Australian Sisters in Haredi Sex Offenses Case: 'What God Are They Praying to That Protects Abusers?'

‘This has taken such a toll on our lives, and these are people who are playing with our lives,’ three sisters tell Haaretz after 47th hearing to see if headmistress Malka Leifer can face extradition to Australia on 74 counts of sex abuse

Ellie Sapper, left, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer outside Jerusalem District Court, March 6, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Dassi Erlich woke up at 3:30 A.M. at her home in Melbourne on February 15 to what she says were hundreds of text messages alerting her to the news that had broken nearly 14,000 kilometers (8,500 miles) away in Israel: That an Israeli deputy health minister was under investigation for allegedly trying to prevent the extradition of the Australian school principal suspected of sexually abusing her and other girls when they were students at her all-girls ultra-Orthodox school.

It took six days for the media storm to die down, but when it did the rage set in for Erlich and two of her sisters, Nicole Meyer and Ellie Sapper. They are all fellow accusers of Malka Leifer, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen who faces 74 counts of child sex abuse in Australia.

Leifer fled to Israel in 2008 after accusations against her surfaced, and is fighting extradition on the grounds that she is mentally unfit.

>> Australian sisters accusing ultra-Orthodox principal of sexual assault bring extradition fight to Israel

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has been questioned by the police, who suspect he pressured Jerusalem's district psychiatrist into writing a false assessment describing Leifer as mentally unfit, which, according to Israeli law, would mean she could not be extradited.

“It wasn’t a shock to us. We had all these questions and we knew something was up, but it was more than a disappointment. We were angry and frustrated and [thinking]: How could this have been allowed to happen? This has taken such a toll on our lives, and these are people who are playing with our lives,” Erlich told Haaretz in an interview at Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday. The interview took place after the 47th hearing into Leifer's extradition since legal proceedings began over a decade ago.

Nicole Meyer, Erlich's older sister, said they were not shocked “because we understand how that world works,” referring to the closed community of the Ultra-Orthodox to which Litzman also belongs. She herself remains ultra-Orthodox, but her sisters are not. “They are protecting their own," Meyer said. "It’s very insular and they will do what they can to protect her.”

“It’s not about the crime,” Erlich added.

Meyer agreed. And that, she said, “makes it even harder to bear when you think we want to create change in this world, and this kind of thing has happened and we kind of feel defeated in a sense.”

Israel's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.
Emil Salman

Activists say the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and abroad has generally been slow to respond to allegations of sexual abuse directed at adults within their community, especially allegations lodged against prominent adults including rabbis and teachers. They claim that not unlike the Catholic Church, they have even taken measures to protect the institution over victims from their own community.

But the three sisters make it clear: They have no plans of backing down and hope their high-profile visibility will make it easier for other survivors of abuse to come forward, both from the ultra-Orthodox world and elsewhere.

The sisters want Litzman to resign should it be found he interfered in the Leifer case. They have this message for Israel: We want the Israeli government to say they will not condone abuse and that justice will prevail.

This is the sisters' third time in Israel since launching their “Bring Leifer Back” campaign in the fall of 2017.

At Wednesday's hearing, Gregory Katz, a psychiatrist brought in by the defense, gave his medical opinion that Leifer was not fit to stand trial.

Malka Leifer in court, February 27, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean / AP

Emerging from the closed-door courtroom to a large group of awaiting media, Erlich responded to a question about Litzman, saying, “We were wondering, Who can we trust? Ever since we heard we wonder, Which psychiatrist can we trust? Which psychiatrist is influenced by him?”

In the courtroom, the three sisters sat behind two ultra-Orthodox relatives of Leifer's.

“The family was holding a mezuzah, a Torah scroll and praying to some God. [I’m] wondering: What God are they praying to that protects abusers?” Erlich said.

Meyer admitted finding the hearing particularly difficult. “I wanted to burst out and interrupt every single second, and refute everything he says," she said, referring to the psychiatrist. "And say, 'I know her better than you do, because I was under her for eight years in Australia. I know every single trick, I know every single game and I know what she is thinking so she can fool everyone, and manipulate every single possible system so she can get out.'”

Erlich added bitterly: “All this talk about mental health. What about our mental health?”

New allegations

Recently, an Israeli woman came forward to accuse Leifer of abusing her when she was a student at an ultra-Orthodox girls school in Bnei Brak, a largely religious city near Tel Aviv. The sisters said they were upset at this news, but not surprised

They had heard rumors in Australia that Leifer had abused girls before she moved there, and that her relocation had come in response to problems she faced in Israel.

An Australian judge who ruled in a civil case lodged by Erlich against Leifer excoriated members of the Adass Israel community she had been part of in Melbourne for helping her leave the country within hours of allegations against her surfacing back in 2008.

“The fact that it could have been stopped, that there have been so many victims, carries on with that train of anger and injustice,” said Sapper on Wednesday.

The sisters welcome the news that an Australian court recently convicted Cardinal George Pell — one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church — of abusing two choir boys.

“It’s great to see Australia taking responsibility and making sure someone sees justice. That gives us hope that when Malka Leifer comes back the same will happen,” added Sapper.