Fugitive Israeli Rabbi Ignites Culture Clash With South African Court, Prison

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, accused of rape by female followers, is transferred to notorious Kgosi Mampuru prison.

Jeremy Gordin
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who is wanted for sex crimes in Israel, appears before the Randburg magistrate's court, South Africa, April 20, 2016.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, convicted of sexual abuse, appears before the Randburg magistrate's court, South Africa, April 20, 2016.Credit: Ilan Ossendryver, SA Jewish Report
Jeremy Gordin

JOHANNESBURG – Court 13 of the Magistrate’s Court in Randburg, a suburb on the northwest side of Johannesburg, was on Thursday the site of a tableau probably never witnessed in a South African court before.

Three “followers” or aides of fugitive Israeli alleged rapist Rabbi Eliezer Berland — men in their twenties, wearing long black coats, waving their arms, and with their ear-locks and large skullcaps awry — confronted diminutive National Prosecuting Authority special prosecutor Nerisha Naidoo and Interpol investigator, Detective Warrant Officer W.J. Van der Heever.

The three shouted loudly and gesticulated angrily at the prosecutor and investigating officer because they were outraged at the order just handed down by Regional Magistrate Pravina Raghunandan.

Raghunandan, presiding officer at the rabbi’s bail hearing, had ordered that since Berland was required to remain in custody last night, he would have to spend it in Pretoria at the Kgosi Mampuru prison.

This was because the officer commanding the nearby Randburg police station, where Berland has been held for the last few days, had adamantly refused to have the 79-year-old head of Jerusalem’s Shuvu Bonim yeshiva (Yeshivat Nechamat Zion) back in her police station.

Prosecutor Naidoo had told the court that the Randburg police station authorities said Berland was “disruptive” and his presence had “demoralized the station personnel and interfered with their work” because of his stream of visitors, special dietary requirements, and all-hours visits from his doctor.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who is wanted for sex crimes in Israel, appears before the Randburg magistrate's court, South Africa, April 20, 2016.Credit: Ilan Ossendryver, SA Jewish Report

Berland, one of the leaders of the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel, and considered a holy man by his followers, has been on the run since 2012 when allegations were made by female followers in Israel that he had sexually harassed or raped them.

He has managed to live under the noses of authorities from Morocco to the Netherlands and Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, prior to his arrest on April 7, he had been staying at hotels and golf estates. He is followed by about 40 families, to whom he is a spiritual guru. Known previously as Pretoria Central, Kgosi Mampuru is one of the country’s most notorious prisons, 57 kilometers from Johannesburg. Berland’s aides would not be able to visit him at all hours nor would his doctor or other medical personnel have access to him whenever he felt unwell.

On Wednesday Raghunandan had overruled the objections of the Randburg police. But on Thursday she said she could no longer do so, though she ordered that the state see to it that, in Kgosi Mampuru, Berland had all his medication and that he could summon a doctor in an emergency.

When Raghunandan made her order, just prior to quitting the court, one of Berland’s aides rushed to the front of the court, shouting at the regional magistrate, “Excuse, excuse me, I want to talk to you.” In South African courts, members of the public are not allowed, under any circumstances, to address the presiding officer unless invited to do so.

Raghunandan left the court without reacting to the aide.

Also just prior to the magistrate leaving the court, Berland’s attorney, Themba Langa, on hearing her order, said: “This is unfair, you can’t do this to the old man, a rabbi who has been persecuted,” and the lawyer shrugged his shoulders. Raghunandan said: “Mr. Langa, don’t shrug your shoulders at me in my court. This borders on the contemptuous.”

Both prosecution and defense had hoped to wrap up their arguments yesterday, well before Passover. But a number of new affidavits were read into the record which means the case will continue today.

Berland — who has worn phylacteries and a prayer shawl throughout the proceedings and often spends his time ignoring the business in court and reading what appears to be the Talmud — told the court in an affidavit: “The government of Israel has a penchant for targeting rabbis. I am one of these rabbis who have been unfairly targeted by the Israeli government. The government of Israel targets the rabbis whose teachings and sermons are viewed not to be compatible with the government’s political objectives.”

In his affidavit opposing bail for Berland, Warrant Officer Van der Heever listed in great detail the “charges” of sexual assault for which Berland is wanted by the Israeli police.

One of these read as follows: “FI (one of the Israeli complainants) grew up in the Shuvu Bonim community. Sometime in 2007-2008 when FI was 16 and a-half years old (a minor, according to Israeli law), she had a spiritual crisis and her father suggested she meet with Berland. FI agreed and one night at 1 A.M. her father took her to Berland’s house.

“FI entered Berland’s room alone while her father waited for her outside. Berland wrapped FI in his prayer shawl and told her that she was a pious woman and that all of her sins would be transferred to him. Berland then kissed FI on both of her cheeks and her forehead and embraced her while touching her chest. FI felt Berland’s body shaking with pleasure, like an orgasm, when he embraced her.

“FI left Berland’s room feeling numb. She thought that perhaps she was at fault for what had happened. FI told her father that everything was fine. The next day Berland asked that FI be brought to him at the same time. Once again Berland wrapped her in his prayer shawl. Once again Berland kissed her, embraced her, and fondled her chest over her clothing.”

Van der Heever also told the court that he had discovered, with the cooperation of the Israeli authorities, that Berland’s diplomatic passport from the Cote d’Ivoire — which the rabbi claimed he had been given because of the large number of followers he had in that country — was in fact fake. He said, too, that he had found an Israeli passport in Berland’s possession, which had turned out to be false as well — it actually belonged to someone who had died two years previously.

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