Israel justice system let down abuse victims, it’s time to do the right thing

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 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The case of Malka Leifer, the Israeli woman wanted in Australia on 74 charges of sexual abuse including allegedly raping several female students when principal of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Adass Israel School in Melbourne in the early 2000s, is becoming increasingly farcical and is harming Israel’s international reputation as a vibrant democracy with a functioning judiciary.
Leifer came to Australia in 2000 to take on the role of school principal. When in 2008, the Adass leadership became aware of allegations that she had been allegedly sexually abusing pupils, Australian media reported that they allegedly purchased a one-way ticket for her back to Israel. In 2011, around the time when stories of children being sexually abused in Jewish institutions in Australia began to emerge, some of Leifer’s alleged victims went to the police and provided statements.
The following year, Australian police formally requested that Israel extradite Leifer to Australia to face charges. In 2014, Israel detained Leifer, but she was soon released to house arrest.
It was then that the games began, with Leifer’s legal team – led by one of Israel’s best-known criminal defense lawyers, Yehuda Fried – relying on a loophole in Israeli law which prevents a person who was mentally unwell from facing an extradition hearing.
According to reports this was the first time in Israel that such an argument had been used by a defendant facing extradition. During multiple court hearings, Leifer’s lawyers argued that she was too unwell to participate in any hearings. Apparently, she was not even in a position to communicate. They said that she suffered psychotic episodes and panic attacks requiring her hospitalization. Medical reports were produced to support their arguments. The fact that, according to critics, her condition only arose before every court hearing did not seem to matter.
Meanwhile, Leifer’s alleged victims continued to suffer and the Israeli justice system continued to let them down. It was clear that her lawyers would try every strategy possible to delay attempts to bring her to justice. Some in the haredi community supported her, and believed that she was either the victim of false allegations, could not be extradited for some misguided halachic reason or – as we have seen in numerous cases of child sexual abuse in haredi communities – came up with other justification.
IN 2016, LEIFER was found to be mentally unfit to face court, and her house arrest was lifted. According to ABC news in Australia she was required to see a psychiatrist, and a psychiatric panel was instructed to submit a report every six months to a court. This arrangement was put in place for ten years.
In 2018, an undercover operation revealed what many of us already knew: Malka Leifer was allegedly not mentally ill but was accused of “faking mental illness,” according to reports. Investigators took hours of video showing Leifer living a normal life in between required psychiatric check-ups.
Leifer was charged with a range of offenses relating to obstructing justice for allegedly feigning her mental health injuries. She has been in the psychiatric ward of an Israeli prison since February 2018.
Since then, Leifer’s defense has been desperately trying to get her released on bail. At one of the hearings in 2018, they pulled out a trump card. Her defense surprised everyone by inviting prominent ultra-Orthodox leader, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, a recipient of the prestigious 2004 Israel Prize, who offered to supervise Leifer if the judge released her into custody. The judge agreed. Within days, Grossman withdrew his support for Leifer after a public outcry and threats from donors to withdraw financial support to his institutions. Leifer remained in prison.
How is it that in 2018, a senior rabbi with no connection to a matter, can walk into a court and influence a judge in this manner? I would expect this to occur in a country that is not a democracy. But not in Israel. And why would a religious leader try to help an alleged perpetrator of child sexual abuse? This would only create unnecessary pain and suffering to victims who were so desperately seeking justice.
AFTER MORE THAN TEN years since fleeing to Israel and 45 court hearings, a judge is deciding whether or not Leifer is mentally fit to be extradited to Australia. A key witness in the case is the evidence of Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes. When Leifer was released from house arrest in 2016, a psychiatric report by Charnes found her mentally unfit.
In 2018, after Leifer’s re-arrest where video evidence showed she was seemingly faking mental illness, Charnes, as chief psychiatrist, signed off on a medical report by his colleagues, reversing his previous assessment, but mysteriously took him months to do so. Then, last month, Charnes reportedly changed his position again and recommended to the court to appoint another medical panel to re-assess Leifer.
Recently, it has emerged that Israel’s Deputy Health Minister, the ultra-Orthodox Yaakov Litzman MK, is suspected of meeting with Charnes to “sway” him into falsely reporting that Leifer was mentally unwell, according to Times of Israel. Doctors within the Health Ministry, which is run by Health Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have apparently repeatedly had their jobs threatened if they did not comply.
Late last year when three courageous alleged victims of Leifer – Nicole Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper – visited the Knesset for support in their campaign to bring Leifer to justice, they happened to run into Litzman in the corridors. When they sought his support, according to The Herald Sun he responded that he knew “the other side of the story” and he did not support Leifer’s extradition. Furthermore, he allegedly told them that he would not interfere in the case. If the police investigations are to be believed, this was a misleading to these poor girls who had traveled across the world to seek justice.
IT IS IMPERATIVE that Leifer is returned to Australia to face her accusers. She will be given a fair hearing to determine her guilt or innocence. That it has taken this long and yet, she is not closer to being returned to Australia should be a source of embarrassment to Israel. Extraditions are a normal part of relations between Western democracies, particularly those who are supposed to be close friends. Why should Israel be any different? Because the alleged perpetrator is Jewish? Or because she is religious, at least externally?
The alleged victims not only deserve justice but they deserve answers. So do the Australian people and the mainstream Jewish community who are so committed to loving and supporting Israel. Why has it taken so long for this extradition request to be fulfilled? Who is funding Leifer’s defense? Has government corruption been involved?
The Israeli public must be made aware of what has gone on and if there has been any corruption involved on Israel’s part. There has been far too much corruption among Israeli politicians. If found guilty, those responsible must be punished to the full extent of the law.
Litzman must step down immediately, while the investigation is still pending. And so should Charnes.
The Israeli public needs to ask whether they want to continue being a safe haven for Jewish pedophiles from all over the world, and whether they want to keep putting their own children in danger. This is an issue we continue to address by working with the Knesset’s Committee for the Rights of the Child.
Now, Israel has the opportunity to show that it has a strong justice system, as expected of the Jewish state. It is time to bring this farce to an end. Leifer needs to face her accusers in Australia, and if found guilty, pay the penalty for her crimes. Once this happens, her alleged victims can truly begin the process of healing. They have been through enough, without having to take on a corrupt Israeli system to get justice.
Until this happens, Israel’s international reputation will justifiably continue to suffer.
Manny Waks is CEO of Kol v’Oz, an Israel-based organization combatting child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. He is also a survivor of child sexual abuse at a Chabad institution in Melbourne, Australia.