'The Defendant Holds the Keys to the Prison'

It was Friday morning in the Tel Aviv District Court. Isabella Belfer, a 69-year-old ophthalmologist, arrived dressed in black. "I feel today as if I have a funeral," she told Judge Oded Mudrik two and a half months ago. On Friday, she dressed accordingly. The guard who checked the full bag she brought would probably never have guessed that within minutes, the woman in front of him was about to begin serving a six-year prison sentence for kidnapping her granddaughter.

She stood alone at the entrance to the courthouse for a long time. A crew from Russia's government television channel documented her every movement. First, she stood in a slow-moving line for a security check. At the end, the metal detector awaited her. She passed under it again and again, but it did not stop beeping. Finally, it fell silent, but then the guard overturned her bag. She lost patience. Observing from the sidelines, it was hard to understand: Where was she rushing off to? After all, this check was giving her a few last moments of freedom.

In July 2001, after careful planning, Belfer and her daughter Marina kidnapped her granddaughter Lilach (Marina's daughter), who was three years old at the time, to Russia. In 2006, Belfer returned to Israel to take care of her 93-year-old mother. She was arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport and tried for kidnapping.

In his verdict, Judge Mudrik described how Belfer and her daughter carefully planned the child's kidnapping, using deceptive and diversionary tactics. They secretly closed their bank accounts, rented out their apartments, sent their belongings to Romania, took out Russian passports and, in order to blur their tracks, purchased airline tickets to the United States and back via Amsterdam. During the stop in Amsterdam, they changed the destination of their return flight to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria, they flew to Moscow and had their baggage delivered there.

The father waited at the playground

In 1999, Marina divorced her husband, Yaron Rotem. The two had differences of opinion about how to raise Lilach, and they frequently filed complaints against one another with the police. Their divorce agreement included an injunction against Lilach leaving the country as long as she was a minor. But due to fear of the outcome of the custody battle, the grandmother and mother decided to take Lilach out of Israel, come what may.

In June 2001, a judge in the Ramat Gan Family Court, Gershon German, gave Marina permission to leave the country with her daughter for a month. Rotem did not know anything about it.

On Friday, July 27, 2001, the father came to meet his daughter, as usual, in the playground near her home in Tel Aviv. She never showed up. He was worried, and filed a kidnapping complaint with the police.

Two days later, Rotem received confirmation that Lilach had boarded a plane on July 26. "I drove to the family court, opened the file, and was astonished to discover Judge German's decision," he said. He left his work as director of marketing at Egged and began an exhausting search. He hired lawyers and private detectives and spent a month and a half in the U.S. In the end, it turned out that Isabella and Marina had left for Russia, which is not a signatory to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction.

"I worked for a year and a half searching for her," he said. "I estimate that I spent between NIS 800,000 and NIS 1 million."

He searched for them in Moscow, and one day, by chance, he encountered Lilach in the street. He stretched out his hands to hug her, but she urinated from fear. He has no doubt that they incited her against him. In court, the grandmother submitted a letter that she claimed Lilach wrote in Russia. "Are there such bad people in Israel?" it said. "Both Mom and Grandma always taught me that the Jews have to help one another. I remember that Dad beat me and said bad things to my mother." Yaron is convinced that his daughter did not write that letter, certainly not by herself.

Second only to Putin

The grandmother gave the court several letters from people who praised her, including MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) and the chief rabbi of Russia. The prosecutor, Daniel Ben Tolila, claimed that the defense had tried to present the story as a conflict between sabras (native-born Israelis) and immigrants from Russia. "With all due respect, we are not dealing here with the Russian immigration and sabras' attitudes," he said. "The time has come for the accused to take responsibility for her acts."

Belfer's defense attorney, Michael Ironi, said that the story opens news broadcasts in Russia. "It depends," corrected Varya Yefimovich, a producer for the Russian government channel RTR, "on whether there is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or something of the sort that day. Putin is more important, so this story would be the second or third item."

Yefimovich denied that the media are focusing on the relationship between sabras and immigrants. "They only say that the father was born in Israel and Marina was born in Russia, and that is why she has Russian citizenship," she explained. However, she admitted that Belfer receives favorable coverage, and that in the Russian media, she is presented as a hostage imprisoned because of a crime perpetrated by her daughter. That is based on Mudrik's statement that had Belfer made Marina and Lilach return, he would have mitigated her punishment: "To a great extent, the defendant holds the keys to the prison," he wrote in the sentencing decision.

About a month ago, Belfer appealed the ruling. She also hospitalized herself, saying she suspected she had suffered a stroke, but her requests to delay the implementation of her sentence were denied. Now, the appeal is her last hope.

Back in the Tel Aviv District Court, she finally completed the security check and entered the elevator. After her came attorney Ironi, dragging her large bag, and behind him, the Russian film crew squeezed in too. They crowded together in the elevator and waited, but the doors refused to close. Ironi realized that something was broken, and the entire group emerged and squeezed into a second elevator. Belfer was asked to wait at the court office for the warden who would accompany her. When he arrived, he opened a side door in the office that leads to a special Prison Service elevator. She was caught unprepared. She never imagined that she would have to take her leave so soon. She restrained herself from bursting into tears and parted with embraces from the Russian crew. Ironi instructed her to contact him from prison; she nodded.

Yaron did not believe it when he heard that Marina had remained in Russia, while her mother is going to prison. He knew that the prosecution had tried to reach an agreement to the effect that if she returned with Lilach, she and her mother would not be sentenced to jail time.

Mudrik hinted as much throughout the trial, and Yaron remained optimistic until the last moment. But even in the final minutes before she disappeared into the cellars of the Prison Service, Belfer insisted that she had not asked Marina to return. "I spoke to Lilach, she's suffering," she said. "If he thought that he would get his daughter here, he was mistaken."

"Happy families are all alike" wrote Tolstoy, "but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

And it does seem that the Belfer and Rotem families have sentenced themselves to a unique brand of unhappiness.