Israel’s Law of Return Lets Criminals Abroad Run From the Law

Israel routinely refuses to extradite its own citizens — including people who’ve flown there purely to escape justice. Its Law of Return rewards criminals who can claim a vague connection to Israel, even as it denies innocent Palestinians their homeland.

The so-called Tinder Swindler, who has evaded justice by fleeing to Israel, is expelled by police from Athens, Greece.(TORE KRISTIANSEN / AFP via Getty Images)

Last year, an award-winning Netflix documentary made a pop culture phenomenon out of Israeli con artist Simon Leviev — the so-called Tinder Swindler, a fraudster from Tel Aviv who made millions running what can only be described as a Ponzi scheme of women.

The story taps our unfortunate but apparently growing fascination with humans’ ability to elaborately defraud one another. The documentary details a life of luxury, lived on the dime of women Leviev meets on Tinder, persuaded to loan him money or take on debts for him, with the funds of one unsuspecting woman covered by the next. Leviev’s story is peppered with lies about his supposedly dangerous life as a diamond trader and the troubles he faces being Jewish, and is told through interviews and phone records of the women he led to believe were falling in love.

The documentary is compelling, if sinisterly so. Leviev now lives openly in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, despite still being wanted for his crimes by authorities in Britain, Sweden, and Norway. But behind his own status as a wanted man — indeed, in states that count as Israeli allies — is a persistent story of criminals using Israel as a hideout in which to evade justice elsewhere.

Extradition is often a controversial issue in both law and international relations. It was wrong of many states to baselessly extradite “terror suspects” to the extrajudicial human rights disaster that is Guantanamo Bay. The United States has been wrong not to extradite security agent Anne Sacoolas back to the United Kingdom to face trial for running down Harry Dunn as she drove the wrong way down a country road in Northamptonshire — in stark contrast to the UK’s planned extradition of Julian Assange to the United States for the noncrime of journalism.

But for all the myriad examples of abuse of extradition procedure, the claim by the Israeli state to offer a sanctuary in Palestine to all Jews has, by its very token of unconditionality, created a precedent for people suspected or guilty of crimes to quickly board a flight to Tel Aviv.

An “Unlimited” Right

At the heart of this tendency is the Israeli Law of Return. This law would itself be absurd enough in its discrimination for claiming a Jewish right to be in Palestine based on ancestral claims that are two millennia old, and made more so for denying a right of return to millions of living Palestinians driven out by the Nakba and further Israeli violence before and after 1948.

Some at least have realized that the state might not want to harbor criminals. The brief government of the second Israeli prime minister, Moshe Sharett, stipulated in a 1954 amendment to the Law of Return that the once “unlimited” right of Jews to become citizens of the Israeli state should exclude persons “with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.”

This, however, has not necessarily stopped those who posed a threat to public welfare elsewhere from subsequently seeking sanctuary in the Israeli state in Palestine.

Movement toward rationalizing the mostly “unlimited” right of Jews to Israeli citizenship took a backward step in 1978. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, out of concern that Jewish defendants could face antisemitism abroad, legislated against extraditions in favor of Jews having a right to be tried in Israeli courts instead. While societies around the world can doubtless be antisemitic, there is also hard evidence that judiciaries are racist against black, brown, and other minority defendants too, without these groups enjoying alternative recourse to trial in a state where they comprise the majority group.

Quite apart from the problematic and, by many definitions (including Zionist ones), antisemitic implications of so tying ultimate judicial authority over Jews to the Israeli state, the landmark case in the undoing of the 1978 amendment was that of American teenager Samuel Sheinbein. Along with his friend Aaron Benjamin Needle, he murdered Alfredo Enrique Tello in Maryland in 1997.

All three boys were only seventeen. Sheinbein led the murder, before he and Needle cut up and burned Tello’s remains to prevent his identification. Once the body was found and suspicions began to mount, Sheinbein’s father arranged for Samuel to travel to Tel Aviv and receive an Israeli passport. Needle killed himself in a US prison before facing trial. But in a mammoth legal case, the Israeli authorities — notwithstanding Sheinbein’s certain guilt — finally refused his extradition to the United States. Sheinbein was sentenced to twenty-four years in an Israeli jail, where he was afforded such luxuries as weekend breaks and granted multiple entreaties for more comfortable conditions. He finally died in a shoot-out with prison guards in 2014, just before becoming eligible for parole.

