More questions than answers

An in-depth look at the May body-snatching in Ashdod points to controversial, yet accepted, ideologies in the haredi society.

haredi clash 298 kahana (photo credit: Menahem Kahana)
haredi clash 298 kahana
(photo credit: Menahem Kahana)
The scene on the evening news watched by millions of Israelis was outrageous: An angry crowd of haredim at the Ashdod cemetery was hollering and throwing bottles and other things at the overwhelmed policemen who did nothing but duck. The upshot of the story was even more outrageous: During the melee, somebody broke into the cemetery's refrigerator and stole the corpse of a one-year-old haredi baby girl. The purpose of both the riot and the body-snatching was to prevent an autopsy from being performed on the girl, which police and prosecutors wanted done because they suspected she died on account of her parents' negligence. The parents, police said, had disregarded a doctor's prescription of antibiotics to treat the baby's week-long high fever, and instead turned to a homeopath. The baby, Malka Sitner, died at about 8 o'clock Sunday morning, May 28. Her body was stolen from the refrigerator of the Ashdod cemetery that same night towards 11, after a day-long protest by a crowd that numbered at least several hundred, maybe more than 1,000, haredim. To this day, the girl's body has not been found. This, despite all the evidence that she was buried in Jerusalem and that the men who stole her corpse and buried it belonged to the ultra-extreme Toldot Aharon or Toldot Avraham Yitzhak sects, which are based in well-known neighborhoods of Mea She'arim and Beit Shemesh. Malka's parents, Simcha and Hanna Sitner, American immigrants belonging to the Rachmistrivka haredi sect, and who are said to be vegans, may or may not know the exact location of their daughter's grave. "We're not interested [in talking]," said a woman answering the Sitners' phone before hanging up. Haredim in Ashdod, not to mention the ultra-extremists in Mea She'arim and Beit Shemesh - evidently it was these latter, not the local residents in the crowd, who assaulted policemen and destroyed property at the cemetery - have not cooperated with the investigation. "I don't think anybody knows where the baby is or exactly who took it, but if they did, they sure wouldn't tell the police. They're not going to turn in their brothers," said a friend of the Sitners who lives in the apartment house next to theirs in this noticeably littered neighborhood of drab, white-tile buildings on Rehov Hayasmin in Ashdod's Het Quarter. "Nobody would tell the police because if the police found out, they might exhume the body and still do an autopsy," said a passerby on the street. "Respect for the dead," say devoutly Orthodox Jews, requires that the body of the deceased be buried in as whole a condition as possible, and that any deliberate "harming" of the corpse is a grievous sin against God and against the dead person's soul. Haredi opposition to autopsies for the purpose of solving a crime is both religious and sociological, said Bar-Ilan Prof. Menachem Friedman, one of the world's leading authorities on the community. "First, Jewish tradition considers autopsies to be a desecration of the holiness of a dead body, and second, haredim in general have a basic mistrust of the police and the rest of the state's justice system," Friedman said. He noted that haredi leaders now argue that non-invasive medical technologies, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) body scans, ought to be used instead of autopsies in forensic investigations. HAREDIM in Ashdod, who number upwards of 25,000, or about 13 percent of the city's population, are relieved that Malka's corpse was spared an autopsy, but they're divided over whether or not it was right to steal the body like that. In the Beit Shemesh neighborhoods of the Toldot Aharon and breakaway Toldot Avraham Yitzhak sects, however, there doesn't seem to be any soul-searching going on about a thing that happened in Ashdod that day. "We don't want journalists here. Go away," a tall, glaring man wearing the sects' pin-striped "Yerushalmi"-style cloak warned me as I tried, without success, to interview the men congregated on Rehov Hazon Ish outside the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak synagogue. As a dozen or so of his fellow sect members watched nearby, the spokesman added, "We'll do you a favor by asking, and if you don't go, we'll use other ways." But in Ramat Beit Shemesh, on Rehov Rabbi Yehoshua near the Toldot Aharon beit midrash, or study hall, a stocky young haredi man in a pin-striped cloak walking alone through a parking lot was happy to talk about the incident. "It was a miracle," he said, giving his name as Pinchas, his age as 23 and his affiliation as Toldot Aharon. He was up north that day so he couldn't take one of the vans or buses shuttling many of his neighbors to the protest, but the event has become a local legend, so naturally he's heard the stories. "Everybody still talks about it," Pinchas said, smiling as he recounted the "rescue" of the baby's corpse as if it were a biblical tale of the Israelites overcoming the enemy's fearsome army. "The police were all out there to guard the body, but their eyes became blinded," Pinchas said. "The police chief was telling the Shin Bet [sic] that he had everything under control, but the next thing they knew, the body was gone." Asked if he knew which individuals from Toldot Aharon or Toldot Avraham Yitzhak had personally been involved in stealing the girl's body and burying it, Pinchas replied: "It doesn't matter which individuals - everybody was involved. When something has to be done, everybody pitches in. You do this, then you do that, then