The phone call received by M., a 33-year-old woman living in southern Israel, left her in shock. On the other end of the line was a woman who said she was a representative of the religious organization Hidabroot. Although M. had never said a word to anyone about her plans for an abortion, the caller knew. And she was contacting M. to try to talk her out of it.
“I asked her where she had gotten my details from and she replied, ‘from good people who are worried about you,’” M. recalled later when the scope of the organization’s activities became apparent.
“My boyfriend hung up. I felt like there was no privacy in this world, that even medical information can’t be protected. By what right? It’s shocking. What arrogance, to think that you know better and that you can just call people that way,” she fumed.
A few days later, M. contacted her gynecologist to try to find out how strangers had obtained such sensitive information. Her query eventually sparked a criminal investigation, which led to the “Ima” department of the organization Hidabroot.
In addition to meaning Mom in Hebrew, the name of the department is an acronym for “Mom is saving me.” Hidabroot (which means dialogue) was founded in 2002 by Rabbi Zamir Cohen, who is known for his sophisticated approach to bringing secular Jews closer to religion.
The main task of the Ima department is to identify women who are considering an abortion and to convince them to change their minds. The department relies for the most part on reports from relatives, who can leave contact details on a special hotline number.
But in the case of M., and many other women, a police investigation found that the source of the information was a woman at an abortion clinic whom staff at Hidabroot dubbed “the plant”: 27-year-old Lidor Bitan-Danino of Be’er Sheva, who works at the Sheva Einayim clinic in the southern Israeli city. Bitan-Danino and two Hidabroot employees are now on trial for violations of privacy protection.
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They deny any wrongdoing. Their lawyers told Haaretz that they acted based on their moral principles and that the law provides an exception in such cases.
When Bitan-Danino contacted the organization in 2017, the women working there understood that she was a find. Haaretz has obtained material seized in a raid of Hidabroot’s Petah Tikva offices by the Privacy Protection Authority. It shows how methodically the organization confronted women whose details were passed along by “the plant.”
A major piece of evidence in the case is an email with the subject line: “Names of women for abortion, from our plant.” The text of the email contains the names of four women, their ages and phone numbers, all supplied by Bitan-Danino. Another email, entitled “Urgent Ima case” contains the name of a patient and her phone number, along with the following information: “19 years old, abortion is Friday, [abortion] committee tomorrow.”
“It was a difficult conversation, and when she wouldn’t let up, I hung up the phone and cried. It’s a sensitive subject, I didn’t want to talk about it.”A woman allegedly harassed by Hidabroot employees
Another document that was seized contains a table listing the names of several women, along with those who referred them to Hidabroot – usually a relative or a partner – as well as personal details and recommendations as to how to proceed. When the names were purportedly from Bitan-Danino, the referral is said to come from “an anonymous person at a clinic that performs abortions.”
The entry regarding one woman states, for example: “Age 28, Week 4 of pregnancy, apparently taking pills. Asked nicely not to discuss it. It was hard for her.” The entry also states: “I ended the conversation nicely, but her idiot husband called back for a clarification about our nerve, how we had gotten to her and harassed her. I yelled at him, and he said, you are those religious people, a gang of crazies and hung up.”
Another column in the table indicates how involved rabbis appear to have been in making decisions about abortions, even in cases in which a doctor had recommended termination of the pregnancy. In one case, a woman was advised by her doctor to end the pregnancy because of suspicious results from a prenatal test. “Rabbi Greenbaum told her that everything was fine and that she should change doctors,” the notes state.
In another case, the notes read that “the doctors are pushing for an abortion,” but “Rabbi Greenbaum argues that as long as the ultrasound is fine, they should be ignored. And that amniocentesis should absolutely not be performed.”
One case was described as follows: “Married+3, Week 7 of pregnancy, wants to have an abortion. The husband vehemently objects to the abortion.” From the comments, it appears that the woman’s husband had given her name to Hidabroot. There is a later notation stating: “She was persuaded not to have an abortion, thank God. She was promised assistance from us and from Efrat,” another organization that attempts to convince women not to have abortions.
Acts of conscience?
