Leaders of the Jewish community of Australia on Wednesday welcomed an Israeli court ruling that paves the way for the extradition of accused pedophile Malka Leifer but questioned why it took so long.
The Jerusalem District Court ruled on Tuesday that Leifer – indicted in Australia on 74 counts of rape and sexual assault – is mentally fit to stand trial. The former principal of a religious school for girls in Melbourne had fled to Israel in 2008, after she was charged. In 2014, Australia requested her extradition after she was located by Israeli police. She has since claimed that she is mentally unfit to stand trial.
Peter Wertheim, co-chief executive officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the Israeli court ruling marks “a long-awaited and long-overdue milestone” in the quest to bring Leifer to justice in Australia.
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He noted that “for far too long,” justice has been “delayed and denied” to Leifer’s alleged victims – former pupils at her school. “We have moved closer to that goal, but we are not there yet,” said Wertheim, in an email to Haaretz.
The date for Leifer’s next court session is July 20. Even if the court denies an expected appeal against her extradition, there may be other hurdles to overcome, he said, such as complications in transporting her to Australia because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He expressed hope that the court ruling will “mark the end of the scandalous maneuverings that have marred the judicial process in Israel in this case.” He noted, in particular, the unexplained reversals of testimony by the Jerusalem district psychiatrist about Leifer’s mental fitness, the evidence that Leifer has been malingering, the “seemingly endless rounds of psychiatric assessments,” and the fact that Yaakov Litzman, the former Israeli health minister has been charged by police with manipulating psychiatric evidence in the case.
To say the ruling had been a long time coming, noted Vic Alhadeff, chief executive of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, “would be the ultimate understatement.”
“Everyone is innocent until proven otherwise, and it is essential in the interests of justice that these allegations are tested in court and that this deeply painful issue can be finally resolved,” he added in an email.
Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus College, a leading Modern Orthodox day school in Melbourne, said he was “delighted” by what he described as “this long overdue verdict from the court.”
“It is clear that Malka Leifer has been playing the system in order to avoid justice and extradition, and I am pleased that it seems that justice will catch up with her very soon,” he added in a phone conversation.
Asked whether he believed that Israel’s relations with the Australian Jewish community would get back on course following the ruling, he said: “It is hard to say with confidence, but I am optimistic that once Malka Leifer is back in Australia and facing justice, then the rift will be healed.״
Jeremy Liebler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, seemed to concur. Describing the Jewish community of Australia as “probably one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Jewish community in the world in terms of its relationship with Israel,” he noted that close to 80 percent of its members identified as “proud Zionists” and an unusually large proportion had visited Israel.
“The unacceptable delays and the supposedly inappropriate involvement of Yaakov Litzman did cast a shadow over relations in that it caused Australians to ask a lot of questions and express concerns, quite rightfully, in relation to those issues,” he told Haaretz in a phone conversation. “But I don’t believe that at any point in time it irreparably damaged or severed the relationship. It strained the relationship in the way that a disagreement among a family can cause strain within a family, but it didn’t fundamentally alter the commitment that the Australian Jewish community has to the state of Israel.”
He said that “when the day comes,” and Malka Leifer returns to Australia to face justice, “I believe that the Australian Jewish community will move on and continue its very strong connection and relationship with the state of Israel.”
Uri Windt, the publisher of Plus61J – an online publication that serves the progressive Jewish community of Australia – said he believed the relationship between Israel and Australian Jewry “will kind of recalibrate itself” following the court ruling. The official leadership of the Jewish community has long tended to show “extreme restraint” in its criticism of Israel, he said in a phone conversation. In the case of Leifer, however, it deviated from the norm.
“With the court ruling, the Zionist leadership can now say that the situation has been rectified, and therefore, we’re back to normal,” said Windt.