‘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.
Next: The Americans
III. The Americans
On May 5, the psychiatrist in Jerusalem’s Sha’ar Menashe psychiatric hospital, where Tytell has been under evaluation for the past six months, submitted a written evaluation to the court, finding that Tytell’s mental state makes him unfit to stand trial. The psychiatrist requested a planned June hearing be postponed until today, July 14. Tytell will remain under evaluation until he is deemed “fit.” Tytell believes himself to be an “emissary of God” who had dreams in which he was commanded to commit acts of violence and terror, or else he would die. He was a man on a mission to protect the good Jews from the evil others: Arabs, homosexuals, Messianic Jews, and leftist Jews. To Tytell, his odyssey was a proclamation of the truth of God’s promise to the Jews. When Tytell entered the Jerusalem courtroom in December 2009 he did not stand for the judge nor acknowledge the charges against him. Instead he signaled “V” for victory and made only one statement in court: “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. I have no regret.”
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
Some of those close to Tytell do not see him as an aberrant psychotic, though they are not quite sure what he is, or who—if anyone—might be to blame for not predicting his crime spree. “He is not insane,” Ed Codish, who was a teacher at the Akiva Hebrew Day School in Michigan while Tytell was a student, tells me. “He’s just horribly and terribly wrong.” When the news broke of Tytell’s arrest, Ed’s wife Susann’s former students at Akiva, with whom she keeps in contact on Facebook, wrote on each other’s walls: “We should’ve seen this coming!”
“Jack said when he grew up he wanted to go to Israel and kill Arabs,” Ed Codish says, echoing his wife, as we sit in his living room in Pardesiya, a town three miles east of the coastal city of Netanya, to which they retired. In their American life, the Codishes taught at Akiva, where Tytell was a student in the 1990s until his family moved away during his senior year. Ed taught Jewish history and English, and Susann taught Hebrew and Judaic studies. Tytell, Ed Codish says he remembers, would march the hallways stating how he wanted to kill Arabs in the Holy Land. He would shoot an invisible M-16 while pretending to be in battle, blaze the enemy in a fire trail, or jump over tripwires that only existed in his head. When in class he would doodle tanks and guns in his notebook.
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
“There was absolutely no surprise when we saw him in the news,” Ed Codish says as he pushes his glasses, held together with medical tape, further up the ridge of his nose. “I have no doubt that he is guilty.”
Tytell’s parents gave their son an itinerant childhood balanced by a strong connection to Orthodox Judaism and to the military. Mark, his father, was a dentist in the U.S. Navy, and the family relocated every few years to a different Orthodox community in a new city: Kendale Lakes, in Miami, Florida; Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia; West Rogers Park, in north Chicago; and Oak Park, outside Detroit. In Tytell’s senior year in high school the family moved to Athens, Greece, and then back to Virginia and then to Florida.
By that time, Tytell’s views had apparently gelled. Ed Codish says that everyone in the school knew Tytell hated Arabs and wanted to kill them. “He was not secretive about his feelings,” Codish says. But teachers did not speak to Tytell about his racist outbursts. “He was not one to confront about his ideas. He was intimidating and never gave the impression that he was listening,” Codish says. As Codish is talking, I can almost envision Tytell leaving the United States at 25, setting out to exact righteous vengeance for the Arab attacks against Jews in the Holy Land.
Although many of Tytell’s fellow students refused to speak to me on the record, they gave descriptions very similar to those given by the Codishes. And a look through Akiva Hebrew Day School’s class of 1990 yearbook verifies the profile of the young Jewish boy as a weapon-obsessed character with violent urges. On its first page is a drawing of the school bordered by the students’ names with personalized icons next to each one. On the right-hand corner Jack Tytell’s name is drawn with a picture of a tank. Tytell’s senior portrait is neat and conservative. He’s wearing a white suit and a striped tie and sports an easy smile that is made a bit less welcoming by his off-centered eyes. Underneath his portrait is a quotation, signed anonymous, that reads, “Akiva is like a bottomless pit, the misery is endless.” On the page after his portrait is a collage of photos of Jack as a teenager. In one picture he crouches in an athletic stance wearing a bush hat camouflaged with foliage. His face is under a gas mask, and he clutches what looks like a machine gun with his finger on the trigger. His other hand squeezes the barrel, pointed at the camera. On a page titled, “Last Will and Testament,” where students wrote what they would want for their last day, Tytell asked for “an Uzi and a grenade, [teacher] Rabbi Lopin’s home address in Seattle and a Valium.”
