Desirable Scientist, Ex Pat, Wants to Come Home. But an Army Jail Looms

Natasha Erdman might go to prison if she follows through with her initial intention of returning from Boston to Israel as part of the government's program for attracting ex-Israeli academics living abroad. That's because the 32-year-old ex-Israeli scientist is an army deserter.

Erdman's case presents a challenge for the state. On the one hand, it is seeking to repatriate as many ex-Israeli scientists as possible, as part of the government program to combat brain drain. On the other hand, the authorities are hesitant about letting bygones be bygones, out of the need to preserve the principle that all are equal before the law.

The career that Erdman has made for herself in the United States speaks for itself, and for the possibility of the army dropping the charges that she might face for deserting the ranks of her army unit more than 10 years ago.

She holds a Ph.D. from one of the leading universities in the U.S. She's a sought-after lecturer, and her articles appear in the world's leading scientific journals, including Nature. For the past two years, Erdman has been working for an international firm that deals in nanotechnology, earning a great salary in U.S. dollars.

Over the past couple of years, though, the separation from family in Israel became increasingly hard on her, and she eventually decided to move back home. The government's recently launched program for attracting expatriate Israeli scientists therefore seemed even more attractive to Erdman, as it includes grants and a string of financial inducements.

Speaking to Haaretz on the phone, Erdman said the program made her think it was probably the best opportunity for her to return. "But I won't go to jail because of a mistake I made when I was a kid," she said. According to the army, the maximum sentence for deserters is a three-year prison term.

The Israel Defense Forces designated Erdman, who lived in Kiryat Yam near Haifa, to participate in the army's reserve student program ("atuda"), which lets soldiers complete an academic degree before they are called for active IDF service. Immediately after she was drafted in 1994, Erdman was given an extended draft date, so she could begin her studies for a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. According to Erdman, the army did not fund her studies. She says her family footed the bill - a claim the IDF confirms.

Upon graduation, Erdman was offered a scholarship at Chicago's prestigious Northwestern University. Erdman says she was offered a full scholarship, which included a salary and living expenses. "It's the second most prominent university in the U.S. for materials science," she said.

But the IDF turned down her request to extend the student reserve program and let her study abroad. Erdman decided to make a false request to the army authorities to allow her to visit a relative in the States. She flew to Chicago, and hasn't returned since. "I felt I couldn't turn down an offer guaranteeing my professional future," she said.

Seeking to work out the matter with the IDF's military advocate general, she inquired into her legal status in the army. The MAG said they would not arrest her at the airport, but required her to report within four days to be court-martialed.

A spokesman for the IDF said "the fact that Dr. Erdman's family paid for her academic studies in no way affects her duty to serve in the IDF. If Dr. Erdman returns, she will be arrested and court-martialed for not appearing for service. After she serves her sentence, the army will consider drafting her and stationing her in a position befitting her skills and profession, as is customary in such cases."