Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Live Outside the Law

Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial
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Extended detention for Rabbi Berland, leader of the Shuvu Banim community, last week
Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial

The recent developments in the investigation of the murders of Nissim Shitrit and Avraham Edri, crimes that happened more than 30 years ago, coupled with the arrest of former members of the Shuvu Banim Hasidic sect and its leader, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, turned a spotlight on the Israel Police’s ongoing helplessness when it comes to crime in Haredi communities.

Most Shuvu Banim members live in the heart of Jerusalem, just a short walk from police district headquarters. Their intimidation and bullying of their neighbors, their “modesty patrols” and the convoys of cars that followed Berland at speeds of 200 kilometers per hour or more have all been well-known to the police for decades. Nevertheless, Berland was first investigated only in 2012, following media reports about a series of sexual assaults that he committed against female members of the community. It took another media report, after he had already served time in prison for sexual offenses, for the police to investigate his exploitation of the distress of terminally ill persons for his own financial gain. Now, very belatedly, police are looking into the alleged involvement of Berland and his followers in the murders.

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Berland and Shuvu Banim are not representative of the broader Haredi community. Nevertheless, such openly criminal behavior by the rabbi and his disciples could not have happened outside the ultra-Orthodox autonomy, for which all Israeli governments have abdicated responsibility. The police have no real ability to investigate violence and crime in the Haredi community, nor are they able to conduct even minimal law enforcement operations, as became clear through their sweeping disregard of Haredi violations of the coronavirus regulations, the fatal disaster at Mount Meron in April and the collapse of newly installed bleachers at a Givat Ze’ev synagogue in May. The price for this has been paid in Haredi lives.

Instead of dealing appropriately with the community’s needs, the police have opted for years to work through ultra-Orthodox strongmen like the founder of the Zaka organization, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who is currently facing charges of sexual assault.

In many ways, this is similar to the blind eye that the state and the police have turned to rising crime in the country’s Arab communities. But there is a significant difference, too: The Arab leadership is desperate for the police to get involved in the issue, whereas the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians prefer to cut the community off from any outside authority.

The main victims of the lack of law enforcement in the Haredi autonomy are, first and foremost, the community’s own weakest and most vulnerable members – women and children. They have fallen victim to violence and sexual exploitation within the family and in educational institutions. Not every rabbi is a Berland. But when rabbis place their communities beyond the reach of the law, they pave the way for additional Berlands.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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