Accusations were hurled in the Knesset on Tuesday at the State Prosecutor’s Office for purportedly failing to protect more than 100 Israeli children who, according to testimony, are being severely abused in an extreme ultra-Orthodox cult that fled Israel for Canada.
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Police and prosecutors say that since early last year they have been examining complaints and testimonies about the Lev Tahor (Pure Heart) community, made up mostly of Israelis, but that there are legal obstacles to any action being taken in Canada.
The evidence about the cult headed by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, a newly religious Israeli who left Israel with a group of followers in 1990, began to accumulate over the past 18 months, following a feature in Haaretz’s weekend supplement. During this time, families of community members complained to police of abuse, physical punishment, and the use of psychiatric drugs to control members of the cult, as well as the kidnapping of children from their families in Israel and forced marriages of 14-year-old girls with adult men. The community lived in the town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in Quebec for the past 13 years, before moving to Ontario several days ago after Canadian police began to investigate them.
On Tuesday the Knesset’s Committee on the Rights of the Child held a hearing on Lev Tahor, and families of the cult members as well as MKs slammed the State Prosecutor’s Office for dragging its feet on the case.
“Help these Jewish children! What was the State of Israel established for?” demanded the grandfather of children in the cult. Another grandfather of children at Lev Tahor referred to them as “holocaust children.”
MK Yariv Levin (Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu), who called for the hearing, berated the State Prosecutor’s Office for proceeding slowly with the investigation. “Every day that goes by is a horrendous crime,” he said. Haredi MK’s expressing their disgust at the cult, with MK Yaakov Margi (Shas) recommending that police special units raid the sect “and load them all on trucks.”
Deputy state prosecutor Galit Greenberg said, “The State of Israel was acting according to all the means legally available” to protect the children, but added that “there is an obvious difficulty in obtaining evidence when it comes to sects,” on top of the difficulty of dealing with alleged crimes committed abroad. Greenberg did not say whether Israel had asked Canada to investigate the matter.
MK Orly Levi-Abekasis (Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu) criticized the prosecutor’s office, saying, “Anyone aware of the testimonies cannot remain indifferent,” she said. “We have a role, a duty and responsibility towards Israeli children, and for the past two years the prosecutor’s office is dragging its feet when it comes to saving them, failing to coordinate activity with social, foreign and educational officials. Bottom line – the prosecutor’s office has failed.”
The Lev Tahor community denied the allegations in writing, quoting excerpts said to come from the Canadian press that gave the community a clean bill of health. The community demanded that the Knesset “cancel this cruel and evil debate that might have severe consequences for Jews throughout the world, encouraging anti-Semitism everywhere and hatred of Israel. There shall be no forgiveness for this.”
Mutually opposing testimony was given by a brother and sister of cult members. Orit Cohen was one of the women who complained to police, while her brother, Shaul Bayer, was the cult’s lone defender at the hearing. Last May, Bayer, who lives in Beit Shemesh, tried to cross the Jordanian border with his children in an effort to defy a court injunction barring his departure from Israel. He was caught and brought back to the country. At the hearing he denied all the accusations against cult leaders, saying that the children in the community were “calm and happy.” He claimed that Helbrans was being “persecuted” due to his anti-Zionist opinions.
The committee requested that the prosecutor’s office, police and the education, social affairs and foreign ministries hold a meeting on the issue within days. Levin said that he recently discussed the matter with Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who, Levin said, “wasn’t familiar with the issue.”