The abduction story
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The last time Yaron Rotem saw his daughter, Lilach, was exactly a year ago, when he picked her up for their regular Wednesday afternoon visit. All went well and Rotem had no reason to suspect his daughter would be kidnapped the following day.
His confidence rested on a rock-solid Family Court injunction
(“ikuv yetziya”), part of his divorce decree, which would prevent anyone,including himself, from taking Lilach out of Israel.
The unsuspecting Rotem took his daughter for a tractor ride in the fields around Givat-Chen, a moshav near Ra’anana. The father and daughter picked a small watermelon abandoned in the midsummer sun. They studied the frantic activities around an anthill. They smelled wildflowers.
“I’ll pick you up in two days,” Rotem happily told his daughter, secure in the knowledge that he would. He was tranquil when he kissed her good bye, complacent, when he handed her over to her mother.
The next day, his ex-wife, Dr. Marina Belfer-Rotem, and her mother, Dr.Isabella Belfer, spirited the four-year-old out of her father's life. They flew with Lilach out of Ben Gurion Airport to Amsterdam with a connection to the U.S. and have disappeared. The Israeli police, the FBI and Interpol are looking for them.
According to International Department of Israel’s Ministry of Justice, 37 children have been abducted from the country since the beginning of 2001.
Rotem says he is caught in a Kafkaesque legal nightmare where the hallways of justice lead to dead ends. He points an accusing finger at a Family Court Judge blaming him for his daughter’s disappearance and has filed an unprecedented NIS 10 million gross negligence lawsuit against the judge and the government.
"We feel an injustice has been done to Mr. Rotem and that he has a right to sue for this injustice,” says attorney Aviyam Yariv, who filed the lawsuit on Rotem's behalf. “We believe the legal system should not be immune to criticism."
Judge Dr. Gershon German, of the Ramat Gan Family Court, the subject of Rotem's suit, refuses to allow publication of the legal decision he made, that according to Rotem, enabled the mother to kidnap Lilach.
The judge, who had presided over the Rotems' acrimonious divorce and equally bitter visitation-rights battles, declined to lift the gag order on grounds that he must first get a written response from the mother. In what amounts to a “catch-22,” the mother’s comments are impossible to obtain. Attorney Tamir Gluck, who represents Ztomet Hasharon Newspaper (Shocken) that wanted to publish the full account, appealed to the Supreme Court to disqualify German on the basis of a conflict of interest. He argued that if in fact German made a legal error that enabled the mother to kidnap Lilach, then the judge would have an interest in squashing publication of the facts.
“The question at the basis of this appeal is whether to allow a judge to decided on an issue in which he has a personal interest," Gluck wrote in his appeal.
It is possible that Chief Justice Aharon Barak did not know of the lawsuit against German when he decided that Judge German has “no personal interest” in the case.
According to Gluck, Judge German didn’t mention the lawsuit against him in a written response he wrote to Barak.
“With all due respect, I think Barak made a mistake,” says Gluck. “It’s possible that if Barak would have known about the lawsuit against German, he might have decided differently. A judge’s neutrality is a basic assumption in the judicial system. I can think of no clearer case of conflict of interest. Our petition will not return Lilach, however, we believe that criticism against the judicial system should not be kept in the dark."
Israeli judges have an ironclad immunity against lawsuits, as do their British and American colleagues. But a ruling by the Jerusalem
District Court last year may open a slight crack in the door. In a case where a man sued the state for a wrongful arrest order, the judges decided that in cases of gross malpractice, the law does not prevent suing the state, as the judge's employer.
In yet another frustrating hurdle, Rotem's request to be exempt from paying the court-filing fee was denied without his attorneys being given a chance to respond to the prosecution's arguments. The fee must be paid before the case can be heard.
"Because Yaron (Rotem) has spend all his money on U.S. lawyers and private investigators and has had to leave his work to search for his daughter, he doesn’t have the money to pay the court filing fee,” says Yariv, who is handling Rotem's case pro-bono.
In the lawsuit against German filed in Tel Aviv District Court, Rotem's attorneys write: “The plaintive loves his daughter with all his heart and she is his whole world. When she was taken away from him, the plaintive lost everything he had and his life is not worth living. It is difficult to describe the suffering and the pain that he has undergone since his daughter was taken from him."
