(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Speaking to a packed crowd at the Or Haim Yeshiva in the capital's Mea She'arim neighborhood on Thursday night, MK Shlomo Benizri (Shas) delivered a message of defiance toward the press and the legal system that found him guilty on charges of bribery.
The police "were after my hide," Benizri added.
It was a final farewell for the lawmaker, who is set to begin his four-year prison sentence at the beginning of next month.
But the message on Thursday night, from both Benizri and other rabbis, including his brother David, who spoke on his behalf, was one of disdain for a system they perceive as blatantly biased against the ultra-Orthodox community and in particular, the Shas party.
"I've seen the cruelty that exists in this country and it's really just unbelievable," Shlomo Benizri said. "People seem to forget that behind every person, even with sin, there's a person."
Uri Zohar, a former actor turned haredi preacher, also spoke on Benizri's behalf, attacking the secular courts and school system.
"It's our fault for believing that [the courts] have an ounce of justice in them," Zohar said.
Of the school system he said, "It raises murderers."
Regarding the media, Benizri recalled the suicide earlier in the day of entertainer Dudu Topaz, who killed himself in his prison cell while awaiting trial. "The press carried out a character assassination against one of the most famous entertainers in Israel, whose job it was to make people laugh, and he took his life."
Benizri also spoke of the charges against him, explaining to the crowd their lack of merit. "They said I took bribes," Benizri told the crowd of mostly ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who had shuffled in to hear him speak.
"But what are they really saying I did? They said that when one of my students gave me money to buy a table in 1998, that was a bribe. They said that when I gave advice to a man who was planning on opening a hotel for ultra-Orthodox, that I had taken a bribe. And they said that when I made a donation to the yeshiva, where I give the bulk of my charity, that I had given a bribe. How are any of those things bribes?"
Although the crowd at the yeshiva on Thursday night was smaller in size, it was reminiscent of a rally held for former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri before he was sent to prison in 1999, where thousands of supporters turned out to show solidarity.
Benizri, however, told the crowd on Thursday night that he appreciated the turnout and had requested that the event remain relatively small.
"I know it could happen, but we don't want things to blow up the way they did in Mea She'arim a month ago," Benizri said. "We're not people looking for a fight - all we want is justice."