‘V’ Is for Victory
The odyssey of Jack Tytell: An intimate look at the accused Jewish killer
I. The Accused
The safest place in Yosef Espinoza’s two-story, red-tile-roofed house in Shvut Rachel, a tiny Orthodox Jewish settlement in Samaria in the West Bank, is a windowless computer room that doubles as a fallout shelter with a 5-inch reinforced steel door. The room is airtight and has a ventilation system, a TV, and a couch. In case things get rough there is a get-away bag with a pair of binoculars and a U.S. Army-issued helmet that reads “Yosef Espinoza, Airborne Ranger.”
“Even if the Arabs rain fire on my house, I feel safer here than growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the 1970s,” Yosef says. Dark-skinned and born Jewish, he wears a black fisherman’s cap and speaks Spanish, English, and Hebrew. His faded blue jeans are caked with the reddish-brown dirt of the land on which he lives.
He would sit in this room, he explains, with his good friend Yaakov, watch Jet Li kick ass on the television, and critique the practicality of the actor’s fighting style. “Oh, it can’t be lights out with one punch,” Yaakov would say to Yosef. “He’d go out like this,” he’d continue, while illustrating the succession of blows required to bring down a real-life opponent.
“Yaakov was my homie from my home town,” Espinoza says of his friend Yaakov Teitel—born Jack Tytell in the United States—the accused Jewish terrorist, and Espinoza’s good friend and neighbor in the gated community of Shvut Rachel. Tytell was arrested on October 7, 2009, in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. A former student of the Akiva Hebrew Day School in Lathrup Village, Michigan, he was apprehended by the police and Shin Bet while hanging posters that praised that summer’s shooting of two teens in a Tel Aviv gay and lesbian community center. Since his arrest, Tytell has confessed to two counts of premeditated murder, three counts of attempted murder, and one count each of carrying a weapon, manufacturing weapons, manufacturing bombs, and incitement to violence. The crimes included in his reported confessions and charges filed in Jerusalem District Court include:
• The 1997 murders of two Palestinians, Samir Balbisi, a taxi driver in East Jerusalem, and Isa Jabarin, a shepherd near Hebron, while Tytell was visiting Israel on a tourist visa. (He returned to Florida until becoming an Israeli citizen in 2000.)
• Planting three land mines near Abu Gosh in 2001.
• Leaving a homemade bomb near an Arab family’s home near Ramallah in 2003.
• Setting out three bottles of poison-laced juice in a Palestinian village near the settlement of Eli in 2004.
• Starting a fire near the Beit Jamal monastery in August 2005.
• Placing a homemade bomb near the Eli police station, to deter security for the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem in November 2006.
• Placing a bomb near the Beit Jamal monastery in April 2007 that exploded and injured a Palestinian tractor driver.
• Causing a bomb to explode near a police car in Jerusalem.
• Hand-delivering a booby-trapped Purim gift basket to the home of a family of Messianic Jews in Ariel, severely injuring 15-year-old Ami Ortiz.
• Leaving a pipe bomb outside the home of Zeev Sternhell, a professor and winner of the Israel Prize, who was lightly injured by the explosion.
Two dominant accounts of Tytell’s personality emerged in the interviews I conducted in Israel and the West Bank with his friends, acquaintances, and family members. One described a young Orthodox high-school student who was known for his anti-Arab sentiments. The other portrayed a gentle family man who was devoted to his God and country. Even getting his name right has proven elusive: Some know him as Jack, others as Yaakov, and while his Akiva yearbook has his last name spelled Tytell, most media have taken to referring to him as “Teitel.” Elli Fischer, an Israeli reporter and translator originally from the United States, explained to me that the spelling “Teitel,” which is common in U.S. and English-language Israeli newspaper reports about his case, is due to an incorrect translation of “Tytell” from Hebrew back to English.
