The arrests of Haredi rabbis and public figures in northern London Wednesday was the most dramatic turn so far in a sordid case that has been creating a turmoil in Britain's insular ultra-Orthodox community for months. The involvement in the case by the London Metropolitan Police, coupled with a court ruling earlier this month forcing Google to reveal the details of bloggers who have written about it on the web, is further proof, if any was needed, that Haredi society is no longer capable of solving its problems behind closed-doors.
The Police arrested Rabbi Chaim Halpern in the north London neighborhood of Golders Green Wednesday morning after months in which he has been accused of sexual abusing a large number of women, according to some versions a high as 30, who came to him for family guidance. Halpern, the scion of one of the more influential Haredi families in the country, the rabbi of a community in Golders Green and formerly a Dayan (rabbinical judge) of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, which is the main ultra-Orthodox establishment in Britain, has been pressured into resigning from his religious positions and a special ad-hoc rabbinical court has been convened to hear the allegations against him.
The three other men arrested are believed to be well-known figures in the local community who are suspected of helping Halpern to "pervert justice" by pressuring some of the women not to complain. According to Haredi sources, another well-known figure to be questioned by police is Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, the head of the Union and the man regarded by many as unofficial "Haredi chief rabbi" of Britain.
Accusations against Halpern have been circulating in London's insular Haredi world for at least six months now and a ruling by senior rabbis that he is unfit to fulfill religious posts was issued already in December. Despite the rabbis' edict, a small number of followers continued to back Halpern who while resigning from his official positions, continued to hold services in the small synagogue at his home. The special beit din (rabbinical court) was due to reconvene in two weeks but there has been a great deal criticism within the community that the court was basically trying to whitewash the allegations and many of Halpern's original accusers failed to appear before the beit din.
The police action is almost certainly the result of their being informed by members of the Haredi community, a distinct break with the ultra-Orthodox code of not being a "mosser" one who gives fellow-Jews away to the authorities. Those who allegedly did so can however claim that it was Halpern who first went to the authorities. A few weeks ago, Halpern received a High Court order against Google, ordering the search-engine company to release to him details of a blogger and those who had commented on the blog, who had written against him in recent months.
It is much too early at this stage to try and predict whether this case will balloon into a much wider investigation and how far or how high it will go. One thing though has been made clear – the days of solving problems such as sexual abuse within the community, without need for police or other professional intervention, are over. Police forces in Britain are not always eager to involve themselves in the matters of closed religious communities and there has been criticism in a number of cases recently of the police being too slow to act in cases of sexual abuse involving members of ethnic minorities.
In the case of Haredim in Britain however, the police investigation, while perhaps rather tardy, has been inevitable due to the increasing online activity around the case. Blogs based in Britain, Israel and the United States have written extensively on the case at every turn, the bloggers themselves Haredi, well connected to sources in Golders Green and supplied with information from eager informants on either side. It's not only the insider blogs that have come calling, but also mainstream news organizations. Last month, Britain's Channel 4 screened a television program on "Britain's Hidden Child Abuse" which documented the ways in which the Haredi community tries to prevent allegations of child abuse from getting out. The program included undercover footage of Rabbi Padwa counseling the victim of an alleged sexual attack not to go to the police.
With Haredi communities in Britain and around the world becoming more transparent by the day, despite the rabbis' efforts, anyone who believed that the special beit din could have cleared up the issue before the police came calling was obviously deluding himself.
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