Tytell’s odyssey from the United States to Israel, from an Orthodox community in Miami, to Ben-Gurion Airport, to Jerusalem, past a few military checkpoints, north on Route 60, and up the hill to Shvut Rachel, is not unique, and according to Ed Codish, neither is his xenophobic mindset. “I know many people like him, and there are many more,” the former teacher says seriously and with a noticeable sense of shame. While only a small minority of Jews who make aliyah from the United States are radicals, Codish suggests, they are notably overrepresented among the handful of settlers who have urged the expulsion of all Palestinians from the West Bank and who have committed acts of extreme violence.
It’s Friday afternoon and Susann Codish is preparing for the Sabbath. She wears a thin-threaded orange shawl over her hair, a long denim skirt, and rainbow stockings. She is making four loaves of egg-glazed challah. A rambunctious chocolate Lab named Ziggy is crazed by the smells left over from breakfast, and a sly Siamese cat named Loki meanders in and out of the room. A blue-eyed granddaughter sits in a chair laughing at Ziggy’s madness and is delighted by the fact that I don’t mind when she flings eggs onto my notepad.
“In Jerusalem it’s all about how this prophet walked here, this priest built this, or Jesus spoke here,” Susann says as she paints more glaze on the braided dough. In Pardesiya things are different. “I’d prefer to think about the future, and I think that’s why a lot of Jews come to Israel, to ensure a future and forget about the past.” She puts the glazed dough in the oven and picks up a metal bowl and starts to knead another batch.
“I remember he had an intense stare, I’d always make a point to put my eyes to the ground when we crossed paths. I’ll never forget that stare,” she says as she keeps her rhythm; she kneads the sticky beige clump four times and flips it over, kneads four times and flips. “Who knows? Maybe his eyes are windows into his soul.”
“What Jack is accused of is right there with the Jack I know,” she says distractedly while molding the dough. She tells me that Tytell’s views are not his alone but rather representative of a minority of Jews who believe God does not want Arabs to live on the land of the Jews. Tytell may have been a solo operator, she says, “but, psychically he had a gallery of supporters. He was doing things that people want to do, but he had the balls to do it.”
Susann Codish says she did not feel responsible for not doing anything about Tytell’s behavior as a teacher. However, she felt a huge responsibility while teaching the Torah, molding the minds of young Jews while conveying the word of God. “What if I got it wrong? That’s very heavy. It’s the word of God, you can’t mess that up,” she says. When I ask her if Tytell’s anti-Arab views were shaped at Akiva, she says that most teachers did not support killing Arabs. But she gives me the name of someone who she says was close with Tytell and supported his violent racist views at the school. Later, I call that person and mentioned Tytell’s name. The person declined to talk about their relationship and then hung up.
Hani Balbisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who lives in East Jerusalem, hasn’t worked a minute past sundown in 13 years. He picks me up on Nablus Road in Jerusalem’s American Colony at 5 in the afternoon. He starts driving before I shut the door. He takes the turns at a screeching speed. He says we have only an hour. Akram, his father, told his son he would disown him if he worked past dusk. Balbisi is middle-aged, married, and a father of four. “‘You are not my son if you work at night,’” Balbisi remembers his father saying a couple weeks after he started to drive again.
Tytell flashes a victory sign prior to the start of his trial at the Jerusalem District Court on December 9, 2009.