The violent crimes to which Tytell has confessed make him an anomaly in the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. While tramping through the West Bank, not once was I, a gentile, treated with violence, hate, or disrespect. I played basketball with young settlers, went grocery shopping with a mother of six, and hitched rides with settlers who treated me, a stranger, with hospitality and respect. Yet the relationship between Tytell’s actions and the community that he claimed to represent is a politically explosive one that cannot be easily erased by claiming that Tytell is a psychotic. Though his actions are clearly abhorrent to his former neighbors and schoolmates, he is also a product of certain fringe elements of the communities in which he lived his life and which set the psychological and practical context for his actions.
II. A Friend
Yosef Espinoza claims he only knew his friend as Yaakov—no last name, no background information. Yaakov was “the little baldy man” with a neatly trimmed beard. He never had sidelocks, and he seldom laughed. He apologized profusely for small things, like not visiting enough, or going to the store without asking if Espinoza needed anything. Espinoza says his friend, who is now 38, looked up to him not only because he was older—Espinoza turned 52 in March—but because of his special training in the U.S. Army, which he said gave him expertise in espionage and special operations. When Espinoza was taken into police custody shortly after Tytell’s arrest, the police and Shin Bet suspected Espinoza had guided Tytell through military training. Espinoza was arrested twice, spent a week in jail, and passed what he described as a 14-hour polygraph test, after which investigators released him.
Shvut Rachel, the settlement where the two men lived, is a 15-year-old hilltop community of less than 100 families with neither street signs nor house numbers. It is located in Judea and Samaria, which is known to most of the rest of the world as the occupied West Bank. Life here revolves around praying three times a day and observing Shabbat every weekend. Tytell—born in Miami in 1972—settled there after he became an Israeli citizen in 2000. He met and married Rivka Pepperman from Manchester, England, and had four children, all currently under 5 years old.
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
The settlement sits beneath Shilo, across the way from Eli off Route 60, a highway that runs north through the West Bank from Beersheba to Nazareth. During the drive to Shvut Rachel, my companion—a Christian settler—tells me that the settlers nicknamed part of this highway the “60 percent road,” stemming from the belief that one has a 60-percent chance of getting to where you’re going. “Right where I picked you up, two Jewish women were stabbed last week,” he explains.
In the face of such real dangers, it comforts Espinoza that the settlers live their lives according to the Torah on the land that God granted to the Jewish people. We stand together outside his house and smoke menthol Pall Malls while looking at the green hills, which are cut with jagged limestone. He has three barbeque pits in his backyard, appreciates a good knife, and loves a good conversation.
“Yaakov had this affinity for hand-held weapons,” Espinoza says. “He’d always be playing around with a stick, or knife. He’d come over and practice with his sling-shot, things like that, so if anyone saw the weapons they’d think no big deal because it was a stick.”
Once, Espinoza says, when the two were hanging out, he showed Tytell his knife collection, unimpressive blades he bought at Walmart to protect himself while hitchhiking along Route 60. A couple of days later Tytell presented Espinoza with a knife he had made by hand for him, melting down carbon and steel over a charcoal fire. Espinoza says that Tytell’s obsession with weapons seemed more about self-protection in a dangerous land than about killing. Both men loved the outdoors, knives, and martial arts. And both appeared to share in the American faith in starting over: Each moved to the West Bank to shed his former life and dedicate himself to the land and the Torah.
As Tytell got more comfortable with his friend he would frequently speak about the end of the world. “He was always preparing for doomsday, so to speak, the fulfillment of the prophecies,” Espinoza says as he lights another cigarette and leans against a dolly stacked with cardboard boxes labeled “cassette tapes” and “office supplies.” Tytell wanted to build a network of tunnels leading from each house sitting on the settlement’s sun-cracked dirt to a large shelter under the mountain, which would be fully equipped with supplies to deal with biological warfare or a terrorist attack.
Another thing about Tytell that Espinoza remembers is that he never used a watch to tell time. On Fridays, when the sun would start its descent behind the mountains, Tytell would look at the horizon and say, “Oh, it’s time for Shabbat, I have to go home.” He was trying to live his life like the Jewish Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Espinoza remembers. Espinoza says Tytell claimed that God sent him messages. “We must understand what God wants for each one of us,” Espinoza remembers Tytell saying. “And protect and uphold Jewish traditions.”
