Gilad Shalit’s captivity at the hands of Hamas between 2006 and 2011 turned him into every Israeli’s son. Now, Naama Issachar – a 26-year-old American-Israeli imprisoned in Russia for the past nine months – has been cast as the nation’s imperiled daughter.
Her face is emblazoned on billboards, protest signs and social media feeds, while red-lettered banners pleading “Bring Naama Home” flutter from the overpasses of major highways.
The “Free Naama” campaign has implications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He hopes to impress voters with his diplomatic prowess (ahead of the March 2 election) when he hosts Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a major Jerusalem event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As Putin’s arrival date of January 23 approaches, efforts are expected to intensify with Issachar’s family determined to disrupt the visit by the man they believe is holding her as a political prisoner.
Her sister, Liad Goldberg, delivered that warning directly to Netanyahu late last month when family members met with Israel’s prime minister.
“We kept asking him: Are you really going to host him [Putin] in Israel if Naama is still in prison?” Goldberg recounts, in an interview with Haaretz. “He didn’t have a response. And so I made it clear that we aren’t going to sit quietly when it happens.”
Yaffa Issachar, Naama’s mother, has relocated to Moscow to stay close to her imprisoned daughter. She published an open letter to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin regarding the scheduled visit to his residence, notifying him “that it is my intention to come straight from Moscow to the entrance to the President’s Residence that same evening and block the entrance of the Russian president and his delegation with my body.” Online activists devoted to Naama’s cause are spreading a similar message. (Liad explains that although her father is also involved behind the scenes, a decision made made early on to let Yaffa Issachar front the campaign.)
“If anyone thinks that the visit of the Russian president will be in order while Naama Issachar is rotting in Russian prison for no wrongdoing – he is wrong. We are well prepared for unprecedented protests,” a group of them tweeted on one of the many social media channels devoted to securing Issachar’s release.
Hitting close to home
Issachar was traveling home from India last April, transferring in Moscow, when she was pulled aside by authorities as she was about to board her connecting flight. She was told that about nine grams (0.35 ounces) of marijuana had been found in her luggage. After she was detained, Issachar was interrogated without a lawyer or a translator, then pressured to sign a document in Russian that she did not understand. She later discovered that this was a confession.
Police and prosecutors have ignored her protests that the drugs were not hers and that, even if they had been, she had no intention of ever bringing them into Russia since she had no access to her checked luggage.
Despite this, she was subsequently charged and convicted of drug smuggling. While foreigners previously caught with small amounts of marijuana have served short sentences in Russia, or merely been fined, Issachar received a seven-and-a-half-year prison term.
Her ordeal hits close to home for many Israelis. Every year after their army service, hundreds of young Israelis head to the Far East. For many, the affordable fares on Aeroflot entice them to travel through Russia.
Although most of the local press portray her as Israeli, Issachar is actually more American: She was born in the United States to two Israelis who met and married in New Jersey. Her mother, Yaffa, had been a single mom to 3-year-old Liad when she met and married Naama’s father.
“She was a very happy child, a great kid” when they were growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, recalls her sister. “She was always laughing, always smiling. She had a lot of friends, she was involved in the Israeli scouts, in the dance team, in basketball – everyone loved her,” says Liad. By contrast, Liad recounts how she herself “was the bad kid, the rowdy teenager always getting in trouble and hanging with the bad crowd.”
At 16, Naama, who “was always very Zionist,” convinced her parents – after three decades in the United States – to return with her to Israel so she could complete high school there and join the army. Goldberg, who was 22 at the time, stayed in America and later decided to move from the East Coast to Los Angeles. Despite the distance, the sisters remained close.
Goldberg clearly remembers the fateful day last April when she learned her sister was in trouble. She and Naama had recently spent two months traveling together in India. Liad had returned to the United States, while Naama stayed on for an extra month in India.
“I’ll never forget that terrifying phone call. I was in LA, working in the music industry as a production assistant,” Liad recalls. “I was just about to get in my car to go head toward Coachella – a three-hour drive down into the desert. And then the phone rang: it was my mom calling to tell me that Naama just got arrested in Russia – that they pulled her aside in the airport. I immediately said, ‘This is not good, this is Russia.’ I immediately started texting with my sister. ... Naama was terrified, and she kept asking me by text: ‘I see there’s another flight in two hours. Do you think they’re going to let me go and get on it?’”
