One day when M was a little boy living with his parents in California, they visited a park in Los Gatos. M got on his bike at the top of a very steep hill and before his parents could stop him, he set off down the slope, pedaling furiously. “I’d say he was going 80 kilometers an hour,” his father, G, recalls.
Hurtling downwards, M rode directly into a pillar. By accident? “No,” says G. “Deliberately.”
The ground shook; everyone in the park looked up in shock. M was thrown off his bike and went flying through the air. “It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed,” says G.
Was he trying to kill himself? “No,” says G again. “You have to understand. He has no concept of danger. He didn’t even cry after that crash. This is not a normal child.”
“What a combination: a brain tumor and autism,” says M’s mother, S, in a tone of abject misery and despair.
I am sitting with G and S at a table in their living room in Ashkelon. Their apartment is small, neat and spotlessly clean. Spread out in front of us are some of M’s map drawings — “the only thing he ever drew is maps,” says S. There’s a pile of medical records and studies, including a diagnosis from Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital setting out M’s “specified pervasive development disorders.” A multi-frame with photographs of M over the years — a beautiful blond-haired little boy with what looks like a slightly larger than usual head. And an MRI of M’s brain showing what his parents say is a tumor at the foramen of Monro — the source, they believe, of all his misfortune.
But not just his misfortune.
For the past two years, from his little bedroom adjacent to where we are now sitting, M is alleged to have wreaked relentless international havoc. According to prosecutors in the United States and Israel, where a staggering array of charges have been filed against him in the past few days, M, now 18 years old, made not dozens or hundreds (as originally reported) but thousands of sinister calls from here, day after day, week after week, month after month, to schools, hospitals, shopping malls, law enforcement agencies. He warned that bombs had been planted, that he was about to carry out shootings, that children had been taken hostage and would be executed. He targeted institutions in the US, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Scandinavia. Schools and institutions were evacuated, cops called, premises searched. On a single day, December 16, 2016, he made more than 80 calls to schools in Australia and New Zealand.
He telephoned hoax threats to dozens of airlines and airports, prompting emergency landings and the scrambling of fighter jets. He dealt in drugs and weapons sales online, allegedly; ran a hacking and document forging service. He posted a price list for his intimidation services — customers could commission the threat of a “massacre at a private home” for $40, a call threatening a “school massacre” for $80, and a bomb threat against a plane for $500. He tried to extort a US senator, the charge sheet says. He threatened to kill the children of a former Pentagon official.
Focusing largely though not exclusively on Jewish institutions from the start of this year, he forced the evacuations of dozens of Jewish Community Centers and schools across America — anguishing US Jewry and prompting concerns that the election of US President Donald Trump had emboldened American right-wing extremists to unleash a campaign of intimidating anti-Semitism.
He used “camouflage” technologies to mask his voice and his location. When he was finally arrested on March 23, police said they found sophisticated antennas and satellite equipment.
One teenage boy. In his small bedroom in an Ashkelon apartment building. With his parents — parents who had struggled to raise and educate and protect him from day one — insisting they were entirely unaware of what was going on.
His mother can not bring herself to read the charge sheets. ‘I fall off my feet when I hear the new developments,’ she says
One teenage boy. A child variously described by G and S in the course of our two-hour conversation as not normal, as apathetic, obsessive, incapable of social interaction, an insomniac, a child who has no concept of humor, a child incapable of internalizing the consequences of his actions. “We are so, so, sorry,” they both say several times during the interview. And M? “People want him to apologize. They want him to say sorry,” says G. “He does not understand the concept.”
It just does not compute, does it? Such intellect and sophistication employed at the computer keyboard, to such appalling effect. By a teenager whom no educational institution was able to school. And, they reiterate, without the knowledge of parents who give every appearance of being decent, overwhelmed, beyond distraught. S can not even bring herself to read the charge sheets. “I fall off my feet when I hear the new developments,” she says.
“We barely sleep,” says G. “And when, briefly, I do, I have nightmares.”
Which is why, it seems, they consented to this interview — to try to explain the almost inexplicable.
Troubled from the very start
S and G don’t want to talk about the specifics of M’s criminal case; they do want to tell his life story, his dismal life story. They want people to understand that M, their boy M, the global headline-making alleged bomb hoaxer and high-tech internet criminal, cannot be considered responsible for his actions. He has a tumor. He has some kind of autism; the word Asperger’s is mentioned during the interview. They’re not doctors; they can’t definitively detail cause and effect. They don’t know if his illnesses are genetic, or stemmed from his father’s work with chemicals, or what. There’s a great deal they don’t know about how their son came to be the young man he is.
M — who cannot be named in Israel because of a court-imposed gag order — was born in Tel Aviv to Israeli dad G and US immigrant mom S.
G, who opened the door of their home to me with an expression simultaneously warm, wan and exhausted, is a materials engineer who has worked with chemicals for Israeli firms Tambor (paints, in Acre) and Kafrit (plastics, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza).
They moved to the US very soon after M was born — spending his early years in New Jersey and California. G had three operations in California to remove growths caused, he says, by his work. M is an only child, he vouchsafes immediately, “because I cannot have any more children.”
