The police Tuesday arrested 28 people from a Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox sect suspected of extorting major companies into advertising in their newspaper.
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The police say the suspects threatened executives from both private and state-owned companies so that they would place ads in Hapeles, an ultra-Orthdodox newspaper associated with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.
The raid on offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-suburb Bnei Brak culminated an 18-month undercover investigation, the police said.
Loyalists of Auerbach called the action “a world war against the Jerusalem sect.” A spokesman for the sect called it “a dictatorial attempt of silencing reminiscent of dark regimes."
Some of the suspects will be brought before the Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday to have their detentions extended.
The police also raided the homes of executives of the newspaper, arresting Editor-in-Chief Nati Grossman, his deputy Yishayahu Wein and CEO Shmulik Elyashiv.
The police said they launched the investigation after receiving dozens of complaints from executives at major companies in Israel. The suspects set up a special phone line through which they discussed which companies to harass and to what extent, the police said.
On Tuesday, Auerbach supporters gathered around the police during the raids, shouting at them and later burning trash containers, throwing objects and stones at them and trying to prevent the arrests.
Hapeles employees said the men arrested included leaders of the fight against drafting ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men into the Israel Defense Forces. They also included organizers of recent stormy protests such as members of the sect’s Committee for Saving the Torah World. Sect members also said that overnight, the military police arrested yeshiva students.
As the spokesman for Auerbach's sect put it, “Arrests of newspaper editors and writers isn't something that can be part of the public agenda. It's not democracy but a tyrannical dictatorship. The Israel Police and its emissaries don't dare arrest other newspaper editors as extremist as their opinion is. The Jerusalem sect says that anyone who doesn’t stop this madness of silencing now will feel it personally sooner or later.”
The police accused the suspects of trying “to disrupt and attack rights to property and privacy through harassment and intimidation.”
Two years ago, the police arrested members of the sect suspected of extorting Hapeles advertisers. Most advertisers in the ultra-Orthodox market, mainly government ministries and major corporations, have been shunning the newspaper since its fight with mainstream Haredi newspapers, mainly Yated Neeman.
Two leaders, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, called on their supporters to boycott Hapeles.
The arrests two years ago led to an indictment against Avraham Traeger, suspected of running the campaign to pressure advertisers to work with Hapeles. The trial of Traeger, who was also arrested Tuesday, is still going on.
Traeger is accused of publishing names of advertisers in rival papers so that other activists linked to the Jerusalem sect would pressure them, mostly through anonymous phone calls, to advertise in Hapeles.
Members of Auerbach’s sect say that since the indictment, Traeger’s campaign has been advised by lawyers to avoid criminal offenses and stick with what the sect calls “a public fight.”