Also texting with Naama was her uncle, Israel Cohen, 58, who contacted the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s situation room and helped get his niece a lawyer. At first, while deeply worried, the family was reassured by Israeli officials and the attorney, who had handled similar cases in the past. “We were told that in three weeks she’d be on a flight home,” Cohen says.
But the case was delayed, and into the early summer of 2019 the family endured their ordeal alone, choosing not to speak publicly as the case moved through the Russian legal system more slowly than they had hoped.
“We kept it quiet because that’s what everyone was telling us to do,” Goldberg explains. “Russia is very intimidating and scary. So when people told us that the Russians don’t like the media and it’s better that you work on this without anybody knowing – that’s what we did. We were really scared to piss anyone off. And also, we wanted to protect Naama’s pride. We knew she’s not a drug addict, she’s not a drug user, she’s not a drug smuggler, and she had her whole life in front of her. Before we realized how serious the situation was, it was very important to us to maintain her privacy and dignity. We didn’t want it to ruin her future.”
In retrospect, Cohen says, “if we had known this would blow up into a global political affair,” they would have gone public earlier. But he too says they wanted to protect Naama from media exposure.
The situation changed In the late summer and early fall. In October, Naama received a jail sentence suited to large-scale drug trafficking, not individual possession. Then, the Russian media reported that a prisoner swap was in the works: In exchange for Issachar’s freedom, Russia asked that Israel return Aleksey Burkov – a Russian hacker who had run a website that used to sell credit card data. In 2015, an indictment was filed against him in the United States charging that Burkov had committed four different fraud-related felonies. A year later, the accusations extended to include identity theft, computer hacking and money laundering. Burkov was being held in Israel ahead of his imminent extradition to the United States.
Cohen hypothesizes that the idea of using Naama as leverage regarding Burkov occurred in August. That month, he says, they had been on the brink of getting Naama released to house arrest in Moscow on possession charges – but suddenly the prosecution harshened, refused to allow house arrest and the charges were upgraded to possession with intent to sell.
The Burkov affair, Goldberg says, opened the family’s eyes. “We finally understood that this situation was really serious and that Naama was being used as a political pawn. We were stunned. We didn’t know what Naama – this sweet child with no criminal record, who never even had a parking ticket – had to do with international cyberfraud. What does one have to do with the other? We found it all so hard to believe.”
But Cohen says that after realizing “this was much bigger than Naama,” the public awareness campaign began.
The proposed prisoner swap was a nonstarter. On November 12, Burkov was extradited to the United States: doing otherwise, the Israeli government decided, would set an unacceptable precedent. It was then that the Issachars’ private pain was transformed into a public struggle: For the rest of 2019, Naama became a household name in Israel, as her family pushed ahead with a high-profile campaign in anticipation of her December 19 appeal in a Moscow courtroom.
At the time, Netanyahu was campaigning in the Likud primary. The Issachars experienced a brief moment of hope when he said at a campaign event that he was “bringing Naama Issachar home.” Later, however, his aides clarified that he “meant to say he was committed to bringing her home” and no breakthrough was imminent.
Shock and fear
Any hopes were dashed at the appeal, though, where Naama testified isolated in a glass box while her supporters shouted encouraging words to her through a microphone.
“The appeal trial was a joke – it was for show,” Goldberg charges. “They made us sit there for seven hours of testimony, and then they made their decision in 20 minutes.”
The family’s disappointment pivoted to shock and fear during the last week of December when they discovered that, unbeknownst to them or her attorneys, Naama had been transferred to a remote Russian prison. After public and diplomatic protests, however, she was quickly returned to the prison where she had been detained for the previous eight months, 90 minutes outside of Moscow.
“It was terrible: Russia was shut down for the holidays and there was no one to talk to,” Goldberg relates. “Before that happened, my mother had come back to Israel a few times to renew her visa. But now she is so terrified that my sister is going to be moved without her knowledge, she won’t leave Russia. Even when we knew we were going to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, my mom said, ‘I will not get on the flight. I am not leaving Russia and risk returning without knowing where Naama is.’”
