Good Old Days in Eretz Israel

The story of an alleged rape in Mea She'arim that had the whole country in an uproar, 100 years ago.

This is a the story of an alleged rape in Mea She'arim, Jerusalem, 100 years ago. "The whole country was in an uproar," wrote S.Y. Agnon, "saying this is Jerusalem and these are its Hasids."

When she told her grandmother she had been raped, Haya Dina Sofa Kaiser was about 15 years old. Her father, Alter Noah Kaiser, was an admor - a rabbinical leader - born in Ukraine with a colorful and adventurous life story that eventually took him to London, a man who was known for his amazing power to heal the sick. In 1909 he sent his mother, his daughter and her younger brother by two years to Jerusalem. He lodged them at the Warshawsky Hotel, which operated at the time in Mea She'arim. The owner of the hotel, Yaakov Yosef Herling, promised to see to whatever the family needed, in return for his fees.

Kook - 2.2012

In 1912, a 70-page pamphlet was published in Jaffa, with the title "The Swindler in Jerusalem, or The Macher from Kollel Warsaw," macher being Yiddish for a self-important fixer, and kollel being a full-time religious-studies center for married men. Its author, Arieh Meir Kaiser, was the older brother of the two children; he wrote in Yiddish. He described the Warshawsky Hotel as a brothel that also catered to homosexual activity. Moreover, he claimed that "Arabs without manners and, in general, suspicious people" also lodged there. Kaiser related in detail how hotelkeeper Herling, the swindler and macher of the title, made servants of the two children and raped the girl. According to her, it happened on the night before Yom Kippur: Herling sent her to the cellar to bring chickens for the kapparot ritual, in which sins are symbolically transferred to the fowl. He followed her, gagged her with feathers and did what he did.

A few days after the pamphlet was published, the Hebrew newspapers began reporting the story and Herling, a prominent figure in Agudas Israel, the ultra-Orthodox political movement, sued Kaiser in a rabbinical court. He vehemently denied he had raped the girl and claimed Kaiser was defaming him in order to avoid paying the debt owed by his family to the hotel.

Natan Baron, a veteran journalist and researcher of the history of the courts in Israel, writes in the latest issue of the journal Cathedra (published by the Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute ) that the importance of this affair goes beyond the personal stories of the people involved: It has a place in the history of society, politics and the press here.

At the time, there were three newspapers coming out in Jerusalem: Haor, Herut and Moriah, and all of them gave extensive coverage to the story, which was quite sensational and "yellow" even in terms of our times, and included details of the medical examinations of the girl. One female doctor determined she had not been raped, whereas a male doctor determined she was not a virgin.

Kaiser's trial was held in Jaffa. It attracted hundreds of curiosity seekers but only few managed to enter the home of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the city's chief rabbi. Kook was a friend of Kaiser's and had received money from him before the affair. It would have been appropriate for him to have recused himself. Instead, he established a special rabbinical court and in an unprecedented manner appointed six of the city's notable Jews as judges, among them Mordecai Ben Hillel Hacohen and Yaakov Shertok. Hacohen was an uncle of Rosa Cohen, Yitzhak Rabin's mother; Shertok was the father of Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister, Moshe Sharett. This family context is relevant because the trial was depicted as a confrontation between "the Old Yishuv" - the Jewish community in Palestine predating the Zionist movement - and "the new Yishuv"; between Jerusalem and Jaffa; and between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular Zionists. The court held 12 sessions, heard 43 witnesses and toured the hotel. Finally the judges decided not to pass a verdict but only to publish the findings of their inquiries. In other words, the plaintiff, who claimed he had been wrongly accused of rape, was not vindicated. However, neither evidence of homosexual activity at the hotel nor of regular Arab lodgers was found.

Rabbi Kook asked to add a minority opinion, but the six judges refused his request: In no way were they able to agree to most of his comments, which were contrary to their conscience, and they published their decision without his input. Kook decided to remain silent; to this day it is not known what his opinion was.

In any case, in Mea She'arim, they continued to believe that their community had fallen victim to a nefarious secular plot and that the girl had made up the whole story. As was their wont then - as it is today - they wrote of Haya Dina Sofa Kaiser that her "impurity was blatantly obvious and perhaps she wickedly lusted after someone, and perhaps she wanted to get a prostitute's fee, and perhaps she bribed some individual."

The Warshawsky Hotel relocated from Mea She'arim to the center of Jerusalem and remained in the ownership of the Herling family until it shut down in the 1960s. The family's subsequent history would seem to reflect the victory of secular Zionism: Yaakov Yosef Herling's grandson was Brig. Gen. Avraham Arnan, the founder of the Sayeret Matkal special operations unit in the Israel Defense Forces.