Tall and wiry, Rotem doesn’t seem like a man susceptible to overt shows of emotion. Even though a year has gone by, tears flood his eyes, an involuntary response to the painful memory, when he talks about his daughter's kidnapping.
He arrived Friday July 28, the day after she left, to pick Lilach up at the park near the Zahala apartment she shared with her mother. Thrown in the back seat of his car was a red and blue kite ready for assembly. Lilach had never flown a kite before and the day’s breeze was promising. Rotem looked forward to watching Lilach’s face light up when the kite would catch the wind and soar high above them—a nice dream.
Then began the nightmare. “I waited,” he says. “Normally they were half an hour late. But when it got to be an hour, I called Marina’s cellular phone. There was only an answering service. I had a bad feeling something happened. I went to all the parks in Zahala and said to myself that she probably left town for the weekend.”
Sunday he went to the police station. According to the police
computer, Lilach left Israel on a flight to Holland.
“ I thought I would get a heart attack on the spot,” says Rotem. “The blood drained from my face. I immediately drove to the family Court in Ramat-Gan to see how such a thing was possible. On the way I pulled the car over and cried.”
Due to Judge German’s gag order, it is not possible to publish the exact details of how Rotem’s ex-wife was able to take Lilach out of the country.
Rotem tells his story in the living room of his mother’s house in
Givat Chen. On the coffee table are albums filled with Lilach’s photographs. Outside, Lilach’s dog “Boomie,” tethered in the yard next to the lemon and orange trees, is barking. Lilach loved her dog and she loved picking fruit from the trees. Once she picked a lemon off the tree before it was ripe. “Glue it back to the tree, Abba,” she requested.
Rotem’s cellular telephone rings often during the interview. The people calling either have seen his web site, or the ubiquitous posters he plastered on telephone polls of a dark-haired little girl whose face is all huge brown eyes that piercing right into the heart. “We must bring Lilach home,” pleads the poster.
Rotem recounts the brief version of the story with the fluency acquired by constant repetition. Even so, each time, his voice vibrates with emotion.
Rotem, who up to the time of Lilach’s kidnapping was a successful marketing executive at the Egged Bus Corporative, quit his job and has since devoted his time to finding his missing daughter. He has set up a non-profit amutah - “The movement for Lilach’s Return to Israel,” under the auspices of “Horut Shava”, an organization, which promotes social and legal changes to give divorced parents equal rights to their children. He has filed appeals in both Israeli and U.S. courts, hired private detectives and personally searched for Lilach for a month and a half in the United States, until he depleted his financial resources.
He is asking the public to send Lilach’s website www.lilach.org as a chain letter around the world in the hope that someone, somewhere, might see Lilach’s photograph and recognize her. He is also asking the public for donations to mount a more extensive search.
“I feel helpless. Money is the fuel for this machine. We find a string (lead) somewhere, but by the time the local police does us a favor and looks into it, it’s no longer relevant. I am asking for help, even if only a symbolic sum. I have no choice but to ask.”
Rotem, a former IDF paramedic who was called up recently for reserve duty, has a hard time adjusting to a new reality in which his daughter could be anywhere in the world.
“I wake up and I can’t believe that Lilach is missing, that I may never see her again, or that when I do finally see her, she may not even remember me. It’s as if a limb from my body has been cut off,” he says
Yaron Rotem first saw Marina Belfer in the Tel Aviv University swimming pool in 1994. She was swimming without a cap about a meter away from him and he made some funny comment. He was studying for a master’s degree in economics. She was a third-year student in dentistry. She had made aliya from Moscow to Israel in 1990 with her mother, an ophthalmologist, and her married sister’s family.
“We were very much in love. I had a wonderful relationship with her family,” says Rotem. Lilach was born September 14, 1997. “It was the ultimate love at first sight,” says Rotem, who was present at his daughter’s birth. “When Lilach was born I understood that there are important things in life, and then there are the really important things. My daughter’s smile in the morning was priceless.”
The marital problems between Rotem and his wife worsened shortly after Lilach’s birth
“When I told Marina that I wanted a divorce, she said that if I divorce her, I would also be divorcing Lilach. I realized it was going to be a difficult divorce and decided to do it when Lilach was still a baby,” says Rotem.
Rotem underestimated the vitriolic level the dispute would reach.