The case prompted a change in Israeli extradition law in 2005, undoing the obvious laxity of the 1978 legislation, so that a case so clear-cut as Sheinbein’s could not be repeated. But it remains a bitter truth that an Israeli law intended to prevent the extradition of Jews to face trial in potentially antisemitic states was in the end used by a US citizen of Jewish heritage to evade justice for the murder of a Latino man in America. Albeit a lesser injustice, it is also remarkable that Israeli citizens, blameless in this particular example of US violence, had to foot the bill for Sheinbein’s trial and incarceration.

Law Change

If the Sheinbein case prompted some changes, it arguably left much of the rot intact. Sheinbein’s father remains in Israel despite being wanted in the United States for helping his son flee after the murder of Tello. Aiding the escape was only a misdemeanor and so nonextraditable.

A more recent case, between Israel and Australia, is that of Malka Leifer, a Jewish woman convicted of scores of child sex offenses while running a Jewish school in Melbourne. Over a decade since Australian authorities first sought her return, the Israelis continued to refuse extradition, suggesting that Leifer was mentally unwell and unfit to stand trial. It was only as Israeli tabloids disclosed images of the normal, healthy life Leifer — much like the Tinder Swindler — was living in Israel/Palestine that Australian anger and diplomatic pressure mounted, finally resulting in Leifer’s extradition to stand trial for seventy-four charges of child abuse.

Legal proceedings in Australia mean Leifer will not stand trial for allegations of child abuse in the West Bank settlement where she lived thirteen years, and where the extrajudicial nature of Israeli occupation in Palestinian territory no doubt aided the culture of impunity that facilitated her crimes.

While Australian child abusers and a murder in the affluent suburbs of Maryland have grabbed headlines and Western diplomatic attention, it will come as little surprise that Jewish extremists targeting Palestinians also use Israeli territory to escape the law, often with fewer diplomatic efforts to see justice done.

As recently as January 2022, a French Zionist militant using Israel as a refuge to evade the law was sentenced in absentia in a court in Paris. Gregory Chelli was found guilty of committing concerted harassment campaigns against French Arabs, both Palestinian and non-Palestinian, in France. His modus operandi included Chelli make police reports against vulnerable Arab individuals, leading to detentions, raids, and — in the case of one elderly Arab man whom Chelli cruelly targeted — death by heart attack. Joseph Ayache, another French Zionist, was sentenced to jail in Paris in 2016 for organizing attacks against Muslims and Palestinians, but also escaped justice by quickly boarding a flight to Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the gravest outstanding miscarriage of justice involved two Zionist extremists, US-Israeli citizens Baruch Ben-Yosef and Keith Fuchs, hiding out in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There they remain wanted for questioning over the killing in Santa Ana, California, of Palestinian American anti-racist activist Alex Odeh, murdered in 1985 by a bomb attack on his office. Odeh had worked energetically, to the chagrin of his killers, against anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism in a United States that was then barely beginning to acknowledge its existence, much less act against it. Even in the wake of his death, representatives of the Jewish Defense League, with which Fuchs and Ben-Yosef have links, felt comfortable slandering Odeh as a terrorist. When a statue was erected in his memory in Santa Ana, it faced repeat vandalism.

An FBI reward of $1 million remains unclaimed for information leading to the killing of Odeh. Awareness of the case has gone as high as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, like so many Israeli figures, has dutifully stonewalled inquisitors.

There is some small history of Israeli authorities understanding the danger of Americans entering Palestine to evade domestic laws or commit crimes. Perhaps the most prominent example is that of US Jewish supremacist Victor Vancier, a leading figure in the Jewish Defense League implicated in multiple plots and attacks in the United States, including a deadly 1982 arson attack on Tripoli Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. The Israeli state refuses Vancier entry to Palestine, correctly adjudicating that this man — a product of a relentless US culture of violence and perpetrator of repeated terrorist attacks against targets deemed hostile to his Zionist agenda — would be a threat to the already fractured social order in Palestine.

As a documentary, The Tinder Swindler provided an especially watchable portrait of humans at their worst. But the story of Simon Leviev barely scratches the surface of the injustice of criminals evading prosecution under the shelter of Israel, a state with a foundational willingness to play fast and loose with the law.