TEL AVIV — A years-long delay in the extradition of an ultra-Orthodox educator, who fled to Israel from Australia after being accused of abusing her female students, has child protection advocates worried that Israel has become a haven for international sex offenders.
Malka Leifer, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen who from 2003 to 2008 served as principle of the Adass Israel Girls School in Melbourne, was accused of sexual abuse eight years ago. Only hours after the first accusations came to light, Leifer reportedly received funds and logistical help from members of her insular ultra-Orthodox community in Melbourne, which enabled her to fly to Israel in the dead of night along with her husband and five children.
Miriam Friedman, the director of Magen, an NGO which defends children at risk of sexual abuse in religious towns in Israel, said that alleged sex offenders from the international Jewish community have for years been taking advantage of Israel’s reputation for lax extradition practices.
“When an investigation is opened or suspicions start to circulate, abusers suddenly make aliyah—Jewish immigration to Israel—and Israel’s law of return makes it easy for them to pass under the radar, because nobody asks questions about why they are coming,” said Friedman. Since 1950 the law has entitled every Jew worldwide to apply for Israeli citizenship.
But the Leifer case is unprecedented in that it takes “making a mockery of the Israel system to a new extreme,” Friedman said.
Leifer faces 74 criminal charges filed in Australian courts by at least nine girls, but has repeatedly avoided court hearings over the past two years by checking herself into hospital because of what she claimed were psychotic episodes and panic attacks.
The Israeli judge Amnon Cohen, currently in charge of the case, has questioned the authenticity of those claims, but since Israeli law forbids a psychologically unfit person from standing trial, for the past two years she has remained under house arrest in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak in central Israel.
The most recent planned hearing was set for April 7, but was delayed because the court had not yet received the psychiatric evaluation it had requested. Leifer’s lawyers have pushed for the entire case to be thrown out because the hearings allegedly put her under pressure.
“She manipulated all of us into doing many things...and so she's manipulating the Israeli justice system, but even if she is suffering from those panic attacks and even if she is suffering from depression, what is that in comparison to what us victims are suffering every day?” said one of Leifer’s alleged victims who spoke under the name “Rebecca” in an interview with the Australian ABC news network aired Thursday night.
Leifer comes from the tight-knit Adass Israel community founded originally by Holocaust survivors in the early 1940s, and made up today of roughly 200 ultra-Orthodox families. Children at the school were forbidden from watching television, reading books that had not been pre-approved, or having any unnecessary contact with the secular world.
“Rebecca” said that she was first told to keep the accusations quiet, and was only allowed to make public her allegations when other girls began to come forward.
“It has been very, very long, for me and the other victims, it’s been torture, to be honest,” she said. “Day after day we’re waiting for the Israeli justice system to make this woman face her crimes.”
Australia’s Supreme Court has already awarded one of her former victims $1.27 million in compensation after it was ruled that Leifer had sexually abused the girl from 2003 to 2006 at the school grounds, at a camp, and at her private home.
“She would single out girls and take them off for private chats, they would be pulled out of lessons,” said Jack Rush, the Australian judge who presided over the case last September.
"She would take children from time to time to her own house, which a senior teacher at the school knew was occurring and seemingly never questioned the conduct because of Leifer’s standing in the Adass community.”
At least eight other girls from the community are waiting for their court cases as Israeli extradition lags. It is a development that has outraged activists advocating for the rights of children in ultra-Orthodox communities, but it is not the first example of religious Jews relocating to Israel to hide out from the law.
In September 2015, New York police were unable to arrest Yona Weinberg, a convicted Level 3 sex offender who allegedly assaulted an 11-year-old boy in a Brooklyn synagogue, after he jumped town and moved to the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof.
In 1993, a dual U.S.-Australian national school teacher, David Kramer, disappeared suddenly from his Australian community after sexually molesting children at the religious Jewish school in Melbourne. His colleagues reportedly helped him in his move to Israel, and only after he later moved to the U.S., where he committed sexual abuse again, and served a four-year sentence, was he finally extradited back to Australia.
Unlike in the United States, Israel’s sex offender registry is accessible only to security officials, rather than to the general public. In religious communities like Bnei Brak, many residents lack trust in secular authorities and also believe that calling out sex offenders is a form of lashon hara, or slander, which is forbidden by Jewish law because it can hurt the offenders’ family and prospects for arranging a successful marriage in the future.
Until recent years, ultra-Orthodox covered up sex scandals, but social media have helped survivors and child advocates bring out stories beyond their immediate social circles.
“Sexual issues are simply forbidden to talk about in public,” said Tsviki Fleischmann, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli who is one of the founders of a Facebook group called “Don’t be silenced,” which is followed by more than 4,500, and is meant to raise awareness around the issues of sexual abuse of minors in the ultra-Orthodox realm.
“We hear about events almost every week, but we also know that most cases go unreported, because a child who was sexually abused does not have the vocabulary to identify it, they might say that they were beaten or attacked but would never talk about sex,” said Fleischmann.
Manny Waks, who as a child was sexually abused in his ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne, has spoken in front of a special Knesset committee and is planning collaborating with social services representatives, but says there is still a long way to go in getting the Orthodox communities on board, given the high price that is paid when sex crimes are revealed.
When he first spoke out about his own experience with two different perpetrators, the Australian government arrested several rabbis and launched an official investigation, but his family was harassed to the point that they had to leave the country. After living in France for a number of years, Waks’s family moved to Israel, and Manny initiated an umbrella network called “A voice and strength,” which seeks to implement guidelines for a growing movement against child abuse among ultra-Orthodox communities.
“One in four girls and one in six boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18 in Israel,” according to Waks, “and there is evidence to indicate that vulnerability increases among ultra-Orthodox communities, which are closed, have large families, and where you rely on one another, and see the adult teachers or leaders as a pious Jew, he prays and he studies, and there is complete faith because of an external appearance.” Waks added that thorough research specifically on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods is still sorely needed to identify problematic areas and assess how best to create culturally sensitive solutions.
“It’s important for us to do this in partnership with the rabbis, to convince them to understand that sexual abuse affects us all,” said Waks.