Rotem’s voluminous legal files occupy two shelves in the offices of his lawyer. Marina hired eight different lawyers in succession. She filed a civil suit against a court-appointed psychologist who wrote an unfavorable report about her. In six different cases filed at the Family Court in Ramat-Gan the couple fought bitterly about everything from child support to visitation rights. There were numerous calls to the police as each side accused the other of violating court orders. Rotem claims his ex-wife did everything she could to sabotage his relationship with Lilach and was bitterly opposed to his visitation rights.
Her last lawyer, Nissim Shalem, with whom she broke contact three months before her departure, says his client struck him as an intelligent, cultured woman who knew who to behave in court and seemed respectful of the law.
“That is why what she did surprised and amazed me,” he says. Igor
Bengert, Rotem’s former brother-in-law, said in a telephone interview from Rockville Maryland that both Marina and Rotem were good parents.
“Once they started fighting each other I couldn’t believe the things they did to each other,” he said. “They are all guilty. Marina called the police. He called the police. I can’t tell you who was right. It was a big mess.”
Marina’s sister, and her family, left Israel for the U.S. about a month before Marina’s departure.
After his daughter’s kidnapping Rotem traced Marina’s sister to Rockville where she is working as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Inna Belfer was due to give birth and Rotem surmised that the sister and mother would remain nearby until the delivery.
Rotem wanted to pursue his ex-wife to the U.S. but found, to his chagrin, that two days before her departure Marina obtained an injunction barring him from leaving Israel. Ironically, she stated in her deposition that she is worried he might attempt to kidnap Lilach to the U.S.
It was only on September 9, a month and a half after his daughter’s kidnapping, that Judge German declared Dr. Marina Belfer-Rotem to be in contempt of court in not returning Lilach to Israel.
Due to the month and a half delay it was too late to find Lilach, says Stephen Cullen, a U.S. attorney specializing in kidnapping cases.
“Israel is way ahead of the game,” says Cullen, who has handled several Israeli cases, including Rotem’s. “I’ve seen how good Israel is at getting back their children. But somehow this case fell through the cracks. It will be extremely difficult to find them. Everyone who has looked at this case here is astonished that this woman was allowed to leave Israel with the child. She was clearly a flight risk and she had consistently ignored every court order. It’s a terribly sad matter.”
Inna Belfer, Marina’s sister, said in a telephone interview that her mother, sister and niece stayed in Washington until she gave birth on August 4th and then they disappeared.
“It’s easy to blame just my sister and my mother,” she says. “I don’t want to blame anyone. My mother made a very large sacrifice to leave everything behind and start all over again at age 64 at an unknown destination.”
Inna says she has called all their friends and acquaintances in
Israel and abroad, but no one had any information.
Rotem offers a theory as to why his ex-wife took off. “She wanted full control over Lilach,” he says. “She wanted to feel that Lilach was hers and hers alone. She was threatened by the fact that Lilach was attached to me and wanted to visit me. Maybe she was afraid that one day Lilach would want to come and live with me. When her sister left Israel maybe she felt there was nothing to tie her down here. She could have her ultimate revenge against me for divorcing her.”
Rotem speaks about his ex-wife in neutral tones devoid of anger.
He speaks highly of her intelligence and even seems proud of her success as a pediatric dentist.
“All the time I kept in mind that I once loved this woman and that she is the mother of my daughter,” he says. “I never spoke badly about her to Lilach. I would have married that woman 20 times over just to get Lilach.”
Rotem imagines and his ex-wife and Lilach have melted into some Russian emigree community somewhere, or perhaps returned to Russia.
During his many sleepless nights, Rotem has lots of time to imagine his reunion with Lilach one day.
“I imagine that I arrive with private detectives and find her. She suddenly sees me, shouts “Abba,” and runs to me. But I try to not think about it too much. It hurts. It’s been a year but it’s getting harder and harder every day. I miss her so much.”
It’s midsummer again and the fields around Givat Chen are alive with wildflowers. Rotem has kept the red and blue kite he bought a year ago still wrapped in the original packaging. It is difficult to predict how much dust it will collect before on some lucky, breezy day, Rotem will take his daughter to the beach to catch the wind.
Web site www.lilach.org
Telephone number 056 88-67-67
Donations to “The movement for Lilach’s Return to Israel” can be deposited to account number 266444, branch 757 Bank Hapoalim, Ra’anana.
The association for returning Lilach to Israel is operating
under the auspice of Horut-Shava
Our phone number is +972-56-88-67-67. (In Israel dial