BatEl gets Busted in Bulgaria

BatEl Peretz, a young Israeli woman from my city of Petach Tikva, is now imprisoned in Bulgaria on what apparently are illegal substance charges (per one Hebrew news account, the substance was likely khat).  Appeals are now being made internationally for funding to help free BatEl from a lengthy incarceration in Bulgaria.

Per the heartstrings-tugging story:

A member of the community came to her and 3 friends, offering them a free vacation in Bulgaria with spending money in exchange for bringing his suitcase with items perfectly legal in Israel. As a frum Israeli girl, she had never read the Jerusalem Post, CNN, or other news sites which publish stories of the risks involved in transporting luggage across borders. When they landed, the shocked 4 girls were arrested. Since the police didn’t speak Hebrew to explain what was happening, the girls were wondering why strange men in uniforms were “kidnapping” them. It didn’t cross their minds that they were under arrest, because they were unaware they had broken a law.

Though I do hope that this posting helps to free BatEl from her predicament, that is not the primary intent behind this posting; the main objective of this posting is to stimulate discussion which would enlighten the public, in order to reduce if not eliminate the future numbers of poor decisions such as those that have placed BatEl and her family into their current predicament.

Even taking the shnor narrative at its face value, some questions, inconsistencies, and missing critical facts are immediately apparent.

Imprimis, there were four girls arrested.  What is the story with the other three?  If they also remain incarcerated, then where are the cries of “Pidyon Shvuyim” on their behalf?  If the other three have been released, why does BatEl remain behind bars? [The wording of the mostly-verbatim news stories speaks of “Batel and her friends who didn’t intend to do bad and are in a prison with potentially fatal results.“].

The shnor narrative, perhaps penned by a publicity professional, admits up front that BatEl has led a sheltered life, and has “never read the Jerusalem Post, CNN, or other news sites which publish stories of the risks involved in transporting luggage across borders.” I do not know which publications BatEl’s parents did or did not permit/facilitate her to read, but quite strongly suspect that “Mishpacha” Magazine would pass muster with them, and Mishpacha did in fact publish an article that told the story of Naama Issachar, the American/Israeli whose release from Russian detention for carrying a very small amount of cannabis into Russia cost Israel a rather steep diplomatic price.  I suspect even more strongly that “B’Hadrei Charedim” would be acceptable to BatEl’s parents; it published extensively regarding the developments in the notorious case of some boys from Bnei Brak being tricked into transporting ecstasy pills into Japan, and their incarcerations and trials there.  “Yated Ne’eman” similarly reported aplenty the Japanese ecstasy case developments.

Moreover, if BatEl’s parents took pains to “shelter” her from reading any news media, then how is it that they allowed her to travel to Bulgaria?  Something is inconsistent here!

And what about the “member of the community” who sent the four girls on their ill-fated “free vacation?”  Is he going to get off with a comparatively light sentence, as the kingpin in the Japan ecstacy fiasco did?

I have already expounded at length elsewhere on how evading customs duties is contrary to Halakhah.  One does not need to be a Philadelphia Lawyer with an MBA to see that the cost of a single one-way airfare to Bulgaria is cheaper than sending a package via a professional carrier such as FedEx or UPS or DHL, even with insurance.  [Never mind that my law degree, my first Bar admission, and my MBA degree were all attained in Philadelphia.].  The offer of a “free vacation” with round-trip airfare and spending money for not one, but four people, in exchange for carrying a suitcase should have set off bells and whistles (and gives some idea as to what the minimum value of the khat in the suitcase must have been).

The insular community in Israel [I have severe reservations regarding the terms “ultra-orthodox” and “haredi”] seems to have a recurring problem with some of its members becoming entangled in smuggling addictive substances, whether tobacco or otherwise.  One must wonder how it is possible for so many to be so naïve after so many incidents within their community.  These smuggling incidents are exacting a very high cost in diplomatic capital from Israel, and creating much ill will towards the insular community.  Granted that the news coverage is unfairly slanted, but the public perceptions are stoking much resentment and anger amongst the Jewish community in Israel and abroad.  The community leadership needs to send out the message, loud and strong, that international smuggling of any kind is unacceptable.

Unjustifiable and unrooted in reality as it is, people are thinking along the lines of “They killed Shira Banki, their illegal assemblages are spreading COVID-19 and shutting down the country, and now, they want us to pay our hard-earned dollars to save their lawbreakers who must be incredibly stupid to not know that they will likely get themselves into trouble by smuggling.”  This is something Israel and the Jewish people definitely do not need now during the current CoronaVirus crisis.

As detailed above, I cannot help but believe that there are some missing parts to the BatEl Peretz story.  But I have given BatEl the benefit of the doubt and tentatively accept the proposition that she indeed was unwittingly deceived into the smuggling scheme for which she now stands accused, a freier of sorts.

I have made a small donation to The Chesed Fund to help assist BatEl and her family.  At this time, with the dearth of clear facts available, any greater amount would make me feel like a freier.

If this publicization of BatEl’s sad story discourages or prevents just one Israeli, insular community or otherwise, from engaging in illegal smuggling, then my discomfort in writing this and in making the small donation will be worth the trade.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.