention in these cases is purely humanitarian. We contact the Israeli embassy to ensure the accused has a lawyer. The consul visits the prisoners, hears their stories, and keeps in touch with them. If they ask for kosher food, he directs them to the Chabad house. That’s the maximum we can do.”

Shalvi explains that although sometimes the couriers and drug dealers meet completely coincidentally, as in the case of the two young girls now imprisoned in Copenhagen, in general it’s a slick and well-timed operation that’s been planned out in great detail.

And Shalvi said police know exactly who’s behind this network.

“It’s a man, formerly chareidi, who lives in Modiin Illit,” he said. “The police know who he is, and so does Interpol. He has lots of agents, all of them savvy and elusive, but they’re all people he knows from their chareidi past.”

Police would like to arrest him, but as of now khat is still legal in Israel, Shalvi explained. “It’s only illegal abroad. So the members of this gang can’t be arrested for possessing criminal substances. We’re certainly looking at other options. We’re anticipating a breakthrough imminently.”

These handlers take advantage of the chareidi teens’ sheltered upbringing, says attorney Mordechai Tzivin, an expert in international law who represents Israelis imprisoned abroad. In his view, the reason smuggling is so much more common among chareidi youth is that they’re often unaware of the risk they’re taking.

“In the current state of affairs, people can rot in jail for nine months before being brought to trial. Even if the sentence is a month, by the time they actually go to trial, they’ve already sat in jail almost a year. Never mind if the sentence is longer.”

The most popular target countries in the smuggling industry, he says, are Denmark, France, England, Spain, Scotland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Romania. All of them have extensive experience with khat smuggling by now, and while in the past they treated young offenders lightly, booting them from the country with a simple reprimand, today they employ legal staff to interrogate the smugglers intensively before the trial. The investigations, says Tzivin, can go on for as long as a year.

The vast majority of the smugglers are unmarried, unemployed, and out of yeshivah, so they have no responsibility to a family or a fixed schedule. That’s why they’re willing to imperil their liberty for a few thousand shekels.

For the families, bailing out a loved one can be incredibly expensive. The fees for a lawyer, the flights for family members and related expenditures, can come to hundreds of thousands of shekels. In France a good lawyer can cost up to €100,000, somewhere in the vicinity of NIS 400,000.

“I’ve known families who didn’t even have the money to go visit their son in jail,” Tzivin relates. “There was a case where Rav Chaim David Weiss of Antwerp actually raised money for this purpose. Chabad shluchim often move mountains to help imprisoned Israelis, even though it tarnishes their image with the local authorities, because they’re simply incapable of turning anyone away.

“They’ve become almost an auxiliary arm of the Foreign Ministry, which can’t do much for an Israeli charged with violating the laws of a foreign country.”

Incidentally, Chabad houses often bear the financial burden of these sad cases. The shluchim provide the prisoners with kosher food, visit them constantly, and host the offenders in their own homes if they are released to house arrest before trial. Just try to imagine what a family, often blessed with many children, must endure to take in unexpected “guests,” whose behavior may not align with the family’s ideals of chinuch, for weeks or even months. When the parents come to visit, the shaliach hosts them too, usually at no cost.

So how will this miserable saga come to an end?

According to Shalvi, the recent rise in cases has led to energetic lobbying by the Foreign Ministry, in close cooperation with the police and Knesset members, to ban the sale of khat in Israel. The minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, and Shas MK Moshe Arbel have picked up the gauntlet, but in the absence of a Knesset and a government, consideration of a new law will have to wait until after the elections.

Meanwhile, with the lure of easy money and the glitter of a free trip to Europe dangled before hungry teens, new arrests mount with every passing day.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 796)

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