The decision by an Israeli court on Monday to extradite alleged pedophile Malka Leifer to Australia is a victory for her accusers, achieved after a long, painful struggle that lasted over a decade.
The Leifer affair began in 2007 when Dassi Erlich, a young Orthodox woman from Melbourne, told her therapist about years of abuse she endured at the hands of the principal of the Adass Israel school, where she was first a high-school student and then a young employee.
After an investigation in the community and by Australian authorities – in which it emerged that not only Erlich but her two sisters, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, were also allegedly abused by Leifer, the Haredi educator was indicted on 74 counts of rape and sexual assault.
In early 2008, Leifer managed to flee Australia when, along with her husband and eight children, she boarded a flight to Israel before a warrant could be issued for her arrest.
The family eventually moved to Immanuel, a small settlement in the West Bank, where they lived undisturbed until Australian authorities issued an official extradition request and the Israeli police arrested her in 2014.
Since then, legal battles – involving more than 60 court hearings – have taken place around Leifer’s ability to stand trial, and her conditions of imprisonment while this was determined. She was initially held under house arrest, but later permitted to move freely.
Leifer’s lawyers have argued that she could not be extradited on grounds that she’s mentally unfit to stand trial. Advocacy groups for victims’ rights pushed back, providing video evidence showing that Leifer has been able to live and function normally.
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She was rearrested in 2018 after state psychiatrists determined Leifer was fully capable of facing trial and that claims to the contrary were false.
However, a major setback occurred when a court-appointed psychiatrist recanted his assessment that she was mentally fit to stand trial. Israeli police accused then-Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, one of the most powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel, of leading efforts to pressure the psychiatrist to change his assessment. Police have since recommended that Litzman be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over the matter.
The perceived foot-dragging in Israel ignited public outrage in Australia over the fact that Leifer had been deemed unfit to face extradition but was allowed, for a long period, not only to live freely but to teach in Israeli schools.
In the fall of 2017, when they felt the process had stalled, Erlich and her sisters formally launched the public campaign “Bring Leifer Back,” exerting continued pressure in both Israel and Australia to keep the issue alive.
The case has had a consistently high profile in the Australian media. In 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story on Immanuel, calling it a “haven for pedophiles.” It also containing an accusation that Leifer was continuing to abuse children; a similar charge has subsequently been made regarding her behavior while living in the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak after arriving in Israel.
In Australia, as many as eight women claiming to have been abused by Leifer have stepped forward since Dassi Erlich made her original allegations.
In 2015, Erlich was awarded over $700,000 in damages for “pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, economic loss and medical expenses” in a civil suit she filed against both the school and Leifer in the Supreme Court of Victoria. Testimony in that case reportedly revealed that members of the Adass Israel community had been instrumental in facilitating the Leifer family’s hasty departure from Australia in 2008.
In Israel, public awareness of the case sharply increased when Litzman’s alleged criminal involvement was revealed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose governing coalition relies heavily on the support of Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party, has remained largely silent on the matter.
The case has taken its toll on diplomatic relations between the two countries, though. The seriousness with which the Australian government regarded the matter was made clear when Australia refused to cooperate with an Israeli initiative at the United Nations against the sexual exploitation of children, and a bipartisan motion was passed in the Australian parliament earlier this year calling for Leifer’s extradition.
The Leifer case cast a shadow over the visit to Australia by President Reuven Rivlin in February. Rivlin declined to meet with the three sisters, but acknowledged “how painful and difficult the case of Malka Leifer is for the Australian-Jewish community and for Australians generally.” He pledged that “the State of Israel will not allow anyone to use its institutions to evade justice” in the Leifer case.
He repeated that vow to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in May, after Jerusalem District Court ruled that Leifer was fit to stand trial – triggering the extradition hearing that resulted in Monday’s decision.
That ruling is not yet the final step in getting Leifer back to Australia: Leifer still has the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. If and when all of these appeals are exhausted, the extradition order will be brought to the justice minister for their approval.
Only after that happens will Rivlin finally be able to keep his promise.