My investigation in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age:
The legal pursuit in Israel of alleged sexual predator Malka Leifer took a strange turn this week.
As she fought extradition attempts by Victoria Police over 74 charges of child sexual abuse, the 54-year-old first gained, then lost the support of influential Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman.
Grossman is a highly respected rabbi in Israel. He was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2004 – Israel’s highest cultural honour – and he’s the founder and head of Migdal Ohr, a major NGO that helps children and underprivileged teens across Israel.
But last week, in a surprise appearance before the Jerusalem district court, he pledged to monitor Leifer under house arrest if the judge agreed to her release from police custody.
It was “humiliating”, he claimed, for Leifer to remain incarcerated, and bad for her mental health.
The court apparently agreed and authorised her release.
Leifer is a former teacher and principal at Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Adass Israel girls’ school, who fled Australia with the aid of the Adass community after her alleged offending was revealed.
One of Leifer’s alleged victims, Melbourne-based Dassi Erlich, was gutted at the court’s decision.
“We are trying so desperately to hold onto hope and trying to desperately see justice. We want to hold onto the fact that we will see her back in Australia one day,” she said.
However, early this week, Grossman reversed his position and withdrew support for Leifer, citing the perception that his backing had been “interpreted as supporting an attempt to avoid trial”.
There are many confounding aspects of this case including the role of Rabbi Grossman.
Grossman has assisted accused sexual predators before, including Breslov Rabbi Eliezer Berland who fought extradition to Israel from South Africa. Grossman went to South Africa twice and argued for Berland to be given bail.
Ultimately, Berland was sentenced in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2016 after admitting to one assault and two counts of indecent acts.
So why did Grossman back away from Leifer?
Multiple sources in both Australia and Israel said the backlash against the rabbi’s decision to support Leifer was immediate. Donors, staff and some board members of his Migdal Ohr organisation objected to his move on social media, and directly to the organisation.
One source said that he personally knew people who had contacted board members to complain, only to be told they were sullying the reputation of a fine man.
However a social media campaign involving Australian and American activists and a number of Australian rabbis put moral pressure on the rabbi. An open letter addressed to Grossman said Leifer’s alleged crimes had “caused untold pain and suffering”.
“Your conduct in this matter raises many serious questions … By involving yourself in legal proceedings which have nothing to do with you for the purpose of supporting an alleged multiple rapist and child sexual abuser and in showing no regard for the pain and suffering of her alleged victims, you are guilty of not only gross Rabbinic overreach but have also committed a huge Chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name), which has brought the entire Jewish community into disrepute,” the letter read.
More than that, sources say, was the threat to the funding of Migdal Ohr.
Rabbi Grossman’s group claims to endorse child protection, and sources have told Fairfax Media many key funders, particularly in the United States, demanded that Grossman retract his support for Leifer.
About half the funding for Grossman’s organisation comes from the Israeli government, and the rest from Jewish communities from across the world including Canada, Brazil and Britain and 10 percent from the Jewish Agency for Israel. The United Israel Appeal Australia (UIA) donates money to the Jewish Agency but a representative from the UIA in Melbourne told Fairfax Media that “we’re transparent about where our money goes” and none had ever been sent to Migdal Ohr.
“Rabbi Grossman didn’t have a moral realisation”, the source said. “He didn’t issue an apology for the hurt caused [to Leifer’s victims.]”
One source told Fairfax Media that Grossman knew about the allegations against Leifer as far back as 2012 and supported her.
Fairfax approached Rabbi Grossman Enterprises for a response, but was referred to his earlier statement.
Leifer has been fighting extradition to Australia for four years. She fled from Australia to Israel soon after the allegations were aired in 2008, living there while alleging she was mentally unfit to stand trial.
But police were forced to act after an Israeli private investigator filmed more than 200 hours of footage of Leifer in an occupied West Bank settlement and found her to be a “normal, healthy person”.
She remains in custody while an Israeli judge assesses an appeal to deny her access to house arrest.
There are growing calls from the Jewish community within Australia for the Israeli legal system to facilitate Leifer’s extradition to Australia and face justice. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in 2017 said that, “justice demands that she be brought back to Australia to answer the charges.”
In 2015, Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush ordered the Adass Israel girls’ school to pay $1,024,428 in damages to Ms Erlich.
Leifer’s fate remains in the balance. Well connected in the secretive Hassidic community, along with her husband Jacob, she’ll undoubtedly fight to stay in Israel and never return to Australia. If the Israeli court finds that she cannot remain in a psychiatric ward and with Rabbi Grossman’s offer now void, she may be released back into the Israeli community. Her victims demand that she faces court in Australia.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe”, and was based in Jerusalem in 2016/2017.