The rare opportunity to talk with one of Israel’s most hard-core right-wing extremists drew a raft of reporters to his lawyer’s office Tuesday. Mordechai Meyer, sporting a huge kippa and long bobbing sidelocks, paced from side to side of the tiny office as his parents, attorney Itzhak Bam and a PR agent watched as if Meyer were a movie star.
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Meyer, no longer suspected in the arson attack on Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey, was released Sunday after five months in prison.
But the 18-year-old seemed to view the media presence as a form of torture. He refused to shake hands or make eye contact, and he repeatedly threatened to end the interview until his attorney convinced him to keep going. He refused to speak with Roy Sharon of Channel 10 television, and answered questions only when his PR agent repeated them.
Meyer moved to Israel from the United States as a baby. A few years ago he left his parents’ house in the bourgeois West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and moved to an isolated hilltop outpost.
“I engaged in worshipping God, in self-seclusion,” he said, referring to a Hasidic form of worship. “I don’t belong to any particular [religious] movement.”
His father Gedalia, who returned to religion and describes himself as a rabbi, added: “Every month or so he’d come to us for Shabbat. We were in contact with him all the time.”
Soon after the attack on the Dormition Abbey, Meyer was arrested, questioned by the police and released. In July he was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an arson attack on another church, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the shore of Lake Kinneret. But another young man, Yinon Reuveni, was ultimately indicted for that crime and Meyer was released to house arrest.
On the night of July 31, while he was still under house arrest, someone torched the Dawabsheh family home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing three members of the family and seriously wounding a fourth.
The diplomatic-security cabinet responded by approving harsh measures against right-wing extremists, and Meyer was served with an order sentencing him to six months of administrative detention. That order, along with similar orders against Meir Ettinger and Evyatar Slonim, was signed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
By law, administrative detention, or detention without trial, must be approved by a district court president. At a hearing before Central District Court President Avraham Tal, the Shin Bet security service argued that Meyer was extremely dangerous, and that intelligence indicated he was the one who had torched the Dormition Abbey. Tal approved the detention and Meyer was jailed.
“During my administrative detention they didn’t interrogate me. At first I was in an open cellblock, like all the other inmates at Rimonim, but after two and a half months I was moved to a closed cellblock at Eshel,” Meyer said, referring to two Israeli prisons.
“I was in my cell all day, in a closed cellblock. They take you out for an hour a day in the yard. They let me make calls only to my family and my lawyer and never told me why.”
Meyer was occasionally taken back to court for hearings on whether to extend his detention. At these hearings, a Shin Bet representative sat behind a curtain and detailed the unclassified information against Meyer – most of the information in such cases is classified, and administrative detainees aren’t allowed to hear it; it is only presented in court.
“Everything they said there was a lie,” he said angrily. “And now it’s clear that it was all a lie.”
The plot twist happened because of the investigation into the Duma attack. Two minors who were arrested in that case confessed to Shin Bet interrogators that they had torched the Dormition Abbey and named Reuveni as their accomplice.
After indictments were filed against all three, the Shin Bet released Meyer but served him with other administrative orders that bar him from entering the West Bank and require to him to remain in his parents’ house at night (his parents left Ma’aleh Adumim a few years ago).
“A jailer came over to me and said, ‘You’re going home,’” Meyer recalled. He now plans to study construction, a field he has already begun to work in.
Asked whether he was a danger to the public, he decline to answer.
Bam, his attorney, is planning his next legal moves. He might petition the High Court of Justice against the new restrictions placed on Meyer; he is also considering suing the state.
“Remind me of how much Hagai Felician got for false arrest?” Bam joked, referring to a suspect in a 2009 shooting attack at a gay youth club who spent nine months in jail before being released because the evidence against him turned out to be fabricated.
Meyer’s father did not hide his frustration. “Judaism is my life, and this is the Jewish state. But after what happened, everyone who lives in this country must ask where we’re headed,” he said.
“There are serious problems with this country if they can tell utter lies in court when they know it’s a lie, and then end without even apologizing. It doesn’t matter to me on my own account whether they apologize, it matters to me on their account. They must recognize that it’s impossible to go on this way.”
As the elder Meyer put it, “When we moved here, we didn’t think Israel was paradise, but this case has opened our eyes and it requires us to rethink what Israel is. We’ve drawn no specific conclusions other than to be very careful.”