After spending six months in jail on the outskirts of Moscow, a young Israeli woman named Naama Issachar was sentenced on Oct. 11 to seven-and-a-half years of imprisonment in Russia.
Both the extreme sentence and trumped-up charges of drug-smuggling not only have traumatized the 26-year-old from Rehovot—and inflicted great anguish on her family and friends—but also has spurred the entire Israeli legal and political system into action.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, pleading with him to pardon Issachar. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently discussed the matter with Putin in person when the pair met in Sochi in September, made another plea on Tuesday.
Issachar was detained in April while boarding a connecting return flight to Israel from India, where she had been trekking around with a friend for a few months. As she was about to get on the plane, she was stopped by Russian airport security on the grounds that 9.5 grams of cannabis had been found in her suitcase as it was being transferred from the belly of one plane to another.
Issachar’s plight so grips the nation that it now occupies the top news slot, overtaking the massive reportage of the Turkish incursion against the Kurds in northeastern Syria. It also is garnering serious social-media attention and legal-fee crowdfunding.
This is in large part because Issachar is an easily identifiable figure for Israelis, whose extended stints in India and other inexpensive “exotic” locations have become as much a rite of passage as military service or university studies. Ditto for their parents, many of whom worry just as much about the potential perils to their children in foreign lands as they do when their sons and daughters are inducted into the Israel Defense Forces.
The broader reason for the national focus on Issachar, who also holds U.S. citizenship, is that she is believed to have been targeted for arrest by Russian authorities and is being exploited as a political pawn. The assumption in Jerusalem is that Issachar’s detention and disproportionate punishment, even by Russian standards, constitute a form of leverage on the Israeli government to deny extradition to the United States of Russian credit-card cyber-criminal Alexei Borkov, who was arrested during a trip to Israel in 2015 as a result of an Interpol alert.
For the past four years, Borkov has been in an Israeli jail awaiting an Israeli Supreme Court decision on the legality of extradition in his case. The affirmative decision finally handed down appears to have coincided with Issachar’s arrest. What Moscow wants is for Israel to “extradite” Borkov to Russia—reportedly a euphemism for having the hacker back home, where Putin can put him to proper use in underhanded dark-web endeavors.
Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who has expressed sympathy for Issachar and disgust with her sentence, nevertheless is in a genuine bind, as it is not in the political echelon’s purview to overturn a Supreme Court decision. Ironically, many of those pressuring him to do so are the very same people who continually rake him over the coals for being hyper-critical of Israel’s all-powerful judiciary.
Be that as it may, the supposed extradition triangle behind Issachar’s imprisonment is unprecedented. Indeed, the only way at this point for Issachar to be released—other than through a reversal of the court decision or a pardon from Putin—would be for Washington to agree to let Borkov be sent to Russia rather than the United States. And since Putin’s interest in the clever criminal likely involves anti-America activity, the chance of this happening is slim to zero.
Issachar’s tragic situation conjures images of the 1978 movie, “Midnight Express,” based on the true account in the book of the same name by Billy Hayes, an American student imprisoned in 1970 in Turkey for smuggling hashish. Hopefully, Issachar is not suffering similar horrors at the hands of her Russian guards.
According to her mother, who has been camped out in Moscow for half a year now, despite being denied the same access as other parents to their incarcerated daughters, Issachar is learning to speak Russian and trying not to despair. At the moment, she must be clinging to the slivers of hope awakened by the intervention of Rivlin and Netanyahu, and by the pressure of the Israeli public.
The one problem with Israelis’ otherwise understandable sympathetic reaction to Issachar’s deep misfortune is the way in which it has obfuscated the real moral of the story.
Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who hails from the former Soviet Union, responded by saying that Israelis should think twice before visiting Russia. And they’re taking his advice, according to Israeli travel agents, who report clients’ cancelations of trips to Russia and refusals to fly via Moscow en route to other destinations.
Right. As though carrying cannabis in one’s luggage isn’t problematic elsewhere, even in countries not engaged in the cynical maneuvering of a shady extradition deal.
Which brings us to Issachar’s claim that she had forgotten to clean out her suitcase before leaving India, which is why the small amount of weed remained at the bottom of her bag. As her sister insisted in an interview, “Naama would never have done something so foolish” as to carry the pot with her. In other words, she would have made sure to dispose of it before heading to the New Delhi airport.
Herein lies a crucial point about Israeli sojourners in general and Issachar in particular. Cannabis possession is illegal in many places in the world, including in India, where she had been purchasing and smoking it. That she wasn’t caught was merely due to luck. If she had been, it is possible (though not definite) that she would have gotten off lightly. Just as she would have in Israel, where cannabis laws are liberal, with personal possession of less than 15 grams of the drug not enforced and medical marijuana relatively easy to obtain.
As well-traveled as they are, Israeli millennials like Issachar are so conditioned by the freedoms they enjoy at home—and so enamored of cultures other than their own—that they frequently miscalculate the consequences of their actions abroad. Still, this kind of obliviousness doesn’t make Issachar deserving of lock-up, let alone for the better part of a decade.
It most certainly should serve as a cautionary tale, however, for all Israelis on the move, wherever they may roam.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”