His friend also placed great importance on marrying inside the tribe, Espinoza says. Tytell became involved with what he called “protecting” Jewish women from dating non-Jewish men. Espinoza says Tytell told him one day about working for Yad L’Achim, a Jewish anti-missionary organization. According to news reports, Tytell told investigators that for five years he carried out five “rescue missions” a year for the group, though Yad L’Achim has strongly denied any association with Tytell. Espinoza says there would be a preset time and place, and Tytell and a few other rescuers would penetrate a village, armed and prepared to fight, and remove the Jewish girl. “If they want to go with an Arab, then they want to go with an Arab, that’s their problem,” Espinoza says he remembers saying to Tytell.
Tytell appears at a Jerusalem court on November 12, 2009.
CREDIT: Emil Salman/AFP/Getty Images
“Everyone is following their own truth, everyone has a little piece of the puzzle, and it’s their version of the truth,” my host tells me gently. We watch the sun dip under the mountains. I’m getting a little worried that the sun’s going down and I’m nowhere close to home. “Hopefully we will all get together one day and put away our differences,” Espinoza tells me. “But for now everyone has their own belief of what’s right.” He pauses and inhales a puff of smoke, contemplating his friend’s character, then he sees my glass is empty, apologizes, and fills it.
“He was prepared to get involved in any kind of ruckus if it so developed,” Espinoza says. “He had his gun with him and he felt if anything happened he was ready and if anything did happen, ‘I am doing it for God and Country,’ so to speak.” The night is chilly and we have no more cigarettes, so we decide to drink more beer inside. Most of Espinoza’s belongings are in boxes stacked on the floor, couch, and table. He tells me he’s moving down the block to a cheaper house tomorrow with his wife and his son.
Espinoza’s wife, a small, older woman wearing all black, makes me a snack of tuna salad on pita. I eat while she packs some belongings and her husband continues to talk. As the evening wanes and the bottles empty, Espinoza’s speech gets slower and less coherent, and I decided to ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask the entire time: “Did Yaakov do it? Is he a terrorist?”
My host slumps in his chair, droopy-eyed, and bounces around a few topics before he settles on the story of Joseph, which he begins to relate to me: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, he became the Pharaoh’s slave, was sent to jail on false accusations of trying to rape the Pharaoh’s wife after he refused to sleep with her, and was finally released after he predicted the Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph ruled Egypt with God’s blessing and made a good name for the Hebrews. Espinoza says that all of the Jewish patriarchs went through trials and tribulations before God blessed them. Moses was accused of killing an Egyptian, and then through him all of the Children of Israel were redeemed.
“We learn from the story of Joseph that everything is in God’s hands,” he concludes. “We don’t know for what reason, but God willing, it is for a higher purpose, and it will be good.”
I try to get him to be straight with me. “Do you think he—”
“Everyone goes through trials and tribulations,” Espinoza says. “Everything that we see as negative that happened, we’ll see as something positive in the end.”
“So, you think he did it, but it will be for the greater good of the Jews?”
“I answered your question with the story of Joseph,” Espinoza says, and it’s clear the conversation is over. “That’s how I answer your question.”
I realize it’s after 10 pm, and I have to get back to Jerusalem. We walk out of his house and down the steps to the road. He says under the streetlight is a good place to hitch a ride. “Just remember get a car that’s going to Jerusalem. You don’t want to need a miracle,” he says, and laughs darkly. I see two yellow eyes in the distance. Espinoza comes closer. He remembers one last thing about Tytell, a moment that should have been a red flag.
“He came over and looked at me intensely and asked, ‘What would you do if the government asked you to be an informant?’ ” Espinoza tells me. He believed at the time that his friend might have been trying to suggest that he was working for the Israeli government.
“I told him that if I ever found out that he was a traitor, a double-agent for the Arabs, that I would be the first person to put a bullet in his head,” Espinoza says with uncharacteristic seriousness. “If he was putting our community at risk, I’d be the first to put a bullet in his head,” he says again. “He never talked about that stuff again, and I guess looking back on it, it saved me. I have no idea what he was up to, and I didn’t want to know either.”
A dusty Fiat hatchback pulls up and stops. I open the back door, wave to Espinoza, and chug down the mountain with my ride.