you do that and in the end it's done." Police have a video of the riot at the cemetery showing the faces in the crowd, according to Hevra Kadisha burial society officials who were in the heart of the action all day. The video even shows several haredi men entering the cemetery building that houses the refrigerator where Malka was kept, and exiting minutes later. The evidence shows unmistakably that during those few minutes, her corpse was stolen, said Avi Deri, Hevra Kadisha's burial administrator at the cemetery, and Avraham Porges, his assistant. "About 10 men were involved in the theft," said Deri, who, like Porges, viewed parts of the video. The video was taken by cameras mounted on the roof of the cemetery building, so it doesn't show what went on inside, and the faces of some of the men involved are indistinct because not all of the roof cameras have infra-red vision. But some faces of the apparent culprits can be seen, said Deri and Porges. "You see men in the crowd wearing striped cloaks, and then later you see the faces of these same men gathered around the women's bathroom [where the thieves entered the cemetery building], and they're not wearing those cloaks anymore," said Porges, deducing that the body-snatchers had taken off their striped cloaks so they couldn't be identified as Toldot members and so they could blend back in with the black-clothed crowd right after they made off with the baby's body. THERE ARE an awful lot of questions to be asked about the death of Malka Sitner and the abduction of her corpse. However, police in Ashdod refused to be interviewed for this article. So did Lachish Region police. So did police at National Headquarters, except to say that an outside panel appointed to review the investigation had completed its report, which would be published later. The State Attorney's Office likewise refused to be interviewed. "You could see it on the policemen's faces when they were coming around here at first - they don't want this problem on their hands," said a haredi man on Rehov Hayasmin. "The police are leaving this alone - they don't want to cause provocations," said a married yeshiva student who lives in the Sitners' building. The morning after Malka's death and the theft of her corpse, the shiva for her began in the Sitners' third-floor apartment. Since shiva can only begin after burial, it was clear to police that the parents knew something. "They told the police afterward that they had gotten a call at about five in the morning from somebody who told them the baby had been buried," said Porges, who noted that he got this information from a colleague in ZAKA, the volunteer, largely-haredi Disaster Victims Identification unit that gathers remains of the dead for burial. His colleague, Porges added, had gotten the information from Ashdod police. (Hevra Kadisha, ZAKA and the Hatzolah ambulance service are all in regular contact with police, and all have overlapping haredi memberships, including Porges and Deri.) After learning of the 5 a.m. phone call to the Sitners' home, police examined the family's phone records and traced the call to a cell phone owned by an Arab man in east Jerusalem. "The police talked to the Arab, who told them a haredi man came up to him on the street and gave him 10 shekels to use his cell phone," said Porges. Porges added that on the day of Malka's death, her father said at the cemetery that he didn't need to know where his daughter would be buried, or need to visit her grave. "He told me he wanted the girl to be buried in Jerusalem. I told him that if she was buried in Jerusalem, he would not be allowed to take part in the funeral or be told where the grave was. That's the tradition in Jerusalem for the burial of children. He said this wasn't an issue for him," Porges recalled. Friedman, however, said that while it's true that immediate family members of children buried in Jerusalem traditionally do not attend the funeral, they are certainly told the location of the grave so they can visit later to say kaddish, the mourner's prayer. (The reason Malka's corpse was kept at an Ashdod cemetery was because of a compromise reached by the Sitners with Ashdod police, who wanted to take the body that morning for an autopsy at the coroner's office in Tel Aviv's Abu Kabir neighborhood. But a crowd of angry haredim gathered around to support the Sitners and blocked the exit of the ambulance called to transport the corpse. With the threat of mob violence increasing, Ashdod police Cmdr. Dani Algarat agreed to let the baby's body be taken to the city cemetery, while her family went to Ashdod Magistrate's Court to try to get the scheduled autopsy cancelled.) A prominent local rabbi who has been in close touch with the Sitners and who did not want his name published said now that the parents know their daughter is buried, "it isn't a problem for them, they don't mind" not knowing where the grave is located and not being able to visit it. "They don't know and they don't have to know. If they're believing Jews like us, they don't want to know," said two haredi men going into Rehov Hayasmin's Siach Yitz hak synagogue, which belongs to the Gur Hassidim. "Bubbeh mayses. I've never heard of such a thing," said Friedman to this claim, using the Yiddish term for "old wives tales." Except in the case of an infant who dies within 30 days of birth, he said, the Jewish religion requires family members to pray at the grave of the dead on the shloshim, or 30th day after death, and on the yortzeit, the anniversary. Rehov Hayasmin is dominated by the Gur's Siach Yitzhak synagogue, but residents come from various streams of the haredi world. The names on the doors in the Sitners' building are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and