CREDIT: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
In 1997, between 8:00 and 9:30 in the evening, according to police records, a man hailed Samir Balbisi, Hani’s brother, at Damascus Gate. Night had fallen. The white stones on the gate were bright, and the sky was black as the vendors packed up and food fell from their carts. The taxi drivers stood outside their cars, smoked cigarettes, and drank Turkish coffee out of clear plastic cups. The man who’d hailed the cab said he was a tourist. He asked to go to the Holy Land Hotel in West Jerusalem. It would be about a 20-minute ride from the Old City, and Balbisi would make a pretty shekel. The man asked about the weather, maintained light conversation. The man asked where he was from and Samir answered he was an Arab, born in Haifa. Soon they approached the man’s destination. The man then pulled out a Glock and shot Samir once in the back of the head from behind the driver’s seat. The bullet exited Samir’s face underneath his left eye; the side-view mirror stopped the bullet. The man got out of the taxi and got into his getaway car, which he had parked at the hotel earlier, and drove away. Jack Tytell has reportedly confessed that he killed Samir to avenge Palestinian suicide bombings.
“If the court is good they will put him in the prison all his life. If he goes to an Arab court, they will kill him like my brother and he will know what it means for the Arabs to kill,” Balbisi says to me in English. His face looks like it was just slapped. “He killed a person,” he says. “Now I need his father and sons to know what it feels like for what he did to us.”
Hani Balbisi is a slightly plump Palestinian whose body fits his seat like a tailored suit. From his position he can efficiently drive, shift, and handle money and the meter quickly. He can downshift his white Skoda sedan, swerve if need be, or honk when necessary. His eyes are friendly, but stuck in a far away stare, and they sit neatly underneath a four-inch scar on his right eyebrow. Crows feet sit deep like dry riverbeds at the edge of his eyes. There is a strain in his voice as he says that he has handed the wheel of revenge and punishment over to God. “I am not the God, it is not my job to punish,” he says. “The Jew will be punished not by me, but by God.”
There is a barbershop across the street from where we have parked. I can hear the chchchchchch of the clippers as they snip hair. The patrons talk as they turn their heads from side to side, to see if the barber did a good job.
“He will not go paradise, but hell,” Balbisi says and cuts the engine. Samir, who was in his early 20s when he was murdered, was the favorite son out of the eight Balbisi brothers. He didn’t have to work as much as the others because his father wanted him to concentrate on his studies. When he died, Samir was a year from finishing his engineering degree at Jerusalem College.
The last time Balbisi saw his brother was that June day, at around 3:30 in the afternoon. Samir had just come home from a test and saw that Hani was very tired. He said he would take the taxi out that night so his brother could rest. Samir Balbisi told his brother that was the last night they were going to drive the taxi, because when he got back, they would make plans to start their own engineering business. The brothers would design and build houses and buildings and never drive taxis again.
“It was all ruined,” Hani Balbisi says with a distantly angry voice. “It was going to be his last night ever driving the taxi.”
Large trucks rush past us as we sit and talk about Samir and the Jew. A motorcycle rushes past and sets off a car alarm. Birds chirp from the trees. Hani’s white Skoda shines in the sunset. His taxi is meticulously clean, like the car has never seen a dusty road or a sandstorm. Balbisi points out that we are parked down the block from the Garden Tomb, where Jesus lay dead for three days, wrapped in a white robe, before he was resurrected.
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
“I’d like to see him in the prison for the rest of his life, not a couple of years, but for all his years. I would like for his father and brothers to know what it is like to lose a brother, to feel the same thing me and my brothers and father and mother feel. The Jew must die like my brother died,” Balbisi says again, showing no forgiveness. He is a simple man who believes that good Arabs go to paradise and bad Jews go to hell. He also believes all settlers are bad Jews.
“Do you miss your brother?” I ask Hani.
“What does ‘miss’ mean?” he answers. “Do I miss, miss what my brother?” he asks.
“How have your parents been affected by Samir’s death?”
