Malka Leifer has been convicted and sentenced in Australia on multiple crimes of serious sexual abuse, including rape. It has taken 20 years for the wheels of justice to turn for her.
Sexual predators often misuse their authority or power to identify and prey on their victims and it is often the cynical use of power that is used to facilitate and protect them. Without moral and legal accountability and a strong civil society, this abuse will continue.
In an era when the justice system is under attack and civil servants and government legal advisers are next on the list for reform, it is worthwhile considering two aspects of this case. Without a strong and independent court system, the ability to bring offenders like Leifer to justice will be weakened – and without a vibrant, brave, and independent civic society, she may never have been extradited.
The Leifer case is not just about the perpetrator and the victims, but about a societal ecosystem doing battle in search of justice in the face of literal evil. For 13 of the 20 years since her crimes were committed, Leifer lived in Israel as a fugitive from Australian justice. For five years following her arrest in Israel, and facing the threat of extradition, she repeatedly faked mental illness in order to delay and avoid justice. For much of that period, she lived free in a hassidic community in Israel, where there surfaced new allegations of sexual abuse.
In 2017, Leifer’s accusers Nicole, Dassi, and Elly met with Magen’s CEO Shana Aaronson. Magen, a sexual abuse victim support organization, was looking for a way to assist in breaking the loop of dozens of barren court hearings. What came up in the conversation was the need to uncover that Leifer was faking her mental health condition, providing proof to the court that she was fit to stand trial. Although not requested by the sisters, Aaronson understood what needed to be done.
Magen – along with the now merged activist group JCW – hired a private investigator to attain the required proof. This was both an expensive and legally risky move. However, it was clear to Aaronson that this was a crucial piece of the puzzle on the road to justice. With some trepidation, she identified a reputable professional who also understood the hassidic community in which Leifer was living, and the work began.
Hiring a private investigator is no guarantee of success, but it quickly transpired that Leifer was taking no precautions to protect her cover story and that, unlike the repeated claims made in Jerusalem court proceedings, she was clearly quite well and fully functioning. Once this had been submitted to the court, the winds of justice blew in a different direction. Leifer was incarcerated, a new medical opinion was issued and the extradition process could proceed. It still took until 2020 for the perpetrator to be extradited to Australia. Who knows how long the process would have carried on, with Leifer free? Perhaps forever, denying justice to Nicole, Dassi, and Elly.
However, it was not only the fake mental illness in the courtroom that was hindering justice.
In 2019 then-health minister Ya’acov Litzman, considered one of the most powerful men in Israeli politics, was accused of using his ministerial power to interfere with state psychiatrists, influencing their medical opinion on behalf of Leifer. In 2022 he was convicted and sentenced to a suspended jail sentence and fined for his role in the affair.
This though, was not the first interference. When the allegations surfaced in 2008, members of Leifer’s community made sure she escaped arrest by spiriting her off to Israel. Commenting on the sentencing of Leifer, long-time community activist Manny Waks wrote “We are pleased that Victoria Police is continuing to investigate the alleged criminal actions of the Adass Israel School leadership in facilitating Leifer’s evasion from justice. We hope and expect that they, too, will be held to full account.”
It seems that the Adass communal loyalty to one of its own came at the expense of Leifer’s victims, who were forced to wait an additional 15 years for justice.
Since 2008, a great deal has changed – in the aftermath of this and other high-profile cases. Aaronson expresses some optimism: “Since word of the Leifer case started coming out in 2008, the haredi community’s attitudes about sexual abuse have changed drastically. There is significantly more awareness, more conversation, and many more survivors reaching out for help, and many more pressing charges.”
However, significant challenges remain. The community is shifting, but parts of the leadership are not.
When does community solidarity become toxic tribalism? When it becomes a tool of the powerful to protect the wicked – although those who decided to assist Leifer in escaping from Australia and interfered in her extradition proceedings, wouldn’t see it that way. No one has taken responsibility or asked for forgiveness from the victims.
Indeed, just as Leifer begins her sentence in Australia another Israeli minister is abusing his power.
This time it is veteran politician Meir Porush, minister for Jerusalem and Jewish heritage, who is helping convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland with his entry visa to Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. When challenged last week by Kikar Hashabbat website reporter Yishai Cohen, Porush claimed that he was not acting as a minister, but simply “helping a hassid visit his rebbe.” Of course, Porush’s intervention to assist Berland with his visa is entirely reliant on his position as an Israeli government minister.
Power over her victims
SEXUAL PREDATORS are predominantly driven by a sense of power over their victims. Leifer’s case is a clear abuse of power as a teacher, blended with the misuse of power by the facilitators of this evil to protect the predator.
The question of how a democratic country operates successfully has been at the center of a fierce public debate in Israel. At its core is the argument about moderation of power in society – and how it is used or shared. How power is distributed within different parts of a democratic society and at a micro-level within and between communities will predict whether power itself – left unbridled – becomes corrupted.
In the case of Leifer, those without power but with the passion for doing what’s right were successful, but we shouldn’t be under any illusion that this is true every time, and the Berland case is a topical reminder.
A combination of social activism from below and separation of powers from above can protect those least able to protect themselves.
The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva, and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.