the corridors are pasted with a photo of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef along with car stickers proclaiming the Lubavitcher rebbe and Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav. Whether they applaud the body-snatching or not, there seems to be a consensus in the community that it was preferable to an autopsy. "I can understand why people think this way - respect for the dead is very important to us," said the rabbi, leaving his yeshiva students in their study hall to talk with me in his office. On the Sitners' street, a haredi man picking up his son from a nursery school said he was relieved that the little girl's body was prevented from going through an autopsy, but he "didn't like the way it was done." He noted that Ashdod's two leading haredi rabbis, Shmuel David Gross of Gur, the city's largest sect, and Haim Pesach Horowitz of the Belz Hassidim, the city's second largest, spent hours negotiating with police at the cemetery that day, and had finally reached a compromise to forestall the autopsy when the corpse was stolen. "It was a huge embarrassment for the rabbis," the father noted. But when asked if, on balance, he justified the stealing of the corpse as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being an autopsy, the man acknowledged that he did. Describing Simcha Sitner, the baby's father, as "a wonderful man, a tzaddik, he's the gabbai at a synagogue near here," the man on Rehov Hayasmin described the theft of the corpse as an act of mercy to the family. "The parents didn't want their daughter to have to go through something like that," he said, referring to an autopsy. This is the moderate haredi view of the Sitner affair. The hardline view was offered by a friend of the family, a yeshiva student in his early 20s who lives in the building next to theirs. His opinion of the stealing of Malka's body is no different from that of Pinchas, the Toldot Aharon follower I interviewed in Ramat Beit Shemesh. "You secular people are shocked," said the neighbor friend of the Sitners. "You think, 'These barbarians, how can they steal the dead body of a baby girl, how can they defy the law so brazenly?' But we're also shocked - that the police wanted to steal a body and cut it into pieces, and we're very happy we prevented it." He said he'd heard a step-by-step account of the crime from a friend who'd witnessed it. "It was very sophisticated. To accomplish such a feat in the middle of hundreds of police - they deserve a medal," said the Sitners' friend. "They knew there was a very high risk they would get caught and go to jail for a long time, but they did it - not for glory, or for money, only for the sake of performing a mitzva. I see this as a very exalted deed. I wouldn't have had the courage to do it. In my eyes, this was an act of heroism." THE HEAVY metal door to the refrigerator in the Ashdod cemetery, which was broken open with a crow bar by the body-snatchers, has been repaired. So has the broken window and bars in the wall dividing the women's bathroom from the room in which the refrigerator is located. The glass front doors to the cemetery building, which face the eulogy area where mourners gather at the start of a funeral and which were broken by two marauders at the head of the crowd, have been replaced. But the handprints and shoeprints on the wall leading up to the high, barred window between the women's bathroom and the room with the refrigerator have been left as is. While the plot was carried out by maybe 10 men, only one of them actually went in and grabbed Malka's corpse. "He put a trolley against the wall and climbed up to the window," said the Hevra Kadisha's Deri. The events of that Sunday, May 28 began, Porges recalled, when he got a message on his ZAKA beeper at 7:50 a.m. that there was a baby who'd stopped breathing at a grocery store a block from the Sitners' apartment. Hanna Sitner, the mother, had raced with the unconscious Malka to the store because the owner was a Hatzolah medic. But by the time Porges and Deri got there shortly after 8 a.m., the baby was dead. Questioning the Sitners, police investigators decided to have Malka taken to Abu Kabir for an autopsy. They were joined in their opinion by the State Attorney's Office. (It was widely reported that the Sitners previously had not had their daughter inoculated against infantile diseases. The Ashdod rabbi, who was with the parents in court for their appeal against the planned autopsy, said they showed Malka's inoculations booklet to the judge.) During on-scene investigations of several past deaths, Deri had been able to convince Ashdod police that an autopsy wasn't necessary, that there was nothing suspicious at hand. "But this time they insisted," he said. However, the agitated haredi crowd that had gathered outside the grocery store that morning refused to let the ambulance leave with the corpse for Abu Kabir. The crowd seemed on the verge of trashing the vehicle, Deri recalled. In emergency negotiations between the Sitners' representatives and Ashdod police Cmdr. Dani Algarat, an agreement was reached for Deri to drive the baby's body to the Ashdod cemetery, where it would be kept until the local magistrate's court decided on the family's appeal against the scheduled autopsy. Escorted by police, Deri pulled his ZAKA van up to the cemetery after 9:30 a.m., and locked the baby's corpse in the refrigerator. Soon afterward, the Sitners left the cemetery to go to their court hearing. "The news began to spread and people started coming," said Deri. "The Jerusalem police warned the Ashdod police that the extremists were coming in from Mea She'arim and Beit Shemesh." The crowd reached its full size towards 5 p.m., overflowing the