“My mother, she cried for four hours when she heard the news,” Hani says. “Then she forgot what happened.” His mother, he explains, handles her son’s death through denial—so much so that, if I were to ask his mother what happened to Samir, she would say “I don’t know.” His father Akram hasn’t worked in over 10 years; he sits on the verandah of the family’s home in Haifa and smokes cigarettes. “He couldn’t handle driving the taxi and thinking about Samir all day,” Balbisi tells me. Sometimes, he adds, his father calls in a frantic mood and asks Hani to come over quickly. He races over to Haifa and asks what’s the matter. Akram says that nothing is wrong and if he wants he can leave. “I ask, ‘Father, what are you thinking about?’ ” Hani says, but his father never answers. When Hani went to the morgue to pick up Samir’s body, he fainted.
“Would you ever want to see Jack?” I ask him.
“See him? Why would I want to see him?” Hani’s face is slightly gnarled in disgust. “My father saw him in court, but I’d rather look at the animals all day than see him. At least the animals have a heart.”
Balbisi thinks there is a certain victory in the story for his brother’s death. Samir is a “shahid” whose place in paradise is promised; he was killed for being a Muslim. Hani’s second son is named after Samir. Samir will live and grow with a strong name. His peaceful demeanor, he says, is a certain victory over the attack. His nation has lost one, but gained four. Instead of spilling blood, he says, he has created more Palestinians.
Next: A Good Father
V. A Good Father
Dassi Krief tells me that she tried to quit smoking for her husband, but, whenever tragedy falls on her family—and it falls often—she reaches for her one and only crutch: the blue steel-grey smoke. “In hindsight, he had some obsessions,” Krief says. “He might have been a weird person, maybe he is, but he is a nice person.” She remains calm while talking about the possibility that her sister is married to a killer. “As normal beings, not mental doctors, we are not supposed to see these things,” she says, referring to her and her family’s inability to see Jack Tytell for who he is. She is a dam protecting a flood plain, which is Rivka, Tytell’s wife.
“If we met a man who we didn’t like and was not a good daddy, it wouldn’t be anything but the rest of a bad story,” Krief says as she stands upright and elegantly rests her left elbow on her left hip. She pulls the cigarette from her lips, the smoke trails while words follow, “But it all feels like a bad dream. I cannot believe it in my heart.”
Handout photo provided by the Israeli Police on November 2, 2009.
CREDIT: GSS via Getty Images
We are meeting at the Jerusalem central bus station, after passing through metal detectors, a luggage scanner, and riding up the escalator. We were supposed to meet at her home in Ma’ale Shomron in the West Bank, but Krief got cold feet and almost canceled the interview, before finally agreeing to one hour at a café on the second floor of the bus station. Everyone around us just went through a metal detector before a security guard dove elbow deep in our bags. Teens walk with cellphones pressed against their ears, mothers walk with children pressed against their bosoms, Orthodox men stop what they are doing to pray, fatigued IDF soldiers laxly sling M-16s on their shoulders as they wait for a bus back home.
Krief thinks that the accusations are made up. Tytell never had a steady job, he was hard to talk to and often seemed distracted, but he was brilliant with the computer, could fix any problem, and was taking an online desktop publishing course. He never finished the course, nor did he get a job. But he was gentle, generous, and Jewish, so nothing else really mattered.
At 29, she says she’s too old and rational to trust in hope. She says the accusations against her brother-in-law cannot have been conjured out of thin air, but she is still in a state of disbelief. “I think everyone is falling on him, accusing him of all the unsolved crimes in Israel,” she says. She takes a sip from her water bottle and removes her pink lace headband to let her wavy hair cascade. She folds the lace in her hands. “But, then again, it all can’t be for nothing, that’s my rational thinking,” she says. “But in my heart I will never believe it.”
