Paul Kurzberg, an Israeli from Pardess Hanna, was in the office of his New Jersey moving company on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Like many Israeli movers in the New York area, Kurzberg, who was in his late 20s, was not legally authorized to work in the United States. But on Sept. 11, that thought was distant from his mind as he and his friends piled into a company van after the second plane hit the World Trade Center to find a better vantage point to photograph the historic terrorist attack.
It proved to be a critical mistake.
Caught in a traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge, which connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan, the Israelis hailed a police officer to ask directions to Brooklyn. Police pulled the five Israelis from the vehicle, drew their guns and ordered the men to lie on the ground, according to the Israelis' account.
It was the beginning of a nearly two-month ordeal, the Israelis said, that landed them first in a local jail and then in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn prison, subjected them to physical and verbal abuse and ended in their deportation to Israel.
Now, four of the Israelis are suing, demanding justice and compensation in a lawsuit filed Monday against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a host of wardens, police officers and corrections officers involved in their arrest and imprisonment.
"The infamous arrest of these young Israelis on Sept. 11 has been used by anti-Semites worldwide as 'proof' of Israel's involvement in the World Trade Center attack," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the Israeli lawyer representing the four Israeli plaintiffs.
"Our clients are seeking compensation for the harm they suffered in the Metropolitan Detention Center by prison officials," she said. "In addition, the lawsuit will serve as an important public forum to debunk the lie that Israel or the Mossad was behind the Sept. 11 attacks."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, alleges that the Israelis were arrested without probable cause, subjected to harsh and unreasonable conditions, penalized for trying to observe Jewish traditions, denied the opportunity to post bond, despite the fact that they posed no danger or threat of flight, and were held far longer than necessary.
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment, saying, "Our response would be filed in court." A Bureau of Prisons spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.
"I was in the hole for a month or so," Kurzberg, 30, said in an telephone interview from Israel. "To be in solitary for one month, you start thinking about lots of things, especially because you know you didn't do nothing and why did they put you here."
Kurzberg's comrades, including his brother, Silvan, Yaron Shmuel and Omer Gavriel Marmari, also are part of the suit.
The fifth Israeli imprisoned has expressed interest in the lawsuit but, as of its filing, hadn't yet joined it, Darshan-Leitner said.
The group's American lawyer, Robert Tolchin, a New York litigator, said the four waited to sue until now, shortly before the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations, because the political environment in the United States only recently began to support such lawsuits. Until now, he said, "the climate for litigation was not conducive."
The plaintiffs are not seeking a specific sum in damages.
Among their allegations, the Israelis claim they were denied use of prayer books for Yom Kippur, were harassed by guards who blamed them for the World Trade Center attack and were not given kosher food.
One says he had his eyeglasses taken away and could not see properly for two months. Another said he was thrown into a cell with an Algerian Muslim. The plaintiffs also spent more than a month in solitary confinement.
The way they were treated is not what America stands for," Tolchin said. "These people were arrested for things that people don't generally get arrested for. Their only violation was that they were working with improper immigration status.
Tolchin said the case likely could take years to make its way through the courts. In a similar case filed in 2002 by a group of Muslims, a judge has yet to rule on a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. Only if the judge doesn't throw out the suit can the Muslim plaintiffs begin to make their case.