Are M’s medical issues related to G’s work and illnesses? He’s not sure.
‘I was always trying to make him laugh,’ says his father, sighing. ‘He never laughed. He has no jokes’
In New Jersey, they were told by a nurse that M had “an abnormally large skull… in the 90%-plus percentile,” says S. They didn’t know what to make of that information, she says. Now, of course, they believe that the tumor was there from the start, and that it blocked his development, causing cognitive and psychiatric disorders.
G and S look at each other often as they try to tell M’s story. S speaks slightly halting Hebrew; G’s English is weak. They interrupt each other now and again, but not unpleasantly. They just want me to hear all the details.
M, they say, understands both languages. But he’s always had difficulty formulating sentences. Communication was never easy. “I was always trying to make him laugh,” says G, sighing. “He never laughed. He has no jokes.”
They often speak of M in the past tense. They are, after all, describing a past life. It was never less than arduous for them, parenting this child. But now, well, “life will never be the same” doesn’t begin to cover it.
From his first days, they recall, M could not sleep. Relentlessly active, he would only rest when he collapsed from exhaustion.
And he was plainly a genius, a deeply troubled genius. At a year old, he was doing 100-piece jigsaw puzzles. At 3, S was teaching him anatomy. “He knew the names of all the bones,” says G. “I don’t mean arms and legs. I mean all the bones. The layers of the skin. He would be building towers of building blocks and looking at an anatomy book out of the corner of his eye.”
They sent him to kindergarten at age five. It didn’t work out. He wouldn’t interact. He wasn’t violent — he was never violent — but he was a disturbing presence, they were told. He didn’t make eye contact. He wasn’t like the other children.
He’d throw the ball backwards, over his head. He rode the bike down the hill into the pillar. Another day he chased after an ice cream truck. In the road. Amid the traffic. Unfazed and unaware. G and S tried to teach him about danger; there was no way to make him grasp what they were saying.
They came back to Israel and took M to first grade at a school here in Ashkelon. They stuck it out for eight months, with S sitting in class with him. He was dyslexic. He had handwriting problems. He couldn’t read out loud.
S, who has a master’s in biochemistry, saw no choice but to homeschool him. He loved geography and history. He could do algebra in his head. At 9, he could memorize 50 numbers written on a page after a quick glance. A photographic memory, then? “I think so,” says S.
He chased after an ice-cream truck. In the road. Amid the traffic. Unfazed and unaware
At one stage, says G, “he hid that he was a genius.” I think G means that M made an effort not to show his prowess. “But we would play a game on Google Earth where I would name a city, and he could give me its latitude.”
M was obsessed with collecting things. They show me plastic folders with bus tickets organized by date. We walk into that small bedroom of his — a microscope on his desk and an empty space where his confiscated laptop sat; kippot and a tallit bag on a small table alongside — and they show me his coin collection, nestled among school notebooks and textbooks.
“One day, he made me buy him thousands of marbles,” volunteers G. “We went store to store, buying marbles.” He shrugs, helpless. “I had to do it. It was crazy.”
Another time, he became convinced that their apartment had mice. G: “We sealed up every crack.” S: “We used silicone.” There were no mice.
At 11, M’s medical condition worsened. “He started to get seizures,” says G. “We were outside the first time it happened. He looked at us, startled, and he was bashing his teeth together, over and over. He had this sad look. Then got on his bike and rode out into the fields and disappeared.”
They searched for him that day for five hours. The neighbors joined the hunt. They called the police. A helicopter would have gone up, but it was getting dark. Then M reappeared and came home.
“From that day, he was different,” says S. “His personality changed. He’d ride his bike obsessively.”
G: “He had a puncture; he’d ride on the metal. He’d ride with his feet on the handlebars. He went crazy.”
He turned 13 and had a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Did he read from the Torah? They look at each other, uncertain. They think he read the blessings. “He wasn’t really there,” they say.
A neighbor complained about the obsessive bike-rider. A social worker came to the home. Her boss said he should be committed to a psychiatric facility.
S, outraged: “I said he has seizures. He needs neurological treatment.”
G: “We thought the fact that he was an only child, and that he’d not been interacting with other children, had affected his social skills. But we realized it was getting worse.”
They decided to seek medical advice and treatment in the US. “I took him to New Jersey, to S’s mom.”
They were able to get medical insurance, and they went to 15 doctors across the state, G says. M had vision issues — blurred sight, dizziness. “He had 3-D vision?” What? “He could see something below his skin on his cheek that was there but that nobody else could see,” says G. “He wouldn’t go out of the house because of it. He said it was ugly.”
One doctor said he had an eye condition called photophobia. “One of his eyelids would droop,” says G. “And he would get a swelling above the eyebrows.”
Finally, finally, he had an MRI, and the MRI showed the tumor. “There it is,” says S, pointing to the enlarged photograph on the table.
The last few months they thought he was a little better. They mistook the quiet in his bedroom for progress
Should they operate? Some doctors said it was too dangerous. One who would have done the surgery did not have a good reputation. G brought M back to Israel.