On both of her trips to Moscow to visit her sister, Goldberg says she was “terrified” when moving through the airport. She has called on Israelis to stop traveling to Russia, because “what happened to Naama could happen to anyone.” If she is needed there, she says, she will be on the next plane – but hopes she never has “to go back to that place again.”
The uncertainty is proving difficult to live with. At the family’s meeting with Netanyahu, Goldberg says, the premier “kept saying that Naama was one of his top priorities, but he has no answers for us. Netanyahu said to me: ‘Tell your sister to remain optimistic, that we are working on it.’ And I’m like – that doesn’t help her, that doesn’t give her any kind of relief.”
She says the transformation of her sister – “who is such a good kid” and lived for simple pleasures: riding her bike, drinking coffee and practicing yoga – has been heartbreaking.
“On our trip to India, she’d wake up at the crack of dawn every day and do Vinyasa yoga,” Goldberg says. “She’s a very Zen and positive person. I think that is the reason she’s kept so relatively calm and levelheaded throughout this situation. ... I’ve seen her at the prison twice – once in August and once just a couple of weeks ago. She’s very pale, she’s very skinny, and she is so frustrated and so angry. I could tell she doesn’t know what to do with herself anymore. They keep telling her to be optimistic, but she doesn’t know how to be optimistic anymore.”
Naama’s parents, extended family and network of friends have all rallied around the cause of her liberation. Those closest to her have made her predicament their full-time job.
“My mom has basically put her life on hold, and so have I,” says Goldberg, who has quit her job, moved out of her LA apartment and put her things in storage, staying with her boyfriend, friends and family members. “This is a 24-hour cause,” she relays. “How can I commit to work when I have no idea what is going on with my sister? I don’t know how to continue living my life normally when my sister is rotting in a Russian prison. And I don’t really care about my own life right now. I care about my sister’s life and my mother’s life – they are the priority.”
Cohen, too, has stepped away from his business and says he spends 90 percent of his day working for Naama, together with his cadre of volunteers – more than 30 devoting most of their energy to the campaign. Unlike the Shalit family, they don’t enjoy state support, and much of Cohen’s energy has gone into fundraising to support his sister’s ability to stay in Moscow near Naama and to pay her legal fees.
Despite Naama’s U.S. citizenship and the fact she lived there for most of her life, Goldberg says garnering support in the American media has been more of a challenge than grabbing the spotlight in Israel. “I have tried hard, but it’s been easier in Israel because it’s a smaller country,” she says. “Getting the attention of the U.S. media is hard. America is so large, and there are so many things going on right now that it’s hard to keep her story in the headlines.”
Official channels in the United States have also been disappointing, Goldberg says. “We’ve spoken to some senators and congressmen, but they say they keep hitting walls and can’t get through to anyone. We just hope the Americans are working behind the scenes, because nobody will tell us anything there, I’m sad to say,” she adds.
Technically, more appeals are possible in the Russian courts, but Goldberg admits the family has “pretty much lost faith in their legal system.” After nine months of hope, disappointment and worry, the family believes a presidential pardon from Putin is Naama’s best – and possibly only – hope.
Putin, Cohen notes, “is always declaring that he is a friend of the Jewish people. This is his chance to prove it.”
Ahead of the president’s arrival next week, Cohen adds, “We are sending the message as strongly as possible that we expect him to send her home before he gets here. What we are hoping is that he sees her as a hot potato he wants to get rid of – that they overstepped in her case, and now understand the time has come to end it.”
Goldberg, meanwhile, fears that political and security concerns involving Syria and Iran trump the fate of a young woman when it comes to Putin. And so, like Shalit’s family, she says that her family won’t rest until they, too, can celebrate her freedom.
She and her uncle both agree that public pressure is their strongest weapon. “That’s why we are doing our best to make sure she is in the news in Israel every single day, whether it’s television, radio or newspapers – anything,” Goldberg says. “We want people to get sick of hearing her name. We are not going to let the Israeli government forget about her. We are determined to keep pushing until they bring her home.”