It takes a lot for Australian Jews to publicly criticize Israel. Yet the case of alleged sex offender Malka Leifer has become a source of anguish and anger, forcing this community to become increasingly outspoken as it despairs over why Israel is taking so long — five years and 62 hearings (and counting) — to extradite the former school principal.
The common refrain has become “Enough is Enough,” with the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council among the prominent organizations speaking out. As they see it, Israel has engaged in foot-dragging over whether to return Leifer to Victoria, where she faces 74 charges of child sex abuse, including rape, against some of her female students.
“There is a wave of anxiety and frustration over this issue in the community. It features consistently in community media and social media; it is discussed at a high level with government representatives, and Malka Leifer has become an infamous name,” says Raphael Mengem, a policy analyst and member of Melbourne’s Jewish community. “She has evaded answers to these crimes for too long, and there is a growing and understandable frustration from the local Jewish community.”
It has been over a decade since the night in March 2008 when Leifer fled Australia within hours of accusations surfacing that she had abused students at Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School for girls. Leifer, who has Israeli citizenship, secretly relocated to a remote religious settlement in the West Bank. She resided there until Israeli police located and arrested her in 2014, following an official extradition request from the Australian authorities.
A lengthy legal drama has ensued, transforming what should have been a fairly routine procedure into one of the most emotional extradition cases in Israeli history.
The lawyers for 52-year-old Leifer have argued that she is mentally unfit to stand trial, which, according to Israeli law, would prevent her from being extradited. For a time she was deemed mentally unwell and released from custody. But then the police rearrested her after being tipped off by private investigators for Jewish Community Watch (an advocacy group for Jewish survivors of child sexual assault), who caught her on videotape appearing stable and interacting normally with neighbors and shopkeepers.
Several state psychiatrists determined that Leifer was feigning mental illness and was fully capable of facing trial, but then another major setback occurred when a court-appointed psychiatrist recanted his assessment that she was mentally fit. Israeli police now believe that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, one of the most powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel, was behind efforts to pressure the psychiatrist to change his assessment, and have recommended that Litzman be indicted for fraud and breach of trust.
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In the meantime, Leifer’s mental fitness continues to be assessed. An important hearing was canceled at the last minute on Tuesday morning after a psychiatric panel said it had been unaware it had been scheduled to present its findings on her mental state to the court at that time.
Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, says the repeated delays are completely unacceptable. He adds that he is “extremely concerned about the very serious allegations made against Litzman. When these allegations came to light, we called on Litzman to step down from his position as deputy health minister until the conclusion of the investigation.”
Australian-Jewish digital publication Plus61JMedia also called on Israel not to reinstate Litzman as a minister, collecting some 2,000 signatures on an online petition.
For the most part, these calls were met with silence in Israel, including by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long relied on Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party as a partner in his coalition government.
The urgency of the Leifer case looms much larger in Australia than in Israel. Three sisters who accused Leifer of serious sex crimes — Dassi Erlich (the first to go public with her allegations), Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper — have become the public faces of the high-profile campaign for her extradition.
The case’s slow-grinding pace peppered by surprising turns, like the alleged Litzman interference and the Jerusalem court’s recent decision to release Leifer to house arrest (a move swiftly overturned by the Supreme Court following an appeal), is covered regularly in both the mainstream Australian media and by Jewish news organizations.
“People care so much that these girls are being hurt in what is judged as an unfair process,” says Vivien Resofsky, a social worker and advocate for child protection reform in Australia’s Jewish community. “There is frustration with the Israeli judicial system and they feel a lot of empathy for the sisters,” she adds.
“Also, you have people like Dave Sharma,” says Resofsky, referring to the former Australian ambassador to Israel and now an Australian lawmaker. “He has come out and said this is impacting the relationship between the two countries. It’s huge, it’s absolutely huge,” she says.
“Each time, there is another court date and another failure, and another excuse. There is a lot of sympathy for the girls, and anger at the system that is making them suffer so much,” she adds.