The doctors here cautioned against a rush to operate. They said they would track M’s condition. Meanwhile, G and S dealt with his diet — high in omega-3 fatty acids; no sugar or processed foods; plenty of vitamins. They’d be able to see more doctors after he turned 18, and could think again about surgery. G worked days; S worked overnight “in sales,” so that there was always someone at home with him.
When the time came for him to receive a draft summons for the IDF, G wrote a letter explaining his condition. “They didn’t take him… We got an exemption straightaway.” As for the reported Israeli police theory that some of M’s threatening activity was to take revenge on the military authorities for refusing to induct him, G is firmly dismissive: “Not doing the army? It didn’t register with him.”
G started learning about the brain, and says he “realized that the tumor was likely the root of everything, including the autistic symptoms.” S said she was “sure that after the surgery he’d be okay.” But for now, the doctors were saying no to operating. And of late, with the improved diet, they’d thought M was stabilizing.
“The last few months we thought he was a little better,” says S. They mistook the quiet in his bedroom for progress.
G: “He walked to the beach and back, one and a half kilometers, on his own — about 10 times. That was a big achievement. He’d started learning to drive. Of course, he passed the theory, and he’d had his first practical lessons.”
Then the police came.
Worried for his life
G headed downstairs to go to work at about 6 on the morning of March 23, and the cops were there. They came into the apartment, arrested G, arrested M and “took all his stuff,” G says. The Israeli indictment says M tried to grab one of the cops’ gun. “I wasn’t in his room; I didn’t see that,” G says.
G was jailed for eight days, held at Nitzan prison. “Not pleasant,” he says shortly, when I ask. He’s been released without limitations, but is still formally a suspect. “I know nothing,” he says. “But I’ll help in any way I can.” He’s been questioned by Israeli investigators and the FBI. “I cooperated fully, of course.”
Nothing? Nothing at all? All those horrible calls. For all those days, weeks, months, years. The antenna on the window sill. “I didn’t think anything of it… Remember, he never sleeps… We’re so, so sorry.”
S, shaking her head, putting her hands to her forehead in despair. “This is a sick child.”
G: “Not many parents have suffered more than we have.”
‘Every time the phone rings,’ says his mother, ‘I’m afraid they’re going to tell me something terrible has happened to him’
Again, they seem like normal people in a surreal and dreadful circumstance, tormented and worried, and hopelessly, utterly, out of their depth.
They worry, deeply, about their son, who is being held at the Hadarim detention center, mostly, they believe, in solitary confinement.
S: “He’s lost 30% of his body weight… He’s getting the wrong food… He’s not getting medical care.”
Has he undergone psychiatric tests since his arrest? A short test, G says, just a few minutes.
G: “His eyelid is falling again. I’m not sure he recognized me the last time I saw him.”
S: “Every time the phone rings, I’m afraid they’re going to tell me something terrible has happened to him.”
G: “We’re worried for his life.”
S has written some notes, points she wants to stress. First and foremost, the apology. The sorrow.
Also that nobody, heaven forbid, should think the calls to the Jewish institutions were motivated by anti-Semitism. G shows me a picture of his father, a scribe, writing a Torah scroll. It was M who would recite the Sabbath eve kiddush at home, and the havdalah prayers at Sabbath’s end. He would sometimes go to a study session at the synagogue nearby.
Next, they are in financial difficulty — what with medical and legal expenses. S is not working. Bank accounts have been frozen. “I’m asking people to come forward to donate,” she says.
G: “We have no money; we are wondering who can help us.”
Third, that they are as baffled and horrified as anyone by what their son has done. “Who does something like this,” S wails at one point.
G: “He’s arrested for very serious crimes. I wouldn’t want my worst enemies to go through this… My only relief is that nobody was badly hurt; this is terrible.”
And finally, again, that no matter how appallingly grave and vast the crimes, M is simply not aware of what he has done — or more, accurately, of the consequences and implications of what he has done. That their child does not communicate, does not function, in a normal fashion.
M’s father: ‘He’s not fit to stand trial. And he won’t’
S: “It’s obvious within two minutes that he’s autistic; you see it right away.” All the neighbors know, and they’re generally supportive, she says. “The authorities seem to think ‘crazy’ means someone [gibbering] and waving his hands, ‘La-la-la.’ They don’t want to accept that he’s got these issues. They don’t understand, or don’t want to understand.” Still, note G and S, at his last remand hearing, the judge moved the case to the jurisdiction of the youth courts — a helpful step, S believes.
Asked about the reported battle between the Israeli and American authorities about where he should be put on trial, they are adamant. “We live here,” says G. “He needs to be judged here.”
Judged, he stresses. Not tried. “He’s not fit to stand trial. And he won’t.”
S interjects: “There’s no question now that he has to have the surgery. Before, we worried about the risks. But now, there’s just no question.”
G looks heavenwards, lips pursed in despair. Is he thinking, “Too late,” or “What if”?
“We’ve never hurt anybody in our lives, he says. “This is just insane.”
“Who does something like this,” S had asked.
A terrible question, asked by a mother about her child, and unanswerable, even for her.