A year ago Krief was in desperate need of money. When her sister phoned and asked her how she was doing, Krief mentioned that she needed 2,000 shekels (about $535) to make ends meet. The next night there was a knock at the door, and her brother-in-law was standing there holding a white envelope. He handed her the envelope and said, “Don’t say anything.” Inside was 2,500 shekels. “He drove almost two hours to give me money he didn’t have,” she says with a hopeful stare. “That’s the generous man we knew.” The Jack Tytell who was portrayed as a heartless killer in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post was an evil man with a face she did not recognize. The man she knew was a nice person, a strong man, and a gentle father who looked out for everyone’s safety. He rushed to help Moshe Avitan, a brother-in-law and neighbor in Shvut Rachel who was shot by an Arab on Route 60 near their settlement. He taught Krief’s husband martial arts so he could protect himself. When he got up to go to the bathroom, he would apologize.
“From what I knew, Rivka and Yaakov were happy and in love on top of a mountain,” she says before we part. The last time she saw Tytell was two days before he was arrested last October. Avitan had just got home from the hospital, where he was expected to die from the shooting on Route 60. They were singing a song from the Haggadah, which Krief wrote out for me in Hebrew: “And God stood up for our fathers and for us. Not only one rose against us to destroy us. In every generation many rose against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed is He, saved us from their hand.” Everyone was crying except for Tytell.
Next: The Enemy Within
VI. The Enemy Within
Seven surveillance cameras are trained 24 hours a day on the Ortiz family’s third-floor apartment in the West Bank city of Ariel. The Ortizes are convinced that other Jews hate their kind of Jews, who were born Jewish and continue to observe many Jewish customs but believe that Jesus is the Messiah sent by God.
Every morning while he drinks his coffee, David Ortiz carefully watches the surveillance footage from the night before. When he is out of town for business he scans the footage on the Internet. While the family sits and watches television, a quarter of the screen is dedicated to the camera monitors. Any suspicious person, especially a Jew with a beard, is watched with fear. Their 5-inch steel front door is a shield. Once out of the door they carefully check for translucent tripwires that might trigger a bomb, for thumb-thick explosives that would blow off a leg with ease, or suspicious packages that would rip holes through their Jesus-loving bodies. David Ortiz gets on his hands and knees and meticulously checks under his car before he takes a ride.
His family is not paranoid, he says. They are just doing what they have to do to survive. Their routine is obsessive, but they believe the precautions are prudent rules that protect their lives and ensure another bomb does not shake their household.
On March 20, 2008, on the eve of Purim, a man hand-delivered a gift basket. When Ami Ortiz, David’s 15-year-old son, opened the red cellophane wrapping on the kitchen table, the basket exploded. Every window in the house shattered from the shock wave. Shrapnel ripped through the walls and ceiling and mutilated Ami’s 6-foot-6-inch tower of a body. Nails, glass, and safety pins severed three toes, cut through his neck (just missing his jugular), broke two ribs, collapsed one of his lungs, sliced chunks off his quadriceps, and for a few moments made him deaf and blind.
In a confession, Tytell said he delivered the booby-trapped Purim basket because he knew the Ortiz family believed in Jesus. The bomb’s force was the most powerful and deadly homemade explosive he had ever rigged. He told police interrogators that the explosive was meant to kill David, a Messianic rabbi who leads a congregation of 50 Messianic Jews and who strives to convert as many Orthodox Jews as possible to accept Yeshua, Jesus, as the one and only savior of the chosen people.
David Ortiz is a soft speaker. His voice is so gentle and light that it almost qualifies as a whisper. He was born a gentile in Puerto Rico and raised in Brooklyn, where Orthodox Jewish employers taught him the Talmud. In 1985, he moved to Israel with his Jewish wife, Leah, and their family. He says he was scared while living in Brooklyn, “You didn’t know who was going to kill you for your wallet,” he says as the security camera’s monitor flashes to the parking lot three floors under us. “At least here I know exactly who wants to kill me and why.” He says his neighbors, mostly Orthodox Jews, dislike him for believing in Jesus. They tried to have him kicked out of town, but the mayor refused to evict the group on grounds of its beliefs. Posters with David Ortiz’s name, picture, and address were pasted on every bus station from Ariel to Tel Aviv.