Josh Burns, a Jewish parliamentarian representing a district with a significant Jewish population, tells Haaretz that “Jewish Australians are united in our desire to see Malka Leifer extradited to Australia. We are a community that has a proud and strong connection with Israel, but we are deeply upset with the amount of time it is taking to resolve this case.”
That frustration is also felt among the wider Australian public, leading Burns and Sharma to announce their intention to introduce a cross-party motion early next year calling for Leifer’s immediate extradition.
One notable sign of a diplomatic fallout between the countries due to Israel’s handling of the Leifer case was seen last weekend, when Haaretz reported that Australia is refusing to cooperate with an Israeli UN initiative against the sexual exploitation of children.
Australian Jews in general are not used to speaking out publicly against Israel, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they have broken their traditional silence when it comes to the Leifer case.
“The community does not often wish to publicly critique the Israeli government, understanding its immense challenges — certainly they respect the strong judicial system,” says Mengem. “The prolonged process, the extent to which the community has tried to engage the Israeli government on this issue and the scandals that have surrounded the case — all have contributed to the feeling that their voice/concerns is not being heard or being taken seriously enough,” he says.
Leibler, meanwhile, says the Jewish community understands that the matter is before the Israeli courts, but remains concerned about the delay tactics allegedly being used by the defense team to prevent Leifer’s extradition.
“The Jewish community is outraged and frustrated at the ongoing delays,” Leibler says, “but concern extends beyond the Jewish community. The brave survivors of Malka Leifer’s alleged abuse have met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the leader of the opposition [Anthony Albanese]. All have urged Israel to do everything in its power to ensure the swift extradition of Leifer to Australia.”
Leibler acknowledges that this kind of outspoken concern over Israeli actions is not typically seen among Australian Jews, but says it does not change the community’s loyalty toward the Jewish state.
“It is true that the Australian-Jewish community is proudly Zionist,” he says. “On this issue, as leader of the Zionist movement, I feel that the greatest expression of my Zionism is to communicate the Jewish community’s concern in relation to this issue to the Israeli government and people. There is no inconsistency between those two positions. This is not a complex issue that relates to the security of the State of Israel. An individual accused of very serious crimes must face justice for those crimes. There is no rational reason why the State of Israel should not want the same outcome,” he says.
In October, the head of the Zionist Federation of Australia led a bipartisan delegation to Israel with former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Leibler says that in separate meetings with Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz and President Reuven Rivlin, each committed to doing everything they could to facilitate Leifer’s extradition to Australia. Yet still the issue drags on.
Plus61JMedia Editor Michael Visontay says the Australian-Jewish public displays are significant, “because the Australian-Jewish community leaders over the years — as an expression of their support for the State of Israel through thick and thin — have adopted a policy of not commenting on Israeli domestic politics.
“While the Palestinian occupation has increasingly stirred feelings of doubt, there has been an implicit acceptance by the heartland of Australian Jewry that the conflict is intractable, everyone’s hands are dirty and that Israeli governments should not be judged any more harshly than others around the world,” Visontay says.
He explains that the Leifer case has “pushed them to cross the line of silence” for several reasons: The way it has dragged on for so long; Litzman’s alleged involvement; and Australia’s own lengthy national inquiry into child sexual abuse.
Visontay is referring to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was established in 2013 and concluded in 2017, and is considered a transformative national event. During the public hearings phase, Australians followed closely as harrowing accounts emerged of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Jewish religious seminaries, and other schools and institutions.
“We have been disgusted, as a nation, by what we have learned about behavior across the religious and charity sectors,” says Visontay. And now Australia’s Jews are being forced to watch on as, in their eyes, Leifer continues to evade justice.
“They are losing faith in the Israeli justice system, which has given a suspected serial pedophile a safe haven and found too many excuses to prevent her facing justice back in Australia,” Visontay says, adding: “This case gives the impression that the Israeli government does not care about child sexual abuse.”