Decades-old Murders Connected With Israeli ultra-Orthodox Sect Are Still Far From Being Solved

Suspects arrested last week are former members of the sect's 'modesty guard,' which intimidated different Jerusalem communities in those years. Most are refusing to cooperate

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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One of the suspects outside of Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, last week.
One of the suspects outside of Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

A string of suspects marched into the interrogation rooms of the police’s central investigation unit in Jerusalem last week. They were involved in one of the unit’s flagship cases, which had gathered dust for decades, waiting for a breakthrough.

The case involves the kidnaping and murder of Nissim Shitrit, a 17-year-old Haredi youth who disappeared in 1986, and Avraham Edri, a 41-year-old resident of Jerusalem who was murdered in 1990. It quickly became obvious to investigators that this time they were dealing with particularly tough nuts to crack.

So far, eight suspects have been arrested, seven men and one woman. Others were also detained for questioning. Five remain detained and were brought before a judge Sunday for an extension of their stay in custody. The detainees are former members of the “modesty guard” of the Shuvu Banim sect, headed by Rabbi Eliezer Berland, which intimidated different communities of Jerusalem in those years. They are suspected of being behind two affairs that rocked Jerusalem in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Despite the detentions, the affair is far from being resolved, and investigators have a long road ahead before they can file any indictments. In hearings at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, investigators admitted they have not yet located Shitrit’s body, but said that they had some “indications of a murder.” In the absence of forensic evidence pointing to the suspects’ involvement, the battle is now over different versions of events. In light of this, the investigation will be complex and tangled, mainly because of the silence maintained so far by most of the suspects.

An undated photo of Nissim Shitrit, a 17-year-old Haredi youth who disappeared in 1986.Credit: Kan 11

Nevertheless, a report on the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabbat website states that a few days before arrests were made, members of the police’s division of identification and forensic science visited some sites in the Beit Shemesh area, searching for clues related to the affair. It’s hard to know what they found. One direction of inquiry involves something Shitrit’s brother said on Moreshet radio. He said he was waiting for the forensic results obtained from some earth clods, in which he hoped some DNA traces of his brother would be found, and which could enable a final determination that his brother is no longer alive. This will allow him to observe the seven-day Jewish mourning period, after waiting for 35 years.

Developments in the case came after the airing of an extensive investigative report by journalist Shani Haziza on Kan public television two years ago. The report presented evidence showing that the people behind the murder and disappearance belonged to the Shuvu Banim's modesty guard. This was in contrast to the main line of investigation pursued by the police after Shitrit had disappeared, which assumed the trouble stemmed from his running afoul of a drug dealer.

An undated photo of Avraham Edri, who was murdered in 1990.Credit: Kan 11

Among other items, the report presented a conversation between Zvi Zucker, Berland’s son-in-law who headed the modesty guard, and Shitrit’s brother. In this conversation, Zucker admitted that he knew Shitrit was no longer alive and that he knew who murdered him, as well as knowing the general area where the body had been disposed.

“I have no doubt that he’s no longer alive after disappearing. That’s clear,” said Zucker. “Beyond that I can’t help you, I don’t know exactly where his body is. The people I know were ... people I can’t ... [talk about] and reveal the location. I’ve tried but with no success. At the time, I heard that for certain he was in the Eshtaol forest [near Beit Shemesh].”

In addition to the clods of earth, another possible turning point in the investigation came when the female suspect decided to cooperate with investigators, revealing that she had served as bait, at the demand of members of Berland’s sect. She said that at the instruction of these people she called Shitrit and enticed him to come to an apartment in Jerusalem, where other people were waiting for him. According to people close to her, she was not present at that meeting, and Shitrit emerged from it still alive. “Only years later did she learn about the affair and realized that she may have played a part in his disappearance,” said her associates.

Most of the suspects are no longer connected with Berland’s community, but during those years they were considered very close to him. One of the detainees is suspected of giving the order to make Shitrit disappear. This order was supposedly given after Shitrit had refused to cancel a complaint he had filed with the police against members of the modesty guard, who had beaten him a few months earlier, claiming that he’d had relations with women in Jerusalem. A few years later, the modesty guard suspected that Edri too was in a relationship with some woman. He was murdered shortly thereafter. This suspect has denied everything during his investigation.

For now, it seems the solution to the case requires a confession by one of the suspects, or for investigators to pull an ace out of their sleeves in the form of a golden piece of evidence which so far does not seem to be in their hands.

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