Jewish leaders in Israel face sexual misconduct allegations and Slutwalk protest

Israeli women protest violence against women in the eighth annual “Slutwalk” in Jerusalem May 25, 2019. Photo by Gil Zohar.

Israeli women protest violence against women in the eighth annual “Slutwalk” in Jerusalem May 25, 2019. Photo by Gil Zohar.

JERUSALEM — Last March, an article by this writer appeared in the Vancouver, Canada bi-weekly The Jewish Independent concerning the efforts of Toronto businessman and philanthropist Daniel Goldberg to restore the historic beit midrash (study hall) of the Gerrer hassidim in Góra Kalwaria, Poland — a small town on the Vistula River some 12 miles southeast of Warsaw.

The town, called Ger or Gur in Yiddish, was also called Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem) in Polish, reflecting its holiness for both Jews and Christians. Goldberg is seeking to conserve the physical remains of Góra Kalwaria’s extinct Jewish community, which was wiped out in the Holocaust. Most important is the former synagogue built in 1903 at ul. Pijarskiejj now used as a shop. Across the street is a metal gate at the yard that marks the home and house of prayer of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter (1798-1866), the founder of the Gerrer dynasty, known as the Chiddushei HaRim in keeping with the custom among Orthodox Jews that a religious literary figure is known by the title of his primary rabbinic tome.

The Jewish Independent article, while accurate, was part of an undercover international effort to lure an Israeli pedophile to Poland where he would be arrested. Involved were former Ministry of Defense field agents now working as spooks for hire.

But why not arrest the suspect in Israel?

Because, I learned, fellow Gerrer hassid Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman allegedly is protecting pedophiles in his 100,000-member hassidic sect in Israel, and the broader community of the ultra-Orthodox who constitute more than 1,000,000 of Israel’s 9 million people. Litzman has helped at least 10 serious sex offenders obtain improved conditions, including home visits and other benefits, by pressuring state psychiatrists and prisons service officials, according to The Times of Israel. Some of the cases are reportedly being examined by police.

Most notorious of those whom the Gerrer sage-turned politician and head of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party has been accused of using his influence to protect is Malka Leifer, who for more than a decade has been fighting extradition to Australia for allegedly abusing students at the Gerrer-affiliated school Downunder.

Litzman, who is expected to remain in his post in the next government if Benjamin Netanyahu remains Israel’s prime minister following the September 17 general election, has been under police investigation since February on suspicions he sought to obtain a falsified psychiatric report that would have prevented Leifer from being extradited back to Australia. The former principal at the Adass Israel school in Melbourne has been charged in absentia with 74 counts of sexually abusing her students. But judges here have repeatedly delayed her extradition due to her claims she is mentally unfit to stand trial.

An Israeli citizen, in 2008 Leifer slipped out of Australia and fled to Israel days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced. Her escape plan was allegedly abetted by Gerrer officials at the school where she taught.

In 2012, Australia filed an extradition request. Two years later, Leifer was arrested here but soon released to house arrest. Judges deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial and eventually removed all restrictions against her, concluding that she was too ill to even leave her bed. However, she was rearrested last February following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained in custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the haredi town of Emmanuel in the West Bank where Leifer was living. The footage showed the alleged child molester shopping without any apparent difficulty.

According to Israel’s Channel 13 news, Litzman is suspected of a pattern of pressuring corrections officials to be lenient with other haredi offenders.

In March, the TV station reported on a second police probe in which Litzman and his chief of staff are suspected of pressuring a psychiatrist, Dr. Moshe Birger, to ensure that another imprisoned sex offender close to Litzman’s Gur sect was placed in a rehabilitation program. Participation in the program can lead to home-visit rights and early release from prison.

The police are also probing accusations against Litzman’s former aide and now freshman UTJ Member of Knesset Yaakov Tesler, who allegedly pressured the Prisons Service to allow home visits for convicted murderer-rapist Tal Tzarfati while he served a 14.5-year sentence for murdering a young woman in Tel Aviv.

Litzman and Tesler are only two of the names in the sex scandals rocking Israel.

Jewish leaders accused of sexual misconduct

In an open letter last Wednesday (May 29, 2019) that blew the lid off of a hushed misconduct accusation involving a prominent spiritual leader in the national religious camp, Safed chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu called on the public to stay away from a respected counterpart, accusing him of carrying out several inappropriate relationships with female followers, among them an adherent whom he convinced to divorce her husband.

Three weeks earlier, the national religious Srugim news site broke a story about Eliyahu demanding that an unnamed yeshiva director step down due to “personal entanglements.” Eliyahu outed the individual as Rabbi Shmuel Tal, the head of the Torat HaChaim yeshiva as well as several other religious institutions in the central town of Yad Binyamin.

In his open letter referring to Tal, Eliyahu wrote: “I do not recommend that anyone learn any halacha (Jewish law) from him, nor seek any guidance from him. I do not recommend studying at his yeshiva or at his seminary for women or at his counseling academy.” 

Eliyahu opened the letter saying that roughly four years ago, he learned about an improper relationship that Tal, 56, was having with a married woman, who had approached the Torat HaChaim leader seeking marriage counseling. 

Safed’s chief rabbi said that Tal refused to comply with his request and continued his affair with the woman, even successfully convincing her to divorce her husband. Tal told the woman that the “holy spirit” had informed him that his own wife, Yifat, would soon pass, after which he would marry her in Yifat’s stead.

