Sexual assault, corruption and now murder: The terrible cost of protecting Israel’s ultra-Orthodox autonomy – Haaretz

Posted By on November 4, 2021

At the beginning of this week, Meir Shitrit was informed by a rabbi that after waiting 36 years for his missing brother Nissim to come home, he can finally sit shiva and say kaddish for him.

Read that sentence again. It sounds full of compassion. A spiritual leader informing a bereaved relative of a close family member's death and advising him he can start the ancient religious mourning ritual. Only it isnt.

The meeting took place in a police station, and the rabbi is Eliezer Berland, a man convicted of sexual assault and fraud, already serving a prison sentence, who is now under suspicion of having been involved in the murder by his followers of 17 year-old Shitrit, back in 1986 and the hiding of his body. Police believe they are also behind the murder of Avraham Edri in 1990. Charges are expected to be filed within days, with Berland to be charged with causing the deaths.

For those who havent been following the saga of 83 year-old Rabbi Berland over the past decade or so, some background. Since the late 1970s, he has been the leader of the Shuvu Banim sect of Breslav Hassidim. They are a closed community of a few thousand with a fanatical devotion to Berland.

In 2012, it emerged that Berland was coercing female followers into sexual relations with him. He left the country and found temporary refuge in Morocco, Zimbabwe, South Africa and finally was arrested in the Netherlands, from where he was extradited back to Israel. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, as part of a plea bargain, in 2016.

Hes already back in prison again, this time for crimes of fraud and money-laundering, arising from his "selling" of blessings for large sums of money to desperate people suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

Now, the charge against him is murder.

You have to ask yourself: How were Berland and his cult able to act with impunity for all these years? Theyre not staked out in some remote desert outpost. The main Shuvu Banim center is literally five minutes' walk from Jerusalem District police headquarters. Their "modesty police," the vigilantes who allegedly murdered Shitrit and Edri after rumors they were having affairs with married women, were well-known to many in the Haredi neighborhoods.

Berlands followers' flouting of the law, at every level, has been commonplace for as long as Ive been a reporter in Jerusalem, from the 200kph plus speed his convoys would drive at, on his orders, to the way they took over entire streets on Jewish holidays, leaving them strewn with piles of rubbish. No-one, not the police nor City Hall, ever dared to confront them. And within the ultra-Orthodox community, Berland was actually courted for the votes he controlled.

Back in 1999, when I was covering the Knesset elections, I got a brief taste when I flew with Berland and a group of his followers down to Eilat for a rally of United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox party he had endorsed. As the aircraft was taking off, his Hassidim continued to stride down the aisle, talking loudly on their mobile phones, the crew so petrified they wouldn't say a word to them.

Even after he had sat in prison the first time, Haredi politicians still came calling for his support as recently as the 2018 Jerusalem mayoral elections, when he endorsed the now mayor Moshe Leon.

The ugly truth is that while it would be unfair to characterize Shuvu Banim, which has since been publicly ostracized by the most of the rest of the Breslav rabbis, as representative of the Haredi community, their impunity could only have existed within the Haredi autonomy. A place where successive Israeli governments, going back to the foundation of the state, have allowed the community to live according to its own rules. As a result, the police have no idea what is happening within a community which now numbers over a million Israelis.

I have some personal experience of how clueless Israeli police is when it comes to investigating crimes within the Haredi community. Fourteen months ago, I was called in for questioning by the Jerusalem polices serious crimes unit. It was a classic bad-cop-good-cop move, with two different investigators calling me, one after the other.

The first put the fear of God in me, when he said I must come immediately for an interrogation on a matter he refused to specify over the phone. He wouldnt even say if I was a suspect. A few minutes later, the second investigator called, asking me politely if I could come over and talk to them about a piece I had written on COVID-19 lockdown restrictions being breached during Yom Kippur.

I was no longer worried that I would be arrested, but I was still mystified. In my piece, I had simply reported on what anyone could have seen for themselves in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In fact, on Yom Kippur, just as I was leaving the Beit Midrash of the Belz Hassidim, I had noticed a police patrol car driving by. Surely the officers inside had seen, like me, the thousands going inside, in breach of the governments social distancing rules.

My hour with the police that afternoon hardly restored my confidence. The two detectives from a central unit that deals with homicide and kidnaps in Israels capital had obviously received an order from on-high to investigate the Yom Kippur events, but they literally had no idea about the community they were supposed to be investigating.

They had never heard of Belz, one of the largest and most powerful Hassidic sects in Israel, or of its Beit Midrash, which is also the biggest synagogue in Jerusalem, the crenellated edges of its rooftop clearly visible on the citys skyline. I had to point it out to them on a map.

In my innocence, I asked one of the detectives if they had any experts on the Haredi community serving with the unit. After all, they 'only' make up about a third of Jerusalems population.

"We don't," he answered. "We have someone outside of the police we sometimes ask for advice to help us avoid mistakes, like the time we started an investigation into nuns kidnapping Haredi children only to be told that it was a story from a book on the Middle Ages."

You wont be surprised to hear that nothing came out of the investigation into the Belz center where 10,000 Hassidim were praying on Yom Kippur despite a strict nationwide lockdown.

As a former senior police commander later explained to me, setting up a team of detectives specializing in Haredi affairs in Jerusalem, or anywhere else in Israel, would be "unthinkable" and "career suicide." He didnt dispute the need for such a unit, but that the Haredi politicians would never allow it.

There are two motives here fueling the ultra-Orthodox leadership's behavior. One is to maintain their autonomy and prevent any outside interference in their internal affairs. The other is to keep up a faade of an innocent and pure community where "such things just dont happen."

Instead of policing the Haredim, the police have relied on powerful go-betweens whenever they need to communicate with the leadership. People like Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder of the ZAKA rescue organization, who according to a Haaretz investigation sexually assaulted dozens of women and young girls and boys. He who was the polices most important Haredi informant and enforcer in Jerusalem.

The Haredi leadership act affronted and are quick to accuse anyone raising claims of untreated crimes within their midst of being an antisemite and a racist. If anyone suggested that there was a need for a policing in their north Jerusalem neighborhoods, home to 300,000 residents, they would unleash holy hell. How dare anyone suggest theres crime within their autonomy?

Instead, the Jerusalem police busies itself solving regular crimes and directing traffic in the third of Jerusalem which is Jewish but not Haredi, and brutalizing the other third, Palestinian Jerusalemites.

As always, the real victims of the institutionalized neglect in the Haredi autonomy are the most vulnerable within it. Victims of unreported domestic and sexual abuse and those on the communitys margins, like Nissim Shitrit and Avraham Edri, who may finally receive justice after all these years.

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Sexual assault, corruption and now murder: The terrible cost of protecting Israel's ultra-Orthodox autonomy - Haaretz

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