Israeli Jews In The Dragnet

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Last year, on her first trip to the U.S., Rachel Sabag, an Israeli, went to the predictable tourist spots--San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. On Oct. 1, 2001, she visited America again--this time to experience the magic of Findlay, Ohio. Sabag, 25, her boyfriend and nine other young Israelis moved into a Findlay apartment complex (45 miles south of Toledo) and signed a six-month lease, but they didn't get to stay long. On Oct. 31 Rachel and her comrades were taken into custody by three dozen federal agents, even though as Israeli Jews they are perhaps the least likely al-Qaeda suspects in the world.

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Sabag won't discuss why she decided to drop anchor in Findlay, but INS officials believe they know her reasons. They suspect that Sabag and her Israeli peers were peddling toy helicopters in three Toledo-area malls. That violates the terms of her i-94 tourist visa, which states in bright red letters, "Warning: a non immigrant who accepts unauthorized employment is subject to deportation." It is possible Rachel and her comrades discovered the jobs via a newspaper ad that targeted young Israelis and promised to expedite legal papers in return for mall training. David Leopold, a lawyer handling the Israelis' case, says that if his clients were working, they didn't know employment was against the law.

The Israelis were not treated with great warmth during their three weeks in federal custody. Sabag and the only other woman in the group, Shulamit Amram, spent four hours handcuffed to a chair, some in the group were administered polygraph tests without counsel present, and none of them could contact their families because the prison where they were detained doesn't allow international collect calls. The reasons behind their detention: in March, employees in federal office buildings around the country complained to authorities about another group of Israeli students who represented themselves as selling art but seemed uncommonly interested in gaining access to restricted spaces. Government sources also say there is an ongoing counterespionage investigation of certain marketing companies that lure young Israelis to the U.S., and may also infiltrate a few Mossad agents. Leopold counters: "Why would they put 11 very obvious young Israelis together in the middle of rural Ohio? Any suggestion of a connection to a national security threat in this case is absurd."

The Israelis were released on Nov. 17, and are in Cleveland while their INS paperwork is being processed. Two have been ordered to remain in the U.S., while the other nine, including Sabag, were granted voluntary departure status, avoiding the stain of deportation. "We thought that everybody accepts you if you don't do anything wrong in America," says Sabag. "Last year when I visited, it wasn't like this." This is a very different year.