Tytell told investigators that he studied the family for months. He knew their schedule, he knew who would be home when, and when the house was vacant. He knew about the cameras, even the pinky-sized one in the hallway next to the door, covered with plaster, nearly invisible.
Unfortunately, Ami Ortiz did not watch the surveillance tape before he opened the Purim basket. In the security video of that fateful day, a man appears at around 11:16 in the morning walking up the stairs wearing gloves, a mask, and covering his mouth and face with a white towel. He clutches the red cellophane-wrapped basket, bends over the wooden gate at the top of the stairs, lightly places the gift on the ground, and leaves.
Strangely, the only thing Tytell was afraid of, according to David Ortiz, was his family being sued. In court Ortiz tried to hand Tytell a civil suit of 2 million shekels. “He wouldn’t look me in the eyes,” Ortiz tells me in an elevated whisper. “He was so ashamed. He never believed we’d judge him, people who he thought to be wastes of life, were now judging him.” We sit drinking coffee in the living room, just a couple feet away from the blast site in the kitchen. “I was able to catch his eyes for a second, I saw an assassin, I saw a man who doesn’t understand Israel. He’s just a foot soldier who knows only the targets to hit.”
Contrary to reports from the police and Shin Bet, David Ortiz believes Tytell is a professional assassin, working for a group. He even believes that Tytell’s trademark, the “V” sign for victory, is a signal to his followers, which says, “Continue without me.”
Still, Ortiz has forgiven his son’s assailant. “Let’s say this: I will have to forgive him,” he says. “If Jesus died for me, Jesus died for him, too.” He opens his Bible and shows me a picture of Tytell holding his own son on his lap. Ortiz and his wife dedicate daily prayers to Tytell and his family, they pray for Jack to know Jesus as his personal savior and be redeemed. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to pay for his sins,” Ortiz says, “but I pray that God has mercy on him.”
But forgiveness is not just for Jesus to do; it is also a form of therapy and healing. “If you do not forgive, you become a victim twice. Resentment and hate will ruin your immune system and your will to live. You become bitter, angry, suspicious, you stop being human.” Ortiz loses his train of thought as the camera catches a figure wearing a black hat and a black knee-length coat who stops and looks over his shoulder. He decides the man is a neighbor and continues. “After the attack, we knew we had to defend ourselves very quickly, and our weapon of choice was forgiveness. We told Ami he had to forgive.”
They decided not to move because God told them they were not to leave Ariel. The attack has been used to exult the name of Jesus, Ortiz says. Since the explosion they have received 4,000 letters, from China, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Canada, Korea, and the United States. But the most touching letters, David says, were from Jews all around the West Bank and Israel condemning the attack against Ami. Some Jews have even accepted Jesus as their savior, Ortiz says with a gentle smile.
“Staying here in Ariel is not courageous,” he says. “We have to die anyhow. If you’re afraid, you die every day.” He shows me the table where the bomb exploded. It looks like a surfboard, from which a shark took a great big bite. David told me that when Ami was brought to the hospital, the doctors gave him little chance of survival. The Hebrew word David used to describe the state his son was in is anush, which means the soul is leaving the body. Ami was put in a medically induced coma. When he was brought out of it, eight days later, the Ortizes saw a miracle. According to David, the doctors proclaimed to Ami, “You are born again.” (A representative from the Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, where Ami was hospitalized, was unable to contact Ami’s doctor by press time.)
Ami Ortiz is now the tallest student in his school and basketball league. He is all arms and legs and scars racing up from his severed toes all the way up to his neck. His basketball sits near him at all times, ready for a pick-up game. He is a pure teenager with a voracious appetite. He devours two plates of baked chicken and rice before he starts talking. His fingers fumble with the fork and knife, which are tiny in his lanky fingers. He carefully removes the chicken’s skin and places it in discarded clumps on the side of his plate.
