Monday, January 11th, 2016 will forever be equated with the day that our Aliyah ended. After ten years of building a life for ourselves, ingraining our family into a community and integrating into Israeli life, one miserable eye-opening day made us question our decision to live out our lives in Zion and take stock as to why we are really here. Whether we move back is inconsequential, what matters here is that the belief we held in the State of Israel was demolished with the reality that the land we live in is not free nor just and without major reforms it never will be for the millions of people who call this place home.
What happened to us, as I found out is not uncommon in this country. While the circumstances and specific details are different, the fact that the Israel Police overstepped their bounds and turned our lives upside down is not. At six o’clock in the morning on that day the police barged into our home, woke our children and proceeded to tear our home apart. With little explanation and a presumption of guilt they meticulously went through our home in search of illicit drugs. They flashed a warrant which gave them the legal right to do so, however were not particularly interested in respecting our property or us for that matter as they executed their duty.
During the search they sequestered me and my fourteen year old daughter, strip searched me when I had asked if I could put on some pants and proceeded to ask where our stash was. We were accused of growing a forest of marijuana and distributing it to kids in Modi’in, the city in which we have lived for the past 9 plus years. One look at our large garden and it should have been obvious right then and there that there was no growing operation, however this did not deter them. Assuming harvest season was over they poked their noses into every corner of our home, every box, every cabinet without care for the valuables which we cherished.
Upon realizing that there was not even a crumb of anything illicit, no paraphernalia even for recreational use and no evidence to substantiate their theory, they proceeded to detain me and my young daughter and brought us to the station for interrogation – or what they call investigation. There is no distinction between the two when it comes to the methods they employed. Upon entering the car they told me not to speak to my daughter and slapped me when I ignored those instructions. As stoic as she was she is still fourteen and will forever be my baby, I will always ignore those orders especially when I see her teary eyed and scared.
What occurred over the course of the next twelve hours was something out of a movie, even today it is all quite surreal. My daughter was sequestered from me and interrogated without representation. I was put in leg and arm shackles and shuffled from place to place, outside and in the station for several hours without telling me why. I was demanding that I see my daughter, where I come from you cannot simply interrogate a minor without a parent or attorney, however the more I persisted in my demands the more harsh their treatment towards me became.
I was as cooperative as I could be. Our phones and computers were confiscated and I offered them the lock codes without even being asked for them – we were not running a drug operation from our home and I had nothing to hide. However even still they acted as if there was evidence to the contrary throughout the day in an attempt to get me to confess to something that was simply not close to being true. I had asked that I be interrogated in English as my Hebrew is fair, not great – I was not. When presented with a document to sign and said I have poor Hebrew reading skills my head was smashed onto the papers with the hard table underneath and asked if that helped me in my ability to read them. When I asked for an attorney after several hours of some physical and a lot of verbal abuse I was denied this request, told that I will have time later to speak with him.
I did not even know what was going on with my daughter, had no idea where my family was or what was transpiring outside and did not know I even had a lawyer I could talk to. My wife was at the station with our oldest daughter trying to get the lead investigator to speak with the attorney she had hired that morning. The arresting officer shoved my daughter to the ground, grabbed her phone and hung up on the attorney. To say that every member of my family experienced some abuse that day is to minimize the event, no one was safe that day.
What I realized during my time in chains was that the police are either above the law or do not have any to follow. By mid-afternoon I was finally allowed to speak with my attorney, as much as his words were meant to be soothing my ordeal was ongoing and I did not take it as such. I was told that if they take me to prison that day I will have to see a judge within 24 hours and when that happens this issue would be resolved as there was no evidence of any wrongdoing. So when the investigator offered me a choice of being sequestered out of Modi’in for five days or going to prison that night, I chose the latter thinking it would be a quicker way for me to get home and back to work and back to some sense of normalcy. I did not expect him to rescind the offer of prison and remand me to house arrest at a family member for five days, and he did so because realizing the over-zealousness of their actions that day, knew it would compromise his own position. By keeping me outside of the courts it allowed them to continue with their investigation and the passage of time would perhaps minimize the impact on his career.
I was now relegated to my wife’s cousin’s house with strict penalties for communicating with anyone via telephone or email. I was not about to question whether they could actually monitor this as my wife’s cousin had signed a surety bond and risked losing a lot of money if I was found to have been talking to anyone outside her home. I was not allowed to go to work, not allowed to discuss this with anyone aside from my attorney and not allowed to see how my wife and four children were doing. As it turns out my fifteen year old son was brought in for questioning the next day and as with his sister, was interrogated without representation. My wife, myself, and two of my four kids were booked and processed without ever seeing a judge. Our DNA, fingerprints and pictures were taken and entered into the Israel Police database. Meet Family Engelmayer, the Corleone’s of Israel. I wish I could laugh at this stage but there is nothing funny about what happened to us that day.
The criminal files they opened for us will eventually be closed, I hope our data is expunged but doubt even under court order it really will be. Our electronic devices will be returned to us, eventually and this entire episode will cost us tens of thousands of shekels that not only do we not have, we should not have to spend. I still don’t know all the details as to what led them to our home and target our family, I do know it had something to do with a random teenager arrested for selling drugs who was never in our home who threw out our name in his interrogation.
Where I come from the word of a scared fifteen year old is not evidence enough to disrupt the lives of six people. I come from New York City where the police motto is C.P.R., Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect — the physical, verbal and mental abuse endured by my family at the hands of some overzealous officers looking to make a name in relatively boring bedroom community lacked all three.
In the close to ten years we have lived in Israel we have been good citizens. Our house has always been open to our kids’ friends, literally and figuratively. We are a tad loud and perhaps eccentric, but we are good people and damned great parents. During the investigation I was told repeatedly that my wife and I raised a whore and two drug dealers and would have our youngest taken away from us so we could not damage him as we had the older three. Had the officers done even a little police work before barging into our home and destroying our lives they would have realized the ridiculousness of their accusations.
In trying to understand this I realized something about the Israel Police and many of their officers, it is not a prestigious job meant for the educated. It is not as if they didn’t do good police work, they were actually incapable of understanding what that means in a Western society. We live in a country where security is first and foremost and most of the laws governing police conduct revolve around that. Our trust in those who are supposed to protect and serve has been shattered, and when that happens everything changes. Everything has changed.
My lawyer summed it up in the saddest statement I have heard since moving here. In a conversation earlier this week he had said we have a good case against the police and I responded that I am not looking for money, I want justice. He dryly replied that I am in the wrong country for that, “in Israel there is no such thing as justice.” There is so much wrong with this country and yet throughout the past ten years we believed we were here to help change those things and contribute to the building of a great nation — without justice though it doesn’t matter — without a system meant to protect its citizens from abuse by authorities there is no foundation on which to build a great nation.
My family might still be here physically, but our aliyah has ended – our hearts, minds and spirits are no longer with Israel. Perhaps one day soon our bodies will join them.
Editor’s note: Police have responded to Jay Engelmayer’s allegations. See American-Israeli accuses cops of abuse during weed probe.