It may not be getting much publicity in the UK, but it looks as if progress is at last being made along the long and tangled road to justice for the victims of the alleged abuser Malka Leifer. On 15th December the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that she is fit to stand trial and minister Avi Nissenkorn has vowed to sign the papers, authorising her extradition to Australia. There she is to face seventy four charges of sexually abusing minors in her school.
Malka Leifer’s story may seem mundane but it still horrifying; the more so because of what it shows about the attitude of the ultra-orthodox to sexual abuse, to the non-Jewish world and to the rule of law itself. First the facts. Leifer was brought over from Israel to be Headteacher of the Adass Israel orthodox school in Melbourne. By all accounts she was highly regarded. A mother of eight children she was a member the sect of Gerrer Hassidim one of the largest sects in pre Holocaust Poland and now having revived after the war, one of the largest Hassidic groups in Israel. Initially she was seen as an inspirational headteacher but during 2008, complaints of sexual abuse began to emerge from at least eight of her pupils. The complaints began with one of her ex-pupils now married in Israel finding that she needed therapy as the result of her experiences at Leifer’s hands.
The attitude of the orthodox authorities in Australia to the claims was clear. There was a meeting of the school board one evening and at 1:20 AM that same night Leifer and four of her children were on a flight to Israel booked and paid for by the school, before the Australian police could arrest her. In Israel she ended up in the ultra-orthodox West Bank a settlement of Emmanuel. Rumours of further abuse have been circulating there. The settlement has been described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a haven for paedophiles. The school has subsequently been found liable for large exemplary damages in the Australian civil courts.
Unsurprisingly the Australian police issued a warrant for her arrest and applied for her extradition. The issue was so sensitive that Malcom Turnbull, the then Australian Prime Minister, raised it with Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israel ambassador to Australia while observing diplomatic niceties has also shown concern. The Australian Jewish community is profoundly embarrassed. It seems that Leifer and her defenders, however, are not. She through her lawyers has claimed dementia, that she is not mentally competent to face trial and therefore cannot be extradited. There have been more than seventy hearings, many of which she simply failed to attend.
She clearly has powerful friends. One of them is Yaacov Litzman a leader of Agudas Yisroel and like Leifer a Gerrer chasid. Readers may be aware of him, from his record as Health Minister. In that capacity he opposed restrictions on tobacco advertising to protect his paper’s revenues. During the early days of Covid, when he belittled the pandemic, he failed to observe his own department’s rules on social distancing, caught the disease and said it would be alright as the Messiah would come before Passover. After his triumphs in the health ministry he has moved to Housing not however before intervening with the psychiatrists in the Leifer case. He tried to persuade them to change their evidence to prevent her extradition.
To readers in the UK this will have a familiar ring. In the Charedi community here, sexual predators escape justice mainly because victims are persuaded not to testify. A friend who was involved in ordinary civil litigation against a Charedi institution was phoned by a leading member of the community, known to her personally, who advised her that it would be in her best interests not to proceed, if she wished her children to find matches in the community.
Blackmail and attempting to pervert the course of justice are crimes in the UK but also in Israel. One must ask who are the greater criminals-individuals driven by quirks in their sexual make up to inflict pain on children or the community grandees who use blackmail and intimidation of witnesses to protect them or the Rabbis who fail to speak out on behalf of the victims? The Rabbis and Grandees cannot claim the excuse of strong sexual desires. In their case it is simply a misguided sense that the reputation of the community comes before the welfare and security of its vulnerable members.
Leifer has not yet been convicted she is simply going for trial in Australia a democratic country with many Jews prominent in its judiciary. It has a legal system too which reputedly lacks the shenanigans and influence peddling which seem to plague Israel’s. In Churchill’s words, this is not the end or the beginning of the end but maybe the end of the beginning.