Jamaican-born Seth Thompson, who has been in Ma'asiyahu Prison near Ramle for the past two years and has terminal bladder cancer, is calling on the state to release him on humanitarian grounds and allow him to remain in the country for treatment.
Thompson, who has lived here illegally for 10 years, is not being denied medical treatment by the Israel Prisons Service, but he said the treatment being offered - a radical cystectomy - was not what he wanted, preferring to first try less radical procedures such as chemotherapy or BCG (Bascillus Calmette Guerin).
"The Prisons Service wants me to undergo an extremely invasive procedure that will result in the removal of my bladder, prostate and part of my intestine," Thompson said by telephone. "I prefer to do chemotherapy or BCG and Physicians for Human Rights in Tel Aviv have agreed to help me pursue this path, but I need to be free."
The Prisons Service, prison doctors and Thompson's physicians at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin near Ramle (who were not allowed to be interviewed for this article) said the operation was the only recommended course of action and that without it, Thompson was unnecessarily risking his life.
"Thompson has refused all conventional treatment offered to him," the Prisons Service said in a statement.
Thompson laughed at this response. He said his doctors had only ruled out the chemotherapy and BCG treatments because they could be fatal while he was confined in close proximity with other prisoners.
He described the procedures in detail and said BCG was an innovative treatment for bladder cancer that was developed by Israeli physicians. He argued his case with the confidence of a trained lawyer; he also is representing himself in immigration court.
Thompson has a bachelor's degree and an MBA from the University of Miami and spent several years working as a manager for AT&T in the US before coming to Israel to explore his Jewish roots.
"When I arrived in Israel I went to the various offices to see about becoming a citizen but realized quickly that this was beyond my scope considering that I did not have the correct documentation," he said, highlighting a letter from Rabbi Julian M. White.
In the letter, White wrote that he knew Thompson and his family for many years in Jamaica and described him as a "circumcised Jew whose mother never failed to light Shabbat candles, and whose father always told him about the Jewishness of the family."
Thompson said his passport and other documentation attesting to his identity were stolen not long after he arrived in Israel in 1996, although he never filed a police report. Replacing them grew into a long, bureaucratic process via the Jamaican Embassy in Germany, he said, adding that in the meantime he continued to live in Jerusalem without the required visa.
"Part of the problem was that the Jamaican Embassy wanted me to pay for the stolen items. I tried to once but that money went astray. I also knew that as soon as I had a passport I would have to leave Israel and I really wanted to stay. Periodically I would contact them, but not aggressively," he said.
In the last year, a good friend in Jerusalem arranged for the Jamaican embassy to replace his stolen passport, but, said Thompson, he has not handed that passport over to authorities because he believes that once he does, he will be deported.
The Justice Ministry, which is now responsible for Thompson's case, told The Jerusalem Post that he would only be freed if he surrendered his new passport or paid a bank guarantee declaring that he was unable to provide such travel documents.
Sabene Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's population registry, confirmed that giving over his passport would most likely mean deportation.
In lawyerly fashion, Thompson pointed to two cases where foreign nationals in custody for living here illegally were released without handing over travel documents.
The Justice Ministry has refused to respond to this argument, said Thompson.
The ministry told the Post that requesting travel documents was standard procedure for people who had been living in the country illegally.
"Nobody is giving this case the attention it deserves," said a good Israeli friend of Thompson's. "We are trying to find a solution for Seth. There are many immigrants who come here without their Jewish identity being clear. Who decides that they can be here and he can't?"
Haddad said there was a correct way for each person, even those whose Jewish roots were murky, to apply for aliya. For example, members of the Bnei Menashe and the Falash Mura have to undergo conversion, she said.
"The Israeli Consulate in Jamaica should be able to help him through the process," said Haddad, adding, "We see a lot of these cases - a person who is threatened with deportation suddenly finds a Jewish link."
"Seth is a person with pride and emotionally he thought, 'I am Jewish, I don't need to prove it,'" said Yehoshua Sofer, the son of White.
Sofer said his family has grown very close to Thompson over the past 10 years. "I think he realizes now that he needs to go about this via the proper channels but it might be too late."
"This is a very sad case," said Hanna Zohar, spokeswoman for the Kav L'Oved (Workers Hot Line). "He became ill while he was in Israel and he is obviously not a criminal. This is a humanitarian issue now."
Haddad at the Interior Ministry agreed but said the law was the law and there was nothing she could do for him.
"I have written to the president [Moshe Katsav] on this matter," said Thompson, "as well as several politicians, government ministries and nongovernmental organizations. The Health Ministry responded that it was not their department and the president's office said it can only help Israeli citizens."
Thompson said his situation was psychologically exhausting and it was unfair that he was being treated like a criminal.
"Every time I go to the hospital I am shackled on my wrists and around my ankles. Two guards accompany me with guns," he said. "It is very stressful."
However, Thompson remains upbeat and hopeful that the Interior Ministry will grant him a visa for at least three months so that he can begin his treatment here.
"Then I can begin registration for obtaining citizenship," he said, adding that he would really like to stay in Israel but if necessary would undergo conversion abroad before returning.