The arrest Monday of 22 ultra-Orthodox suspects on sexual offenses allegedly committed over the past two years against juveniles and women comes at a time of major change in the attitude of the Haredi public regarding the handling of sexual offenses. This is reflected first of all in a new level of cooperation between the Haredim and the police, even including educational institutions affiliated with particularly insular Haredi factions.
Another change relates to intensive coverage that Haredi news websites now devote to sexual offenses, even if it doesn’t extend to Haredi print journalism. It does, however, extend to Haredi social media.
But these arrests are a reminder that the traditional method of attempting to deal with sexual offenses within the community persists. Allegedly, records concerning the sexual predators were kept by a single person – known in Haredi circles as a “fixer.” This person is said to have operated under the auspices of a Jerusalem-based body known as the “purification commission” of the community, which works in various Haredi communities.
The fixer himself is not a suspect in the case and is not under arrest. He has been in contact with the police for years and testified in many sexual-offense cases, helping police obtain convictions. But it is now alleged that he also maintained a network that would field and investigate complaints about sexual offenses, using old-world methods accepted in the Haredi world. Usually, offenders who were said to have undergone “arbitration” proceedings of various kinds within the community reportedly were forced to undergo therapy, possibly with a psychologist, or they may have been “exiled” to another city.
The newly disclosed case was uncovered almost by happenstance after the fixer’s name came up in another major case in the Haredi community involving an attempt to incriminate two couples in Ukraine in connection with a family dispute. Last week an indictment was filed in that case. While investigators cleared the fixer of suspicion in the Ukraine case, they are said to have found that he had possession of the records that led to the new investigation.
Law enforcement officials in touch with the Haredi community have spoken of their increasingly close cooperation with the community’s leadership. A year ago a closed-door conference on the subject of sexual offenses was held under the auspices of the rabbi of the police Central District. And in Jerusalem, there is a center for treatment of juvenile victims in the Haredi community that operates with the involvement of police investigators, psychologists and municipal social workers.
Sources have recounted instances in which ultra-Orthodox schools have encouraged the filing of police complaints. Even if most cases are still handled without police being notified, until a few years ago it would have been unheard of to involve law enforcement officials. And now many Haredi schools, particularly for girls, have put programs in place to address the issue of sexual offenses in the family and community.
In the case of the 22 suspects, it now appears that representatives from the purification commission in touch with the police were using a two-track system of enforcement, one of which worked within the Haredi community and the other with outside officials. The investigation of the new case is therefore expected to look into what considerations came into play in deciding to turn certain suspects over to the police while quietly dealing with others inside the community.
Was it the severity of the allegations or did it have to do with the personal standing of the alleged victims and offenders? Did it have anything to do with the nature of their ties with the rabbis and others who dealt with the case?
Eli Schlesinger, a reporter for the Behadrei Haredim ultra-Orthodox website, who has been among the most prominent reporters covering the issue, which in the past wouldn’t have been touched by the Haredi media, noted that the purification commission has been providing major assistance to the police, and over the past year provided a great deal of material related to a major sexual offense case in Modi’in Illit. It is possible, Schlesinger added, that the new case will do damage to these cooperative ties.
Avigayil Heilbronn-Karlinsky is the founder of an organization called Lo Tishtok (Thou Shalt Not Be Silent), which began as a Facebook page and was transformed into an agency that provides substantial assistance to victims of sexual offenses in the ultra-Orthodox community. Although she supports involving the police, she told Haaretz there is no single sweeping approach that always applies. “There are a lot of private entities, not just Haredi ones, that legally deal with offenses in the community and sometimes they do it better than the police, whose means are limited,” she said.
But she also said her organization does not recommend dealing with cases in the traditional manner within the community, “other than in cases in which there is no alternative because legal authorities can’t help or because the victims will under no circumstances contact the police.”
Two particularly serious cases that were dealt with inside the Haredi community and are now the subject of legal proceedings involve two senior figures at Haredi yeshivas in the greater Tel Aviv area and in Jerusalem. The two cases were initially dealt with inside the community with the involvement of senior rabbis, but in both instances efforts to enforce the decisions in the cases failed. The offenders continued to commit sexual offenses and were not being punished.
The Lo Tishtok organization exposed one of the cases. Heilbronn- Karlinsky said, “In both cases, they were people who faced the threat of being turned over to the police, but even when they continued causing harm, the private and community officials never followed through on the threat. That’s what happened until we entered the picture and took the first complainant to the police.”