Bitan-Danino is currently standing trial in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court along with two Hidabroot employees, Liza Dermer, 48, of Petah Tikva, and Kalina Schwartz, 55, of Bnei Brak. The three are charged with violations of privacy rights that carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
One of the claims made by the defendants’ lawyers is that their clients cannot be found guilty of privacy violations because they were motivated by a moral or social obligation to act. The defense plans to call rabbis as witnesses who will explain the importance in the defendants’ own views of their actions as a result of their religious beliefs.
The Hidabroot nonprofit group, where Dermer and Schwartz are employed, calls itself the “world’s largest Jewish TV network.” It also has a major presence on the internet.
It began operating its own television channel in 2008. It has a staff of about 550 people and annual revenue of 60 million shekels ($17 million) – which includes contributions from supporters of Rabbi Cohen, its founder.
‘Whoever saves one soul – it is as if they saved the entire world.’ This is on behalf of the Jewish people and in accordance with the country’s laws.Yigal Danino, lawyer for Hidabroot
In the course of its investigation, the Privacy Protection Authority attempted to determine what Cohen’s level of involvement was, if any, in Bitan-Danino activities at the abortion clinic, but a suspect told investigators that the founder was unaware of the matter himself.
“He receives a large number of cases, and I keep the requests from him in a ‘Rabbi Zamir’ file,” she said. “He wouldn’t deal with things where he doesn’t know the people. There are a lot of rabbis involved. It’s a great [act of] benevolence.”
Rabbi Cohen’s opposition to abortion is well-known, and he speaks out on the issue in video clips posted on the Hidabroot website. Bitan-Danino, who has donated to the organization, seems to have shared the spirit of Hidabroot’s spiritual leader – and appears to have divulged the information of her own initiative.
Documents from the investigation show how she recounted deciding to pass along the information to Hidabroot, on the advice of her bridal counselor.
“She gave me the courage,” Bitan-Danino said. “I passed on the names of women and the date of the abortions. I understood that it wasn’t okay. In every conversation, I passed on two or three names. I tried to stop what I had on hand. I understood there were those who were about to have an abortion even though they were about to be married. I didn’t pass along [the names of] Arab women. The abortion issue is very sensitive there.”
According to her testimony, Bitan-Danino passed on information to Hidabroot on about 10 occasions – sometimes two or three each time. She later explained what had motivated her: “I want to emphasize that I acted on the basis that I sought help for those girls. There were difficult situations in which girls cried over the telephone to me, and I tried to help in this way, … I tried to save those whom I was successful with.”
‘A chance to save lives’
The personal details Bitan-Danino passed on to Hidabroot were given directly to Dermer, who serves as the group’s so-called family purity coordinator. “I was in shock to receive such a call,” Dermer said about the first time Bitan-Danino contacted her. “I became too enthused, enthused that there was a possibility of saving lives here.”
During that conversation, Dermer reportedly promised Bitan-Danino: “God will reward you … I would tell you to run away from such a job, but it’s like they put Esther in the house of Ahasuerus; it was a house of evil-doers, but she saved the entire Jewish people. Do you understand? They put you in the kingdom because you have a role here.”
During her interrogation, Dermer was asked by the investigator who had come up with the idea of calling Bitan-Danino the “plant.” “I called her the ‘plant,’” said Dermer. “It was a joke. Schwartz knew who the plant was. I told her.”
In her replies to investigators, Dermer implicated Schwartz, the department coordinator of Ima. “I pass everything on to her,” Dermer claimed. But Schwartz completely denied she knew about what was happening at the time that it happened. “We do good things,” she said.
The investigator pressured her, demanding: “These girls [apparently the pregnant women] expressed anger time after time. They didn’t want to talk with you at all. M.’s boyfriend called to get angry at you, asking where the details came from, [claiming] that you’re a criminal. What do you have to say about that?”
But Schwartz refused to change her stance. “We didn’t continue calling. I didn’t know the names came to us from an illegal source. I have an obligation to save [lives]. Not all the means justify the ends,” she said.
In spite of all the personal details the organization apparently received illegally, the calls to women to try to convince them to reconsider plans for an abortion opened in an innocent manner – sometimes with claim that it was the women themselves who had approached the organization for help – and if not them, then some other anonymous person who had their best interests at heart.
