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Indifference increases suffering

When alleged sex abusers like Malka Leifer find a haven in Israel, shielded by the ultra-Orthodox in government, we must ask where is the outrage of our leadership?
Illustrative. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Political corruption is so common that it is almost a given. The announcement of another investigation, or even a police recommendation of an indictment, is barely worthy of mention. There are particular situations where the lack of a reaction sends a terrible message.

A few days ago, the Israeli police recommended that Deputy (in name only) Health Minister Yaakov Litzman be indicted for, among other offenses, using his position to tamper with witnesses in order to help Malka Leifer, an accused sex abuser, avoid extradition to Australia. This is fundamentally different from ordinary corruption that arises from greed. The leading figure in a Haredi party was (allegedly) protecting an accused abuser from his community, openly showing contempt to victims. If television reports have credibility, this was part of a pattern of behavior to gain special treatment for Orthodox sexual offenders.

This  bizarre concern for abusers over victims is unfortunately common in certain religious circles, particularly when the victims are now non-observant. Opposition to Orthodox Jews being judged by secular courts is seen as a religious value, though clearly there are no religious courts that can adequately punish the guilty.

Supporters of Leifer do not deny that she has done what she is accused of. They claim that they only want her to go to an Israeli prison. Note that if their strategy of claiming that she is mentally unfit to attend hearings had been successful, Leifer would have avoided time in prison altogether.

It has been five years since Australia, an ally of the State of Israel, asked for Leifer to be returned to face trial for 74 charges of abuse.

For the victims and their supporters, the lack of reaction by religious and political leaders is what has been most devastating. Many have been aware of Minister Litzman’s role for years, but assumed that when the police investigation was concluded, the religious community would begin a process of self-reflection.

In fact, the Haredi media has ignored the story and rabbis have been silent. The other candidates from Haredi parties have all indicated their continued trust in Litzman. A cabinet minister from a religious Zionist party acknowledged that he was unfamiliar with the charges, but knows Litzman do be a decent person. Political spokesmen for other parties had no comment. The results of the coming elections are unclear and the Haredi parties may be needed to form a coalition government. The politicians justify their keeping quiet because they do not want to offend the Haredi parties. This argument does not hold, however. The facts that the Haredi parties cannot afford to be out of the coalition, and the choice of which coalition they can join is limited, make the risk of their showing outrage, or even an expression of concern for the potential impact on victims, minimal.

The percentage of victims of sexual abuse in society — and it varies little whether religious or secular — is higher than 10 percent in every study. It is devastating enough to realize that powerful forces are often part of a cover-up; it is much worse to discover that neither religious nor political leadership cares.

Experts who treat sufferers of trauma know that there are events that can reignite trauma, making healing much more difficult. Indifference  increases suffering. The prophets continually criticize the powerful in Jewish society for not protecting the vulnerable in our midst. Protecting the abusers is unforgivable.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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