According to Eliyahu, the still-alive Yifat rejected the subsequent proposal that Tal wed the female follower while remaining married to his first wife. 

The woman and her husband chose to sue Tal for damages, and the rabbi agreed to pay $138,287 as reparations, though it was later discovered that Tal did not pay the amount in full. 

“I looked into the matter of the ‘holy spirit’ and found that he had for years been giving many people advice based on his belief he was in contact with the ‘holy spirit,’ causing great harm,” Eliyahu wrote, adding that the misguided advice was endangering the hundreds of people in Yad Binyamin and around the country who are followers of Tal’s.

This is the third allegation of misconduct against a prominent rabbi in the national religious community that Eliyahu has been tasked with resolving.

Last year, a young student approached him to accuse Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon of sexually inappropriate behavior, in a new claim that came five years after Jerusalem’s Yeshivat HaKotel head was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. Confronted by Eliyahu and other senior national religious camp rabbis, Elon confessed to the misconduct, agreed to cease all public activity and seek treatment.

Eliyahu also led a team of rabbis that investigated sex crime accusations made by a dozen women against Safed’s Orot Ha’ari yeshiva chairman Ezra Sheinberg. The team opened its probe in 2015 and reported the rabbi to the police several months later, which nabbed Sheinberg as he was attempting to flee the country. Two years later, he was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

Eliyahu's bombshell followed the controversial honoring at the state-sponsored Lag b’Omer celebrations in Meron in the Upper Galilee on May 2 of convicted pedophile Rabbi Eliezer Berland, 80, who served five months of an 18-month prison sentence after eluding arrest for three years. Berland was among the 20 rabbis who lit a ceremonial bonfire at the tomb of famed 2nd Century CE sage and mystic Shimon Bar Yochai. The festivities were attended by some 250,000 ultra-Orthodox men.

Berland became a fugitive from justice after being charged with sexually assaulting women in his flock of followers. Escaping from Israel, he was ultimately arrested in South Africa, and repatriated to stand trial on reduced charges as part of a plea agreement.

While in prison, Berland's followers claimed he was suffering from ill health, enabling him to serve some of his sentence on house arrest. When he had served his time, he returned to lead his followers who remained loyal to him throughout.

Annual SlutWalk protests violence against women

Putting all this in a cultural context where women and children are sexualized and preyed upon with impunity, some 600 people in various stages of undress marched down Jaffa Road here on Friday (May 25, 2019) in the eighth annual SlutWalk protesting violence against women and the country's culture of sexual harassment and rape. Called “the Sharmutot March” in Hebrew, the word is borrowed from the Arabic for a prostitute but has an even more derogatory and misogynist connotation in Hebrew.

A woman attending the Slutwalk march in May. Some women removed their shirts in protest of religious leaders and victim-blaming women who come forward with sexual abuse and rape allegations. Photo by Gil Zohar.

A woman attending the Slutwalk march in May. Some women removed their shirts in protest of religious leaders and victim-blaming women who come forward with sexual abuse and rape allegations. Photo by Gil Zohar.

“The word ‘sharmutah’ is not just a word used to humiliate women," said Bracha Barad, one of the march organizers and head of the Kulan feminist association. "It is used by society and the establishment to justify rape.”

Barad said many demonstrators wore little clothing to convey that women should be able to wear what they chose without being subject to sexual harassment.

“There is no connection between gender and sexual violence and there is no connection between the victim’s appearance and the attack she has been through,” she added. “We demand justice and a radical change in the establishment.”

Though protected by a phalanx of police, several male counter-protesters tried to interrupt the activists by throwing eggs and other objects at them while calling them “prostitutes,” according to the Ynet news site.

SlutWalk is an organization that fights against those who justify rape based on a woman’s attire or appearance. The first protest took place in Toronto, Canada in  2011, in response to an official’s statement that “women should avoid dressing like whores” in order not to be raped. Since then, marches have been held in cities around the world and have gained a massive following.

But in Israel, the culture of sex crimes seems particularly entrenched among the country’s movers and shakers. 

In January, Efi Naveh resigned as Israel Bar Association president in the wake of the “sex for judgeship” affair, for which he is under criminal investigation. At the time, Lahav 433 (the National Crime Unit) questioned him and two other suspects, one of whom was Netanya Magistrate’s Court Judge Eti Karif, for involvement in a scheme of promoting judicial candidates in exchange for sexual favors.

Naveh is suspected of having sexual relationships with Karif and with a female lawyer whose husband is a magistrate’s court judge and was seeking promotion to become a district judge.

Even more notorious was the sordid case of Moshe Katsav, a disgraced former politician who was the eighth President of Israel from 2000 to 2007. Toward the end of his presidency, allegations of rape arose from a female subordinate. They were followed by a litany of sexual harassment claims from other former employees. To the embarrassment of many, Katsav rejected a lenient plea bargain, vowing to prove his innocence in court.

In a landmark and unprecedented 2010 trial, Katsav was convicted of two counts of rape and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to seven years in prison. In December 2016, he was released from prison having served five years of his sentence.

How will the electorate respond to the growing litany of allegations of sexual transgressions against rabbis and politicians? Stay tuned for the results of the September 17 vote.