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Not everyone deserves to return: The case of Baruch Lanner

Sex criminals, even those who have served their time, must not see Israel as a safe harbor. Their victims should not have to fear running into them while visiting Israel
Baruch Lanner, at his 2002 trial at the Momouth County Courthouse in Freehold, where he was convicted of sexually abusing two girls who attended the school where he was principal. (via LinkedIn)
Baruch Lanner, at his 2002 trial at the Momouth County Courthouse in Freehold, where he was convicted of sexually abusing two girls who attended the school where he was principal. (via LinkedIn)

“They paid their debt to society.”

This phrase, which is typically used to imply that after people have served a prison term or paid a fine, they are absolved of any further claims against them, is deeply flawed.

In most cases, a criminal did not owe anything to society at large and therefore has not paid back any debt. Rather, criminals are punished for their acts and serve time or pay the fines, as dictated by law.

As such, even after they have completed their time behind bars or fulfilled the terms of their punishment, we as a society are entitled to ask very legitimate questions as to whether the individual deserves to be related to on the basis of those crimes.

For those criminals who have perpetrated particularly heinous acts, like molestation and sexual abuse, where they have left permanent scars on their victims, and where their crimes are indicative of deep perversion, it is also entirely appropriate to express concern over whether they might return to their criminal ways.

For this reason, rather than simply accepting that a person’s criminal past might be a thing of the past, we are compelled to analyze every case based on several factors. First and foremost is the question of whether the individual may continue to pose any danger to society.

Then we must address the nature of the crime committed, whether and how the criminal admitted to his or her actions, whether one is truly apologetic for those actions, whether one accepts responsibility for the pain or loss one may have caused, and other similar considerations.

In absence of these questions being carefully addressed — and answered to a very high level of satisfaction — we have no obligation to even begin to think that such an individual should be accepted back into our neighborhoods and our society, just because of “serving their time.”

While we respect the notion that people should be given the opportunity to “turn over a new leaf” and start lives anew, and that repentance and forgiveness are Jewish values, our ultimate concern must be for the welfare — both practical and emotional — of past victims. We must do all in our power to ensure that such crimes will never again occur.

At the same time, from an ethical and basic human perspective, we need to remember that even criminals — apart from those who have been given life sentences — need somewhere to live and cannot simply be abandoned. To do so in a reckless manner might even harm chances for rehabilitation and incite further criminal activity. Society therefore demands of itself to create a measured response for these individuals. This means that they be given the right to live in certain communities, but with very specific guidelines and limitations — and the relevant authorities must be given the ability to regularly monitor that the individual is conforming to those regulations.

In the recent case of Baruch Lanner, where the individual committed crimes outside of Israel and he is now requesting residence in Israel, we need to act with even greater caution. We cannot accept a situation whereby Israel should ever become recognized as a refuge for criminals — and certainly not for those who have directly harmed many of our fellow citizens.

The essence of the Law of Return, whereby every Jew should be able to have safe harbor from danger, should not by default include those with a criminal past.

It is critical that sexual abusers know that they cannot see Israel as a place to flee — either before conviction or after. Victims of sexual crimes abroad should similarly be able to live without the fear that they, or their children, might ever have to confront their abusers on the streets of Israel.

The people of Israel deserve to know that we will do everything possible to defend our citizens and, when necessary, that must mean keeping Israel’s gates closed to those who have performed despicable and unforgivable crimes.

As sacred and revered a concept as the Law of Return, it is not without its limitations. As a nation, our priorities our must first and foremost be with the very protection of our people.

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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