Photo Credit: Instagram
Left to right, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, journalist Edouard David Benaym and Rudy Rochman at the Kotel in Jerusalem on August 1 (fourth person is not identified). (The picture, courtesy of Rochman's Instagram page, garnered more than 15,000 likes.)

Described as an Israeli Jewish rights activist, Rudy Rochman has made dozens of popular YouTube videos and has spoken at many college campuses in the United States.

The 27-year-old spoke to The Jewish Press from his home in Israel about how a project that touched his heart became a situation where he feared for his life.

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In the early summer, he flew to Nigeria with filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman and French-Israeli journalist David Benaym who were part of his crew. The three were working on the documentary “We Were Never Lost” to examine lesser-known Jewish communities and were taken captive on July 9. The former Columbia University student said it was a harrowing situation but he remained positive and his emunah hasn’t been shaken.

 

You were held by the DSS (Department of State Services), the Nigerian police force, for 20 days. Throughout the ordeal, did you pray that you would get out?

Absolutely, we had out tefillin on every morning.

They didn’t take it from you?

We had it on us at the hotel – when they took us it was already on us. We told them it’s a religious item and we refused to let them take it.

So you prayed like “If I get out, I’ll do x, y and z”?

We weren’t in that state of mind that we’re giving up or hopeless. We were fighting the whole time in every way. Our mentality was, because of what is happening to us that whatever we went through, it’s nothing compared to what the Igbo people go through day to day. And maybe since the DSS interior security service doesn’t understand the nuances between some of them who are trying to separate from Nigeria and have their independence isn’t connected to every single Igbo in the Jewish community.

Maybe because of our experience, they will understand more and not persecute the Jewish community as much. We were trying to always find the good in it rather than be down and make promises that we will do this or that if our life doesn’t end.

What did you eat when you got back to Israel?

When I got back, it’s less important what I ate than who I was eating with. It was with my grandparents who were visiting from France with my whole family in Caesarea, and I was so happy to be free.

Did they give you any Covid masks while in jail in Nigeria?

No, if I explain to you the unsanitary situation, not having Covid masks was the least of our worries. There was rat excrement everywhere, there were live bugs, there was human urine everywhere. We were sleeping on the floor in filth. We couldn’t shower till the sixth day. And it was not a normal shower, there was a bucket with water, the same bucket that was black inside and I guess was used to clean parts of the floor – we would dump this water on our heads in order to wash ourselves. So going by those standards, why would they care about Covid masks?

Did they ever inform you that you were being charged with terrorism or trying to convert people to Judaism or any specific charge?

We understood it was connected to the separatist movement early on, considering that there were false blog posts that we were political when we were clearly not and just documenting a story. We made a status on our Facebook [pages] disconnecting us.

There were times under interrogation they were trying to get under our skin but obviously we had nothing to hide. They never told us what they had planned. I only found out when I got out that they were trying to connect us to espionage and missionary work, which we were obviously not doing either and was very far from the truth.

Did you ever anticipate danger in going to Nigeria?

We knew Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world. A lot of people ask, “Why would you go to such a dangerous place?” My answer to that is you wouldn’t ask Jews living in America, why would they go to Europe during the Shoah to save other Jews.

Obviously it’s dangerous but you are going there to save lives and there is a greater purpose. Likely no regular people in Israel, America or the world knew that more than 500 Igbo people had been killed on the streets of Nigeria over the last two months.

We did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people who had gone there safely. We had a security team and we knew not to go to certain places. We took a lot of precautions regarding our security. But no one could have foreseen this uproar on social media would explode, connecting us to things we had no connection to and no one could have foreseen that the government would do what they did to us.

When the man from the Israeli embassy met you, did he say, “Don’t worry about it, I’m working on it? You will be okay?” Did you believe what he said?

A mix of both. Just because he says he is working on it, it doesn’t mean he will be successful. He did say they were working on it. He did say our parents knew even before he knew. But even with that, there was no guarantee we would get out. The ambassador said after a week and a half, “Don’t worry, by the end of the second week, you’re getting out,” and it passed and we were still not out. There were a lot of promises made and we didn’t know if we would be there for weeks, months or years.

What was the toughest moment in captivity? Were there times you thought they might murder you?

For sure. We were in the South of Nigeria and they took us to their Southern headquarters. We were supposed to be there for an hour for a quick interview and we wound up being there for a day for interrogations. We slept there at night. We did Shabbat over a few grapes.

I asked if they could bring us some food. They gave us a few grapes, apples and crackers. So we did the Kiddush over grapes and the Motzi over some crackers.

The next morning, we get woken up at 7 in the morning and 15 men had us at gunpoint with black ski masks and black boots; they rush us out of the building. So we thought, They are taking us back to the hotel; all is good.

I asked them, “Where are you taking us?” They said, “You don’t need to know.” That’s when I knew something serious was going to happen. The first thought that went inside my mind was that they’re going to take us to the jungle, dig a hole and just kill us and bury us, so I told myself that in an hour, if they don’t tell us where we’re going, I’m going to take one of their guns and get us out of here.

