Taliban sisters - Nir Keidar - 05112011
The 'Taliban sisters' arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport earlier this week. Photo by Nir Keidar
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In a precedent-setting move, an Israeli court is expected to decide next week whether it is legal to belong to the extreme ultra-Orthodox group Lev Tahor, known as "the Taliban sect." A decision reached this week by a family court in Rishon Letzion indicates that a ruling on Lev Tahor's legality is imminent.

The decision follows what appears to be the conclusion of an international family drama involving two sisters from Beit Shemesh who belong to the Taliban sect. The two were forcibly returned to Israel on Sunday under an order issued by the court. The sisters, 13 and 15, were en route to a Lev Tahor village located on the outskirts of Montreal, Canada.

The brother of the sister's grandmother petitioned for the writ; the great-uncle was concerned that the girls might be harmed living in the Canadian community.

The Lev Tahor community is a cult, he contended; should the girls enter it, they would be stripped of all their property, he wrote, and they would be compelled to wed male members of the cult, which is an accepted practice among all young women in the group.

The Israeli court upheld the petition, finding that "there is some defect in the parents' perception of ways of life."

Judge Rivka Makayes ruled that the writ will remain in effect until next week, at which time a family court in Jerusalem will hold a hearing to decide whether the pious lifestyle upheld by the parents is marred by such a defect.

The Jerusalem court's ruling will have implications for all members of the Taliban sect in Israel. Should the court find that it is illegal to belong to the community, social welfare agencies will be able to take immediate steps to remove children from the control of parents who are affiliated with Lev Tahor.

Bringing the Beit Shemesh sisters back to Israel was an international operation, involving the foreign ministry and Interpol. The goal of the operation was to stop the pair from entering the ultra-Orthodox community in Canada.

The community was established about a decade ago, and today has about 45 families, some of them newly Orthodox Israeli families. Women are clothed from head to foot in black garb.

The leader of the Lev Tahor community calls himself Shlomo Elbarnes. From Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, this charismatic figure began forming extremist Orthodox groups in the United States some 20 years ago. His followers are said to heed his authority entirely.

Elbarnes brought his followers to Canada after U.S. authorities expelled him due to charges that he coercively asserted control over a 13-year-old minor. Elbarnes settled with his group outside of Montreal, where they are said to be fervently religious, holding prayer services that last nearly the entire day.

Rituals of the Lev Tahor community reportedly involve lashing anyone considered a "sinner," and sending 14-year-old girls to the wedding canopy.

At dawn last Wednesday, the parents of the Beit Shemesh girls put their daughters on a flight to Montreal, intending for them to join the Lev Tahor group after the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

"We checked the place thoroughly, and it seemed suitable,' said L., the mother of the girls, who spoke on Monday at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

But when the girls reached the airport in Canada, two Canadian officials detained them and said they would not be able to enter the country.

"We reached the airport in Canada," the older of the two young women said. "We saw people from Lev Tahor waiting to take us to their community, but suddenly policemen came and took us aside."

"We tried to resist. We screamed and cried," the girls said Monday after they were brought back to Israel. Due to the Rosh Hashanah holiday, they were not immediately flown back to Israel. They were temporarily placed under the care of a family in a Canadian orphanage. Sunday morning, they were put on a return flight to Israel, where they remained under the watchful eyes of Canadian police representatives.

When they reached Ben-Gurion International Airport, the two were taken by authorities to meet with a social worker from Beit Shemesh. The social worker phoned their parents, who had no knowledge of their daughters' return to Israel. The social worker informed the parents that the girls were being held at the airport.

According to the parents, the social workers stated that their daughters would only be permitted to return to them if the parents signed a form attesting that they would not try again to send the pair to the Lev Tahor community in Canada.

The girls were released after the parents' attorney reached the airport.

The lawyer, Yair Nehorai, stated that "the behavior of the various authorities in this affair seems problematic."

The Beit Shemesh municipality responded that "concerns about the welfare and security of these girls is what motivated decisions reached in this matter. All the decisions were reached in full coordination with the Social Affairs Ministry and in accordance with obligatory procedures."