What follows is an example of a conversation that Schwartz initiated with a woman who had come to the clinic in Be’er Sheva where Bitan-Danino worked.
Schwartz: “Hello, this is Kalina from Hidabroot speaking, from the Ima department. I don’t know if you or someone [else] sent me your name with the telephone [number], something about help with a pregnancy?”
Woman: “No, what? Who sent … Okay.”
Schwartz: “I don’t know, I simply have a kind of department helping pregnant women, and they sent me, like, a few messages from such people asking for help.”
Woman: “On my behalf?”
Schwartz: “Apparently for you? Well, okay, there are also good people like that. What can I do to help, dear?
Woman: “Ah, it seems to me that things are okay now. I was wondering what to do but …”
Schwartz: “What does that mean, whether or not to maintain the pregnancy?”
Woman: “How to terminate it.”
Schwartz: “But why? What week are you in?”
Woman: [Laughing]. “Fourth.”
Schwartz: “Oh, just at the beginning … Have you already taken the pill?”
Woman: “No, not yet.”
Schwartz: “Oh, look, there are consequences too. Have they told you there are also less pleasant consequences from this pill? Such as, they remove the placenta and they remove other tissue too. Okay, what I’m going to tell you … Why do you want to terminate the pregnancy? Are you married?”
Woman: “Wow, can we not?”
Schwartz: “Not married? Thank God.”
Woman: “No, I’m saying, is it possible not to have this conversation?”
Schwartz: “Yes. I’m very respectful, but in any case, if you want help with anything, we are here.”
What the women experience
The responses from the women who complained show what they went through, after their most sensitive secretsn were passed on to a religious organization without their knowledge.
A few broke down in tears, while others refused to cooperate. “It can break families up,” one of the women said. “Wow, it’s horrible,” another said. “It was a difficult conversation, and when she wouldn’t let up, I hung up the phone and cried. It’s a sensitive matter, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
Oded Svoray, the lawyer representing Dermer, said in response to this article: “The Privacy Protection Law provides [an exception], protecting those who violate privacy in circumstances in which there is a moral or social obligation to do so. As far as the women who believe that a fetus is entitled to protection from its persecutors, the moral and social obligation does apply to them to breach privacy to protect the fetus.”
“If any offense was committed, it is entitled to the protection of the law,” he said. “If the protection of the law seems to be too broad to someone, they should approach the Knesset with a request to change it. Under these circumstances, the indictment is baseless.”
Anat Noy-Perry, a lawyer representing Bitan-Danino, said: “The truth is very different from what was presented in the indictment.” Harsh and shocking things were done at the abortion clinic, she claimed, and “instead of apprehending those who really violated the law, they took a minnow whose conscience bothered her and who didn’t know what to do when faced with what she saw.”
“She worked at a place where abortions were carried out as if they were making sandwiches," the lawyer added, referring to her client as "a little girl who had seen women crying, regretting what they had done, and pondered it with herself and after consulting with a rabbi’s wife, decided that the only help she could offer was a single telephone call. The place where she worked turned abortions into a business, a money industry. All these women received was just one telephone call and they were not harmed. The law also provides a defense on behalf of morality, and she performed a moral and just act, while the clinic allowed itself to violate the law.”
Yigal Danino, who represents Hidabroot and Kalina Schwartz, said: “The Hidabroot organization has no doubt that the court will accept the principled view that there is a duty to save the lives of babies in cases in which there is no risk to the mother or the fetus. The employees of the organization act only in accordance with the law and are careful to protect the privacy of the women who approach them for help at their own initiative, and that was so in the case too. ‘Whoever saves one soul – it is as if they saved the entire world.’ This is on behalf of the Jewish people and in accordance with the country’s laws.”
“The rare indictment was filed through selective enforcement based on an ideological outlook,” Danino claimed. “The prosecution closes huge cases involving trade in medical information, but declares all-out war in a case for no other reason than making noise in the media.”
The Sheva Einayim clinic said: “The actions of the center were examined by the Justice Ministry, and it was found [the clinic] acted fully in accordance with the law.”