An American dad is broke, unemployed and "weeks away" from being sent to prison in Israel, where he says he is being held against his will after being slapped with a $2.18 million (US$1.5m) bill for 21 years worth of future child support payments.
The man is one of what is believed to be thousands of foreign nationals barred from leaving the country under so-called stay-of-exit orders, commonly granted in divorce proceedings by a secretive system of family and religious courts that activists claim are heavily stacked against fathers.
The man, a former senior investment banker with Goldman Sachs, is officially barred from leaving the country until the year 9998 – one year earlier than Australian man Noam Huppert, 44, who has been "locked" in Israel since 2013.
The New Yorker wryly suggested the one-year difference was "perhaps a display of clemency" on the part of the Israeli court system, which he said acts "like a mafia".
"If you have relatives (in the country), they will put a lien on your parents' house," the told news.com.au.
"It's like the Farc guerillas in Colombia who kidnap people then suck the families dry for a decade or more. The difference in Israel is when they decide you've got no more money, they don't set you free."
The father-of-five, who has three children with his Israeli ex-wife and two in the US with a former girlfriend, has been trapped in what he calls "debtor's prison" for the past six months, after being ordered by a judge to return to the country for an in-person custody hearing in July 2021 – despite the fact that court proceedings in Israel were being conducted by video link at the time due to Covid-19.
The man had signed a custody agreement with his ex-wife in the New York Supreme Court in 2019, but was stripped of his rights by a Rabbinical court in Israel after agreeing to a "Get", or Jewish divorce.
He had temporarily returned to the US to see his two young children and elderly parents, but soon after his ex-wife requested, and was granted, full custody of their three children in Israel.
In response, he filed a Hague Convention lawsuit – a process by which parents can seek to have their children returned from another country – but the Israeli judge denied his request for a video conference.
The man says the judge warned that if he failed to return in person, she would dismiss his Hague petition with prejudice.
Upon his return, the judge dismissed his petition, ruling that his three children – all US citizens – would reside in Israel permanently, and slapped him with a no-exit order until he comes up with 21 years of future child support.
Without any income, and no family or friends in the country to act as guarantors, he has fallen behind on his child support payments – which he says, in a Catch-22, he would be able to meet if he were able to leave the country to attend work meetings with potential investors.
Until now he has been living on borrowed money from his parents and friends.
"They're going to come to arrest me soon," he said.
He has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his legal bills.
The man says he contacted the US Consulate for assistance, but was told the embassy considered it a "private domestic matter".
Advised that he may have more luck drawing attention to his case politically, he wrote to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Jerry Nadler pleading for help, but has received no response.
"I have been detained in the state of Israel – away from my family, US children, and my work – against my will ever since my return for the hearing," he wrote.
"There are no criminal or other legal proceedings or violations filed or pending against me. I have broken no laws. An Israeli family court judge not only ruled to retain my children in Israel but has imposed a 'block exit order' on me that expires in the year 9998 – a 7976-year detention sentence that I cannot leave to return to my home in New York. The outrageous nature of this ban is a case study in the rampant human rights abuses that occur regularly in Israel in family court matters."
The man told news.com.au he had started a WhatsApp group for people in a similar situation, which had now grown to 27,000 members.
"Every day all you see are posts from men saying, 'This judge took away my kids', 'This judge threw me in jail'," he said.
"I already have nine other fathers that are US citizens talking about their entrapment."
He said the maximum 9999 future date on the no-exit ban was "not a glitch".
"When Israel really wants to send a message they leave it blank," he said, adding one man had shared a list of all the other restrictions that had been imposed.
"He's not allowed to have a bank account, not allowed to carry a debit or credit card, not allowed to be a member of any corporate entity," he said. "Do you understand what that does? You're telling the man, 'Just kill yourself.'"
Marianne Azizi, an independent British journalist who has been campaigning to raise awareness of the issue, told news.com.au last month it was "almost impossible to ascertain" the exact number of men affected.
"I could not get numbers from any foreign embassy," said Azizi, who appears in the 2019 independent documentary film No Exit Order.
Azizi said she guessed there could be "hundreds" of Australians in the same situation.
"The family court system in Israel operates in darkness, shrouded in secrecy," The man said.
"(Family court records are) completely sealed. If you could access those records, you could find out how many foreign nationals – US, Australian, British – are currently being detained against their will."
The US State Department has a warning about no-exit orders in its Israel travel advisory.
In a section titled "court jurisdiction", it notes that civil and religious courts in Israel "actively exercise their authority to bar certain individuals, including nonresidents, from leaving the country until debts or other legal claims against them are resolved".
"Israel's religious courts exercise jurisdiction over all citizens and residents of Israel in cases of marriage, divorce, child custody, and child support," it says.
"US citizens, including those without Israeli citizenship, should be aware that they may be subject to involuntary and prolonged stays (and even imprisonment) in Israel if a case is filed against them in a religious court, even if their marriage took place in the United States, and regardless of whether their spouse is present in Israel."
The State Department adds that the US Embassy "is unable to cancel the debt of a US citizen or guarantee their departure from Israel when they face a bar from leaving the country until debts are resolved".
The man said for US citizens it was particularly egregious, as both countries are signatories to the Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support – in other words, America will enforce Israeli courts' child support rulings, including by garnishing wages.
"There is zero legal basis or grounds to remove the right to leave the country," he said.
He wants the US government to bring "political pressure" on Israel in negotiations for a visa-free entry agreement.
"My main message the US is, a country you consider one of your closest allies is imprisoning, arguably illegally, and violating the human and civil rights of countless of your citizens," he said.
"Your citizens are being illegally violated by being held unjustly and extorted."
- By Frank Chung, news.com.au