Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Chasidic Drug Mules

We must work to get them back. I say this without any equivocation. The three young Chasidic adolescents, Yeshiva Students, who are being held in Japan, cannot be allowed to be convicted at trial and punished for a crime they very likely did not commit.

Mishpacha Magazine published lengthy article - its cover story - on the heroic efforts of four Chasidic Rabbis to see justice done. Justice in this case is not incarceration in the Japanese penal system. Although I can’t be certain, based on everything I’ve read (especially in the Mishpacha article) I do not believe they knowingly transported drugs.

Whether this is considered an actual case of Pidyon Shevuyim – ransoming a Jew from captivity - I leave for the Poskim. Perhaps it is - perhaps not. One can debete whether any Jew in any jail who protests his innocence should be treated as a Pidyon Shevuyim case. But it is certainly an imperative to get these boys out of there under current conditions.

For those who are unfamiliar with this case here is what happened.

About a year ago three young and very naïve Chasidic Yeshiva students were asked by a Chasidic businessman to take a suitcase to Japan. For this they were given an all expense paid trip to the Kivrei Tzadikim – burial places of great European Rabbis. Some have the custom to visit and pray at such sites for Divine assistance. I am not going to get into the propriety of such customs. Different subject. Suffice it to say that for these young students this was a special spiritual experience.

Here is where the story gets murky. They claim that they were told that there were antiques in those suitcases. And they were put intentionally into false bottoms to protect them from being lost or stolen. These boys say they thought the entire enterprise was legal and were even given money to pay for any customs fees that might come up. They never suspected the drugs that were actually there.

This - it seems to me - is a stretch. On the other hand the claim made on their behalf is that these boys led such a sheltered life that they couldn’t conceive of any irregularities about such a proposal from a very religious Charedi businessman.

It’s hard for me to believe that they were that naïve. It is obviously also hard for the prosecutors in Japan to believe it. I tend to believe that they knew they were smuggling something but had no clue it was drugs. Japanese prosecutors suspect that they did know it was drugs.

I find it highly unlikely that anyone in any environment can be so sheltered as to think that being paid to transport anything in a suitcase with a false bottom doesn’t smack of something illegal.

On the other hand if they are that naïve, their system of Chinuch has failed them miserably. You cannot shelter young people to be so naïve and so unsuspecting of one’s fellow Jew that it could lead to this kind of naiveté. That they were kept in the dark about such things - is what caused them to be so trusting of what is an obviously suspicious offer.

As I said - I suspect that they were not that naïve. I suspect that they probably realized they were smuggling something illegal. But I doubt they knew it was drugs.

If that is the case, one must ask, how can such sincerely religious young adolescents do something like that? Why would they agree to take a suitcase with items hidden in a false bottom? That is G’neivas Daas – deception - which is tantamount to stealing. This is an act that is Halachicly forbidden - whether it is against one’s fellow Jew or one’s fellow man.

One can see how sincerely religious these young men are from a description in the article. They are meticulous about ritual observance - asking for very little in material comfort. They have only asked for religious artifacts. And for Gemaros so that they can spend their time learning Torah!

We are being asked to believe that they actually thought that hiring teenagers to transport legal antiques in the false bottom of a suitcase is a normal business practice. If that’s the case, fine! Then they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever - as the article suggests. But then it is also true that they are victims of their insular culture.

But if as I suspect they knew they were smuggling , how can such sincerely religious students violate Halacha?

The answer, I’m afraid is that they saw absolutely nothing Halachicly wrong with cheating Goyim. There is obviously a culture in certain circles that actually preaches that – as long as you don’t get caught. That has become painfully clear over the last few days. I truly believe that these young kids were raised in this kind of culture. What is naïve about them is thinking they wouldn’t get caught. Or thinking that even if they did – it would amount to is fine for trying to sneak merchandise trough customs without paying the customs fees.

Either way – whether if by naiveté or design to smuggle antiques - they need to be saved from a punishment that far exceeds the crime. They are going on trial for smuggling drugs. Japan does not take that crime lightly. They are known for their law and order society where justice is swift and hard.

They have one of the lowest recidivist rates in the world. That’s because those who have committed crimes and were incarcerated for them do not ever want to repeat the experience. Prison conditions are so harsh that anyone who has gone though it comes out traumatized for life - it seems. A grim detailed description of all this is contained in the Mishpacha article.

These boys do not deserve this fate. And if they are convicted they will receive it. The Japanese court conviction rates are very high. Judges there rarely acquit according to the article. And foreigners are treated even tougher. Foreigners are a much higher percentage of the prison population than they are of the general population.

Looking at this picture in total - it is my view that we must give a 110% effort in trying to get those boys out of there. But we must do it legally with respect for the Japanese, their culture, and system of justice. That is the only way that it will have any chance of succeeding. To that end these heroic Rabbis - who spend countless hours, days, and sleepless nights working on their behalf are to be lauded and supported. The description in the article of these rabbis and their efforts speaks for itself. They have gone all out in hiring the best legal help in the world – in matters of this nature. And these rabbis have been working with them every step of the way.

Aside from the obvious real guilty party - a Chasidic Jew who is the actual drug dealer - the guilty party here is their system of Chinuch. It is a system that either over-shelters - or teaches that one can do anything they want to non Jews as long as they don’t get caught. Or both!