Malka Leifer, a former Australian school principal who is wanted in Australia on suspicion of sexually abusing students, walks in the corridor of the Jerusalem District Court accompanied by Israeli Prison Service guards, in Jerusalem February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The details of the Malka Leifer sexual abuse case are frighteningly familiar. They follow a pattern common to sexual abuse cases in faith communities, whether Jewish or not.
Victims are silenced; sexual predators are protected; and high-ranking members of the community do everything they can to prevent news of the incident from getting out for fear it will reflect badly on the entire community.
Defending the good name of the community justifies covering up the child abuse of rabbis, priests or mullahs.
Allowing crimes to go unpunished and ignoring the suffering of victims – often helpless children – is, in the eyes of the faithful, a small price to pay to prevent the entire community from being disgraced.
Leifer, former principal of the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne, is wanted in Australia on 74 counts of sexual assault against Jewish girls aged 14 to 15.
Until 2008 when Australian law enforcers sought to arrest her, Leifer was shielded by the haredi community in Melbourne from allegations that emerged of her destructive behavior. Victims and their families were intimidated to remain silent or face ostracism by the community.
These families, which have internalized the norms of the ultra-Orthodox community, were wary of being labeled a moser, a derogatory term for a Jew who turns to the gentile law enforcement authorities for help against a fellow Jew. Further weakening the position of the families was the knowledge that a young woman who exposes herself as a victim of sexual abuse would have a difficult time finding a husband within the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
Meanwhile, Leifer was allowed to continue to cause pain and trauma to girls.
When the community could protect Leifer no longer and law enforcement authorities were on the verge of arresting her, Leifer and her family were smuggled out of Australia to Israel by staff members at Adass Israel. She found refuge in the haredi community of Immanuel in Samaria, just north of Ariel.
In 2015, the Melbourne Supreme Court awarded $1 million in damages to a former student of Leifer. Justice Jack Rush said the actions taken by staff at the Adass Israel School to protect Leifer and help her flee Australia were “deplorable and disgraceful.”
Hadassah Ehrlich, one of three sisters sexually abused by Leifer, told the court that at the time of the abuse, which started in 2002, she was too fearful to complain because of the power Leifer wielded in the ultra-Orthodox community. “She was seen as the head of the school and the whole community looked up to her and basically idolized her,” Ehrlich said. “She was seen as someone who was holier than holy.”
Compounding the atrocity is that the State of Israel is also complicit in obstructing justice. Leifer continues to be sheltered in Israel, not just by the ultra-Orthodox community but by the State of Israel, which has refrained thus far from extraditing her to Australia.
In June 2016 – eight years after first arriving in Israel – an Israeli court stopped the extradition process after a psychiatric assessment found she was not fit to stand trial.
But a police undercover investigation concluded last month revealed signs she was feigning mental illness to avoid extradition. Leifer was jailed. The court has asked for a new psychiatric evaluation but, inexplicably, has yet to receive one.
In another outrageous twist to the story, however, Leifer was released to house arrest after the intervention of Migdal Ha’emek Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman, who testified on her behalf and claimed that Leifer was unfit to remain in custody. The Jerusalem District Court agreed to release Leifer to house arrest provided Grossman vouch for her adherence to court orders.
After years of foot dragging, it has become clear that the Israeli legal system is unable to process Leifer’s case fairly.
She must be extradited to Australia where her psychiatric status can be objectively assessed.