The welcome extradition of Malka Leifer - opinion

Someone who takes advantage of his or her position of authority to prey on subordinates for sexual gratification warrants no sympathy.

MALKA LEIFER, surrounded by Israel Prison Service guards, covers her face in Jerusalem District Court on February 14, 2018.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
MALKA LEIFER, surrounded by Israel Prison Service guards, covers her face in Jerusalem District Court on February 14, 2018.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
 It appears that the extremely lengthy extradition saga of Malka Leifer is finally coming to an end. On Tuesday, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the accused pedophile against sending her packing to Australia, where she is wanted on 74 counts of rape and sexual abuse.
Though she still has another chance to appeal after Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn signed off on her extradition, there is little chance that such a move would bear fruit at this point. By now, Leifer’s lawyers have exhausted every avenue and used any lame excuse to keep their client from being sent back to the scene of her “alleged” crimes.
The reason that “alleged” should be in quotation marks here is that one of her defense team’s arguments over the past six years was that her sexual relations with the girls in the Adass Israel School in Melbourne – where she served as principal – were consensual. In other words, she acknowledges that the sex took place.
Adding insult to injury, one of her attorneys, Nick Kaufman, said, “It is simply unreasonable that [the alleged victims] did not know what those sexual acts were, and that they were not able to refuse.”
To lend credence to his argument, he peculiarly quoted one witness who stated, “I was afraid to say no. [Leifer] had a powerful personality. If I hadn’t done what she wanted, she would have become angry with me.”
Kaufman argued – ridiculously – that this meant her fear had been “subjective,” as opposed to the result of an actual threat.
Not only is the assertion of the students’ “consent” preposterous, but it’s completely different from what Leifer claimed when the first complaint surfaced in 2008. At the time, she not only denied the accusation, but got huffy about how it would ruin her reputation.
Well, she was right about that. But any damage to her name is well-deserved. Someone who takes advantage of his or her position of authority to prey on subordinates for sexual gratification warrants no sympathy.
Leifer’s conduct – if an Australian court deems her guilty – was particularly heinous, however. As headmistress of a religious school, which keeps girls and boys completely separate and teaches the strictest interpretation of Orthodox Judaism, she would have been able to groom her victims without raising suspicion.
Indeed, her womanhood would have given her an advantage in the context of her job and within the wider hassidic community. Particularly being the mother of eight children, her initial advances couldn’t possibly have raised the slightest red flag among the girls in her “educational” care.
Nor would the girls’ parents have considered any signs of affection on the part of a female educator to be inappropriate, in the way that they might have if Leifer had been a man. It is also unlikely that they would have believed their daughters if any had thought or dared to tell.
This is precisely how Leifer would have managed to get away with the alleged abuse for at least five of the eight years that she was employed at the school. It would have enabled her to pull the wool over the eyes of her victims, at least eight of whom have come forward.
THE FIRST of these, Dassi Erlich, revealed her story in 2007. After marrying in 2006 and moving to Israel, Erlich experienced post-trauma from the alleged abuse and sought therapy.
In February 2008, her therapist took the issue seriously, and contacted a colleague in Melbourne, who then spoke to a teacher at the school. That teacher then confronted Leifer, who dismissed the idea that she had crossed any boundaries with Erlich or anybody else. (As it happens, Erlich’s two sisters were among Leifer’s other alleged victims.)
The teacher also discussed the matter with senior Adass Israel rabbis and representatives of the school board. The latter then held a meeting in March 2008, during which they phoned Leifer to hear what she had to say.
Despite her angry denial and righteous indignation, she, her husband and four of her children were on a flight to Tel Aviv that very night. Their trip was funded by members of the school board.
Clearly, those paragons of religious virtue thought that helping a suspected sex criminal abscond, rather than informing the Melbourne police, was preferable to a public scandal. And this is how Leifer – a dual Australian-Israeli citizen – ended up back in the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the Melbourne police conducted an investigation and issued a warrant for her arrest. For the many years since then, Canberra has been requesting that Israel extradite her to stand trial in Australia.
Leifer was arrested in Israel in the summer of 2014 as part of an Interpol operation, and placed under house arrest in Bnei Brak, where she was living at the time. It was then that the circus of her extradition hearings – and numerous postponements on the grounds of grave “mental-health issues” – began to take place.
Astonishingly, in 2016, the court not only bought her contention of being unfit to stand trial and suspended her extradition hearings, but removed her house-arrest restrictions, as well. This is when she moved to the settlement of Emmanuel, where her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Leifer, heads the Chust Hassidic community.
Unbeknownst to Leifer, private investigators caught 200 hours of her on video going about business as usual in Emmanuel, with no apparent incapacitation. She was re-arrested by the Israel Police in February 2018 and detained at the Neve Tirza Women’s Prison in Ramle.
But not for long. A few weeks later, she was released into the custody of a rabbi who later withdrew his support, and she was sent back to Neve Tirza for the duration of the extradition proceedings.
Yet again, she was given the benefit of the doubt, and sent for psychiatric testing to determine whether she was fit for the hearings. In the summer of 2019, a court-appointed medical committee came to the conclusion that she had been faking a mental illness.
And then came the coronavirus pandemic, which put a months-long halt on non-urgent court sessions. So Leifer was off the hook once more, giving her defense team additional time to invent pretexts to prevent her extradition.
One of these was the claim that their client would not be able to maintain her ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in an Australian prison. Presumably, they meant that she wouldn’t be treated to glatt kosher food in a jail Down Under, not that she couldn’t engage in the activities she’s accused of having perpetrated while heading an Orthodox school.
Thankfully, in May, she was deemed fit to stand trial for her extradition, which the Jerusalem District Court ordered in September. This week’s Supreme Court decision sealed her fate, and let’s hope it’s once and for all.
Leifer’s alleged victims aren’t the only ones heaving a sigh of relief after so many years. Israelis and Australians of all stripes agree that it’s high time she returned to Australia to face a jury of her peers.
What most people also concur with is that Israel must not allow itself to become a safe haven for Jews evading justice in the Diaspora, especially where cases involving multiple counts of child sex abuse are concerned.
Leifer’s long, drawn-out escape from Australian law enforcement is a stain on the Israeli judicial system that no white-washing can erase. It also serves as encouragement to others of her ilk.
It’s a far cry from the “ingathering of exiles” that Moses or the rest of us had in mind.