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
When I ask to see his wounds, he unbuttons the sides of his basketball pants to his upper thigh and shows me his shin, where doctors peeled off strips of skin to cover the exposed muscle and bone high on his thighs, chest, and neck. His skin is shiny and lumpy with scar tissue, and the skin covering his wounds resembles a small piece of cellophane plastic wrap stretched over a large steak. After 12 operations and four more to go, he is still the fastest kid in school, and he can still dunk a basketball.
“Jack is a normal person,” the teenager says, as he buttons up his rip-away pants. “He doesn’t have horns on his head, or red eyes, but inside he is not human. He’s not crazy. He believes what he believes and does what he thinks he has to do. He’s a very smart guy, but he uses it for evil.”
On a day-to-day basis, Ami Ortiz is still scared. The blast has left him shaken and traumatized, but he tries to live his life like a regular teenager. His faith has helped him look forward and find meaning in his injuries. The meaning of the attack, he believes, is to exalt God’s name and bring more people to know his son. Every week tour buses filled with Christians stop in Ariel, to see the family who almost died for Jesus. “There is probably more to God’s plan, and I will live to see it,” Ami concludes as he leaves to go play a round of hoops.
Next: ‘V’ Is for Victory
VII. ‘V’ is for Victory
The dingy plywood walls of cubicle number 20 in the Internet café on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem are the color of dirty pig’s skin. The owner of the Internet café told me Cubicle 20 is where Tytell sat almost every week. It was here that, according to reports, he allegedly typed emails to the Ortiz family, telling them his name was Daniel Ivgeny and he was interested in their Messianic services. Tytell would sit, resting his fingers on these black keys, worn down and caked with brown dirt, and stare into the white light of the screen and feel the distracted drone of a fast Internet connection and the buzz of caffeinated oxygen in a stuffy room. I am sitting in the technology pod, breathing in the sand-filled air, and I stare, hoping for a metaphysical connection that will help me understand this man and the nature of the evil that he brought with him. But nothing happens.
Instead I think back to a conversation I recently had with a man named Reuven. We were standing together at the edge of a settlement called Elazar in the Gush Etzion region of the Judean Hills. He pointed to the neighboring settlement, Betar Illit, where Mark and Dianne Tytell, Jack’s parents, reportedly live, and we watched the lights turn on as the sky grew darker.
“God told us to take the hills, and as you see that’s what we are doing,” Reuven said, pointing to the golden light perched upon the rolling mountains. “He who controls the mountains, controls the valleys.” He is clearly not crazy. Yet it is also clear that he regards his presence here as a kind of warfare.
Two days before, I had asked Michael Tobin, a Jerusalem-based psychologist, if he thinks everyone he meets here is convinced God spoke to them 30 minutes ago. He had laughed and said that in his entire career he had treated only one man who spoke like Tytell —who spoke about God commanding him to eliminate sodomites— and that person ended up going to the United States, where he was eventually convicted of murder.
I asked Tobin whether in a world of failing truths, did Judea and Samaria become a magnet for Jack Tytell’s dark matter? Did geography, and the absolutist values of the community that he saw himself as protecting, activate something inside the man that might have remained dormant in a less-pressurized place? Tobin, who is also a settler, was bothered by my question. Very educated individuals who are devoted to the land are attracted to the settlements, he said. He picked up his teacup and carried it to the sink as he thought out loud.
“Is this a place that attracts dark matter?” the psychologist said. “I don’t think so, but you never know. If anyone came to me saying they wanted to do these terrible things he’s accused of, I’d go right to the police.” He paused. “Yaakov is not an example of Jerusalem Syndrome. This is not a cute harmless man who thinks he is Jesus and his donkey is tied up at Jaffa Gate. He is a disturbed and dangerous man who will go to his grave at peace with himself for what he has done in the name of God.”
Will Yakowicz is a writer based in New York.