Two victims of convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland have sued him, Google and Facebook, demanding the removal of all his social media pages and channels.
Berland, head of the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva, who won an early release from prison in 2017 was arrested again this month on suspicion of extorting funds from the sick in exchange for false promises of healing. In one case, he is accused of demanding thousands of shekels from cancer patients to whom he gave mint candies rather than medicine.
The plaintiffs, a husband and wife, former followers of Berland, suffered sexual assault and violence on the part of the rabbi and his disciples, in crimes which Berland admitted to under a plea bargain that resulted in his jail sentence.
The couple’s lawyer, Guy Ophir, sued Berland in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court last week. The suit has been joined by Tron, an organization that promotes internet users’ rights. The couple is also being assisted by the Committee for the Complainants, a group that was founded to aid Berland’s victims.
“It’s inconceivable that Facebook and Google should provide a platform for continuing the industry of oppression and fraud against helpless people by the evil criminal Berland – who is under arrest, by court order, at this very moment for crimes – while hiding behind an automatic response about the many complaints on this matter,” Isaac Winehouse, the committee's chairman, said.
The suit seeks a restraining order barring Berland and his disciples from having “a Facebook page, a Facebook profile or a YouTube channel on which they display his content, teachings and ostensibly mystic qualities.”
It is also seeking 500,000 shekels ($146,000) in compensation.
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Berland recently admitted in court that he was never ordained as a rabbi. He said he is called “rabbi” because of his disciples’ respect.
Last year, Haaretz reported that Berland also has an active YouTube channel, and that he has promoted some of its clips as advertisements on YouTube, which is owned by Google. The promoted clips got tens of thousands of views, even though YouTube officially prohibit clips containing exaggerated promises such as get-rich-quick schemes or wonder drugs that can cure chronic illnesses like cancer.
Following Haaretz’s report, YouTube stop displaying Berland’s videos as advertisements. However, his channel remained in operation, and YouTube didn’t block any of the clips.
Moreover, one clip posted after the Haaretz report got more than 63,000 views, whereas the usual number of views for Berland’s clips is in the hundreds. Facebook pages connected to Berland have also been promoted through ads.
Consequently, Facebook’s automated system decided to leave Berland’s main page in place, even though this page “urges the general public to venerate him and presents him as the righteous man of the generation and a holy man who is above the law, while he breaks the law, perpetrates fraudulent acts and publishes libels about anyone who stands in his way,” the lawsuit said.
Though Berland’s pages remain online, the suit noted, another client of Ophir’s firm – whose page features a satirical figure called Bubi Netanyahu – was blocked and his page, removed. It was restored only following the threat of a lawsuit, showing a discriminatory approach on Facebook's part, the suit argued.
“Facebook and Google are the platform by which Berland disseminates his teachings and perpetrates his torts,” Ophir told Haaretz. “When there’s a critical mass of evidence against Berland pointing to torts and criminal offenses, these platforms can’t feign innocence and say ‘we’re not responsible for blocking him.’ Just as a restaurant owner can’t ignore someone who assaults and harasses his customers, Google and Facebook can’t ignore Berland’s scandalous behavior. They must take reasonable measures to stop this harm to the public.”
Facebook and Google said they don’t comment on legal matters. No response has been received from Berland’s lawyers.