The New Enemy

Feds nab a suspicious band of . . . toy salesmen?

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An anonymous benefactor posted bond for 9 of the 11 arrested immigrants.
An anonymous benefactor posted bond for 9 of the 11 arrested immigrants.
The young men were still sleeping when the agents banged on their door.

"INS," one said. "Let us in." When the door opened, nine immigration and FBI agents barged into the apartment.

"I open my eyes, and I see a big fellow over me [saying,] 'Wake up,'" remembers Assaf Manzur.

The agents let the four groggy men, all Israelis in their early 20s, wash their faces and brush their teeth. Then they put them in handcuffs and leg irons. They arrested friends elsewhere in the apartment complex, drove all 11 from Findlay to Cleveland, and locked them in jail, where they were grilled by the FBI. Where were they on September 11? Were they Muslim?

Actually, they're Jewish, veterans of the Israeli army. And they were shocked, and more than a bit unhappy, to be suspected of terrorism.

"We like America. Israel is your friend," Ori Ben-Tur told the agents. "Why are you asking these questions?"

But in the government's new crackdown on foreigners, even the country's best allies fall under suspicion. In court, the government tried to deny them bail for undisclosed national security reasons. When a judge still ordered them released, the INS used a new rule to keep them behind bars pending an appeal.

Yet the government charged them only with selling toys without work visas.

"We didn't do any crime," says Manzur. "For violating a visa, you're not supposed to [be jailed] with criminals."

But since September 11, the rules have changed.

Like a lot of young Israelis, Manzur and his companions finished their army service and went off to see the world last spring. A few months ago, they answered an ad in an Israeli newspaper. They made the mistake of letting the company that placed the ad, Quality Sales Inc., send them to Findlay to "train" them as toy salesmen who would later work in Israel.

"They told us that we can pay them an amount of money and they'll change our visa type, so we'll be able to do this training thing, and it will be legal," says Itay Hashay. They claim they each handed over $220, but the company never followed through. "They lied to us."

Quality Sales set them up in kiosks in the Findlay Village Mall, the Lima Mall, and a mall in Toledo. They sold "zoom copters," plastic toys that fly away and come back like boomerangs. Quality Sales paid their living expenses, says company lawyer Tom Dean.

But somehow, immigration authorities found out.

The Israelis' attorney, David Leopold, says their landlord turned them in. "I was directly told by the manager for their landlord in Indianapolis that, when they saw foreign names on a temporary, fixed-month lease, they told authorities." (Calls to Pedcor Investments in Indianapolis were not returned, but the complex manager in Findlay said no one from her office called law enforcement.)

The October 31 arrests in Findlay were part of a nationwide roundup of Israeli mall workers. Others were arrested in San Diego, Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis. Dean wonders if others in the malls mistook them for Arabs and turned them in, freaked out by a widespread e-mail hoax warning of Halloween terrorist attacks on malls.

Leopold doubts this. "Everybody knows [the e-mail] wasn't true."

The INS put the nine men in the Broadview Heights Jail and locked the women up in North Royalton. They couldn't call home, since international calls aren't allowed from jail.

"[FBI agents] asked me what I know about September 11. Where were I?" says Hashay.

"They asked me if I took some pictures of buildings, if someone send me to take a picture of someone special," says Ben-Tur.

The agents also asked about their time in the army. They had the men take lie-detector tests, then accused two of failing. Hashay says he asked what the charges against him were. The agents wouldn't say.

Federal officials declined to comment about the case. "Post-9/11, there's great scrutiny of those that violate immigration laws," says Dan Nelson, spokesman for the Department of Justice. "We are using all legal authorities to enforce those laws."

If the Israelis were American citizens, the government would have to charge them within two days of their arrest. But they're foreigners, which allows them to be held for a "reasonable period of time" before a hearing. So a relative of one detainee contacted Leopold.

"I was in disbelief," the attorney recalls. He'd never heard of foreigners being arrested for working under the table -- unless they were up to something else. People accused of violating tourist visas are normally released and told to appear at a deportation hearing months later, he says.

Leopold was suspicious of the detainee's story -- until he met her at the North Royalton Jail. "She was just a scared young woman."

Soon, all 11 hired Leopold, who speaks Hebrew. He talked to their families by phone every day. "Dealing with FBI and INS injustice is one thing. Dealing with 11 worried Israeli mothers is totally mind-boggling."

The nine men were moved to the Medina County Jail. For a while, they say, they were housed with inmates who chanted "bin Laden! bin Laden!" when they came in. "They thought we were Arab," says Manzur.

Leopold asked a judge to let them out on bail. The INS opposed the request. Its lawyer said the case was of "special" interest to the government -- a term used to signal national security concerns, though the lawyer admitted the case didn't involve terrorism.

Thirteen days after the Israelis were arrested, Judge Elizabeth Hacker granted bail, noting that "the service has failed to submit any evidence of terrorist activity or of a threat to the national security." But the INS invoked a new rule, imposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft in late September, that lets the government ignore a judge's bail order while it appeals.

Three days later, it dropped the appeal on nine of the Israelis. An anonymous benefactor posted a $10,000 bond for each of them. They later agreed to leave the country by year's end.

The last two stayed in jail until November 27. The INS still hasn't given them permission to leave the U.S., though Leopold says the agency hasn't explained why the two men are being treated differently.

One news report suggested the government is worried that such marketing companies may be infiltrated by agents of Mossad, Israel's spy service. Dean acknowledges that some Quality Sales recruits did intelligence work during their army service, but says that's not unusual in highly militarized Israel. Leopold says it's absurd that Mossad would seek to infiltrate malls in Lima and Findlay.

The Israelis are stung by the way America, their country's strongest ally, has turned suspicious of them. After the September 11 attacks, Liron Arbus says, "This is not the same America. People on the street see some different faces, they hear some different language, [and they're] pointing to you. You see people taking a step away from you."

"Now, when you talk with a girl, and you tell her you're from Israel, the first thing she asks you is 'Are you going to hurt me? Are you a terrorist?'" says Hashay.

But the Israelis are also empathetic. "We know what it means to be under a terror attack," says Ben-Tur.

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