Eventually, they told us they’re taking us to Abuja which is in the north and is the capital. It was a nine-hour drive. It was a crazy drive; they were going very fast. They made promises we would get our phones and be able to speak to our ambassador. That was all a lie. They threw us into a cage when we refused to be there. All of a sudden, to find yourself locked in a cage for no reason – that’s definitely a stressful situation. After the first week, they transferred us to another cage that was slightly bigger, but now we were with two Boko Haram militants who were said to have killed people in a terrorist attack.

Did the Israeli government give you any mental therapy when you got out?

No. The Israeli government didn’t speak to us after. Yotam, who was the ambassador, was very much involved. There could be other offices that did stuff, not to my knowledge, that were involved. The people who really put political pressure were the French and American government. Of course, they have more leverage. But we definitely felt their presence there more than the Israeli government, unfortunately. But while in there, we didn’t lose hope. There were times we protested and showed us we wouldn’t back down.

You refused to go in a cage once? How did you have the guts to do that?

That happened the first time. Of course, there is a balance. You can’t just hit someone that has a gun on you. You will instigate them to be violent right back on you. There’s also a psychology you have to understand that this person has power over your life, but you decide where the line ends [in terms of] what you will do.

Sometimes, when you have a bully, standing up to the bully will make them respect you more. So we were applying different psychological strategies to each individual person, based on their character and judging how they were acting with us or with other people.

With some, we were kinder and passive with, and there were others that we straight-up looked them in the eyes and said, “If you touch us, we’ll destroy you.” Another person might accept that. Some wouldn’t. In one case, it got us more respect. One of them who threatened to fight me and kill me and hurt me if I didn’t do something, I told him he’d regret it; I was going to put him in the ground and bury him if he tried to touch me. He put his finger in my face. I didn’t flinch at all.

After that, I heard him talking to another guy and I heard him say he found me to be the toughest inmate he’s had and he respected me because of it. So you have to know who you are speaking to. The second time was on the 10th day, we wanted to get to the director general who was refusing to meet with us. On the way to go get our food we were in a main lobby. We screamed, “We are being held against our will by the DSS. Please contact the media.” Many armed men came, I think 20 guys. They had to physically take us. We were holding on to what we could. It made huge noise in the office. We wanted them to know we’re not the type of inmates that you’re going to lock us up and throw away the key and forget about us. We were going to be a pain and a problem until we were let out.

You look thinner than in the picture. Do you know how much weight you lost?

I didn’t go on a scale before or after. But besides not being able to eat as much, we also weren’t able to move much or go outside. We were trapped in a small space every day.

Do you believe there is any greater reason why this happened?

There is always a greater reason. We can speculate and think we see one and there might be ten others that are much bigger than we can’t see with our mortal eyes. I think what we went through allowed the government to see the Jewish communities better. Hopefully, there will be less discrimination. What we went through allowed so many people to hear about the Igbos, which was the whole purpose of why we went there. I think it allowed us to understand their experience and the traumas they face. Many Igbos see what we went through, see what we came out of and see we are still fighting for them and they are grateful for our sacrifice.

With all the anti-Semitism in America the last few months, do you think your experience will give the Jewish world more strength that you got out and you will continue to work to show the truth about Israel?

Absolutely, I’m optimistic in general. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to experience anti-Semitism to get us back on our path. In my opinion, anti-Semitism comes when Jews don’t know who they are and don’t know their own identity, then that’s when the rise of anti-Semitism happens. We need to understand who we are and understand what we have to do.

If you could speak to the Nigerian leader, what would you tell him?

First of all, he has to understand that the Igbo population is not one demographic that’s homogenous and not everyone has the same ideology and view. Also, there are thousands of practicing Jews that are part of this demographic that have nothing to do with this separatist movement. They want to move to Israel and come back home and they don’t care about Nigeria. Of course, I’m not saying he should attack anyone, but if that is his plan – to attack people that have separatist ideals – he must know that there is a portion that is not interested in Nigeria and just wants to leave and come to Israel and they should not all be lumped together. He would have no purpose to attack them.

Are you considering any legal action against Nigeria?

What would that do?

People do a lot of things without knowing the result. Many wrongly imprisoned people take legal action.

They have no conception of law. They didn’t respect international law, the Geneva convention they signed in the 1960s. They didn’t respect Nigerian laws or DSS laws. There was a booklet we stole but they realized and got it back. It had rules of DSS with prisoners. You have to be arrested within 48 hours if you are being held against your will. You’re supposed to have showers and at least 30 minutes outside. You have to have access to a lawyer.

They had a handbook that said all of this. They keep it secret and don’t respect their own laws. I even spoke to the American consulate in Nigeria and I asked him, “Can we do things with the international court?” And he said, “To be honest Nigeria is given an F when it comes to international law.” Just in the past two months over 500 Igbos were killed on the streets. Our issue of being abducted doesn’t compare to all the human rights violations that they deal with.

You still have faith in G-d after this?

Of course. I’ve been through tough times in my life and certainly this was very tough, but I’ve never lost and I will never lose my emunah.

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Alan has written for many papers, including The Jewish Week, The Journal News, The New York Post, Tablet and others.