eulogy area into the parking lot and beyond. Fewer than 100 of those present were from Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Yitzhak. Most everyone else was from Ashdod. Facing this crowd of 1,000 or so furious protesters were about 250 police. Towards 6 p.m., Deri unlocked the refrigerator and checked inside. "Her body was still there," he said. THE HAREDIM were chanting loudly. Many were cursing the police. Several of the extremists threw water bottles and debris, and two of them threw rocks. Meanwhile, the court hearing dragged on. Towards 7 p.m., as police were backed up against the cemetery building trying to keep the crowd from breaking in, two Toldot members smashed the front doors and rushed inside. One of them grabbed a gravedigger's shovel and threw it at a policeman guarding the front door, hitting him in the head and wounding him badly. "The police didn't arrest anybody, not even the guy who threw the shovel. They were standing up against the building like this," said Porges, ducking and covering his head with his hands as if for protection. "I was begging them to make arrests, so at least those people would have to pay for the damage," he added. Towards 11 p.m., things were coming to a head. The court decision was expected any minute. In the office where they'd been negotiating for hours, Rabbis Gross and Horowitz, who refused to allow an autopsy, pressed for a compromise with police Cmdr. Algarat. Then, in a part of the crowd far from the cemetery building where Malka's body was locked up, the stripe-cloaked extremists started a commotion. "They deliberately distracted the police to draw them away from the building," said Porges. Finally the rabbis reached a compromise with the police, and very shortly afterward the court decision came in. There would be no autopsy, not immediately at least, and the Sitners planned a Supreme Court appeal the next day against the Ashdod magistrate's order that DNA tests be performed on tissue samples from the baby's body. The rabbis, using a microphone from the cemetery office, announced the compromise to the crowd and told them to go home. Then Deri brought the microphone back to the office. "While I was inside I heard what sounded like a heavy piece of metal falling on the floor coming from the room with the refrigerator," he said. "I ran into the room and the refrigerator was open and the girl's body was gone." He ran outside and told police, then they went back inside the room with the refrigerator. "I saw somebody climbing out the broken window, but he was halfway out and all I could see were his legs," Deri said. By the time he and police got outside again to chase him, the body-snatcher and his accomplices had melted back into the thick crowd of black-garbed haredim. With police desperate to find the body, a haredi man cradling something wrapped in a prayer shawl started running away, and police raced after him. When they caught him, they found that there was no baby inside the prayer shawl. Elsewhere in the crowd, the men who stole Malka's corpse got away. THE NEWS moved like a wave through the tumultuous gathering. Porges recalled: "Everyone was saying, 'Kol hakavod to whoever did it.' But at the same time they didn't like that it was done against the rabbi's wishes. The rabbis, I think, were in shock." Police made one arrest, a rabbi who had been advising the Sitners, on suspicion that he had been in on the body theft, but they soon released him. One other would-be suspect was not arrested: the Gur Hassid who had been sitting inside the cemetery building all day and throughout the snatching of the corpse. He was there at the request of Simcha Sitner, who, before leaving the cemetery for the courthouse, asked the man to stay inside and pray for his daughter. Porges said he didn't know if the Hassid had assisted the men who stole the body, but added, "He didn't hinder them." The day afterward, Porges added, the Hassid left Ashdod. Afterward, in the haredi newspapers, Rabbis Gross and Horowitz issued a statement saying they didn't know about the crime either before or during the time it occurred. They also said they opposed any use of violence. But the local rabbi I interviewed, who is associated with Gross, said Ashdod's most prominent rabbi, the leader of the city's Gur Hassidim, did not criticize the stealing of the girl's body to avoid a possible autopsy. "He took no position for or against," said the rabbi. Furthermore, when police asked Gross to instruct his many followers to come forward with any information they might have about the crime, he claimed he didn't have the authority to do so, and that this was a matter only the gedolim, the supreme halachic authorities of the haredi community, could decide. The opinion heard on Rehov Hayasmin is that the Sitner case is closed. "What is there to investigate, that they took the baby to a homeopath? It's completely legal," said one of the men going into the synagogue. Malka Sitner's death, he said, was "the will of heaven." Standing in a parking lot on Ramat Beit Shemesh's badly paved Rehov Rabbi Yehoshua, where the walls are pasted with appeals for charity and warnings against threats to the community's piety, Pinchas, wearing a gray-green cloak with yellowish pin stripes, told me what he'd heard on the grapevine. "They say she's buried on the Mount of Olives," he said, referring to the ancient Jewish cemetery in east Jerusalem. Pinchas added that this wasn't the first time that people in his community had stolen a corpse and buried it secretly to prevent an autopsy. "The police made a big deal this time because it was a baby girl," he said in a matter-of-fact way. "I hope we don't have to do such a thing again," he concluded, "but if we do, we will."