Sisters Who Accuse Australian Principal of Sexual Assault Herald Her Arrest in Israel as ‘Important Breakthrough’

After investigation, Israel Police alleges the ultra-orthodox school principal has pretended to be mentally ill to avoid extradition

From left Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer, the three sisters from Melbourne, Australia, who have accused the former headmistress of their school, Adass Israel, of sexual assault over a period of years, during the sisters' visit to Israel, Nov. 6, 2017.
Moti Milrod

The three sisters from Australia who came to Israel four months ago to fight for the extradition of the woman they accuse of sexually abusing them for years said they were elated by news of her arrest here Monday. They call it an “important breakthrough in our long journey to get justice.”

The former headmistress of the ultra-Orthodox Melbourne girls school the three attended was arrested Monday by Israel Police, who suggested that she had been faking a mental health condition to avoid extradition to Australia, where she faces 74 counts of indecent assault and rape. An Israeli citizen, she fled here in March 2008, allegedly with the help of some members of the religious community that ran the school, just hours after allegations against her first surfaced.

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“It is with a mixture of elation and relief coupled with anticipation toward the future, that we welcome the news of the school principal's arrest,” the sisters Elly Sapper, 28; Dassi Erlich; 30, and Nicole Meyer, 32, said in a statement they shared with Haaretz.

“It is shocking that charges of fraud and feigning of mental illness have been used to evade justice for such a long time, but we are relieved that the headmistress's arrest removes her from posing a potential threat to other vulnerable children.”

An Australian Embassy spokesperson told Haaretz on Monday: “Australia maintains a strong interest in the extradition of the school principal. The Australian government remains in close consultation with Israeli authorities on developments in this case.”

The sisters had traveled to Israel in late October to lobby for the school principal’s extradition to Australia, meeting with Israel’s justice minister and several Knesset members. Their trip coincided with a state visit by Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, who raised the issue of the headmistress's extradition with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview with Haaretz while they were visiting, the sisters described what they said was a pattern of systematic abuse by the headmistress, known in the community as the charismatic head of Adass Israel, their all-girls ultra-Orthodox school, in an especially cloistered community in Melbourne.

The sisters claim that she targeted them, knowing they came from what they say was a dysfunctional home, and proceeded to sexually assault each of them over a period of years, from 2001 to 2008. It took a long time for the three to realize that each had suffered abuse by her and each had been a victim.

Words like sexual abuse, assault or rape were never mentioned in the very sheltered environment in which they grow up, the three say.

'Playing the system'

In 2014, Israeli authorities asked that the school principal be extradited as per Australia’s request. In June 2016, however, an Israeli court ruled that the principal – who was by then living in the Jewish settlement of Immanuel in the West Bank – was mentally unfit to stand trial. It was decided that she would receive treatment and a psychiatric committee would reevaluate her condition every six months. Since then, the committee convened three times and ruled each time that she was still unfit to stand trial.

Israeli law permits a halt in extradition proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial.

Last year, however, the Israel Police began investigating whether the headmistress was pretending to be mentally ill in order to avoid extradition. After a month-long covert investigation that just ended, she was arrested Monday.

The police department for international affairs has requested that Israel's State Prosecutor’s Office now renew the extradition process against the headmistress, “in order to declare her extradition to Australia.” 

For their part, Erlich and her sisters have repeatedly said they did not believe the mental-illness defense was genuine.

“She is definitely playing the system,” said Erlich, who is now a nurse in Melbourne, in a November interview with Haaretz. “She is incredibly manipulative; we know she’s smart. We knew she would find a loophole and play it.”

Yehuda Fried, the principal’s lawyer, had stood by the assessment that his client was mentally unwell. He was not immediately available for comment.

In 2015, Erlich won over 1 million Australian dollars (about $786,600) in damages in a civil case against Adass Israel School, reportedly one of the largest payouts ever in an Australian sexual abuse case. The Supreme Court justice who handed down the ruling said the school was at fault for not protecting the students when a pattern of irregular behavior by the headmistress emerged.

As part of their ongoing campaign to bring the principal to justice, the sisters have been using the hashtag #bring[theprincipal]back on social media.

Their story has received wide attention in Australia and abroad, and the sisters are thanking their supporters for their help and empathy.

“It has been a very long 10 years since the school principal fled Australia. We are hopeful this is a turning point in the extradition process,” the three concluded in their statement.