Police Fail to Stop Ultra-Orthodox 'Modesty Patrols'

'Modesty patrols' believed responsible for a series of violent attacks over several years.

The young woman exudes strength and independence. But she bears the sign of a head fracture and scars on her face. One night, a few months ago, men broke into her apartment through the front door. They beat her up and humiliated her, knocking her head against the floor. They threatened to tear gas her if she tried to interfere with their rummaging through her possessions. And they left her bleeding on the floor.

To whom could she go for help? Her family turned its back on her when she chose to divorce her ultra-Orthodox husband; her children were taken away from her; and the neighbors in her building cold shoulder her. Now it transpires that the authorities can't help either. The investigation that began with a great deal of media fuss, has ended in failure. That, of course, took place far from the public eye.

Elhanan Buzaglo is currently being tried in a Jerusalem court. The state prosecution describes him as "a fist for hire" and he is charged with assaulting the complainant, Michal (whose full name is withheld) on June 1 of this year. The other attackers and those believed to have sent them were questioned and released. Details of the investigation that reached Haaretz reveal how it happened that Buzaglo alone faces indictment.

The basic premise

The police believe that an organization known as "the modesty patrols" is responsible for a series of violent attacks over several years, but the authorities have not been able to bring them to justice. This time seemed to be different. The opening of the indictment against Buzaglo states that "the accused acted on behalf of an organization that calls itself The Modesty Patrols and that operates in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea She'arim and Geula... Among other things, the organization, in order to achieve its goals, uses threats and violence and commits other violations of the law."

On June 1, Buzaglo and about six other men allegedly broke into the home of Michal, a formerly ultra-Orthodox woman. They brutally assaulted her and questioned her about supposed relationships with married men. The assailants stole two telephones from her home "to check the names of those who call her" and left after threatening to murder her if she did not leave the neighborhood within 72 hours. She now lives in Jerusalem's Ma'alot Dafna neighborhood.

Buzaglo, 29, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox environment. Over the years he has been convicted of a number of offenses. He was arrested in July after his fingerprints were found in Michal's apartment. At first, he refused to talk but later started speaking, but nothing he told his interrogators led to a breakthrough in the investigation.

The police had no difficulty connecting Buzaglo with Binyamin Meirowitz, a Gerrer Hasid who is known in Jerusalem to be connected unofficially with "the committee for the purity of our camp." This is a veteran ultra-Orthodox organization which, in addition to its overt activities on matters of modesty, is said to have been active over the years in "enforcing the law" against pedophiles in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and against ultra-Orthodox men involved in forbidden romantic affairs. Among his other activities, Meirowitz owns the Ne'eman printing press, where Buzaglo worked, posting public notices.

The breakthrough in the investigation came on August 5, when Buzaglo asked to go out into the yard, accompanied by investigator Ronen Mizrahi. He did not speak in the interrogation room for fear of being secretly recorded. He asked about a possible deal and asked to telephone Rabbi Shmuel Zafrani, the secretary of the former chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, to check whether he would be considered as violating din moser (the religious prohibition against revealing information about a Jew to non-Jewish authorities) should he spill the beans.

The investigator noted in a memorandum that Zafrani explained the religious precept to Buzaglo and said that "it was permissible for him to talk about all the people who had carried out offenses of assault and other offenses against other people." After that, Buzaglo was shown photographs of the wounded Michal, and he said: "I did not beat her. It is possible that one of the others kicked her." Later he also mentioned the name of the person who employed him, Meirowitz, as having been present in the apartment, but the information provided was of limited value.

The investigator noted in the memorandum, "Because of a technical fault with the recording equipment, the contents of the investigation were not recorded."

The following day, Buzaglo continued to speak and this time, he specifically mentioned that Meirowitz had initiated the assault. He asked whether he could get the status of state witness in return for incriminating the members of the "patrols." In his memorandum, the investigator wrote that Buzaglo had spoken of "a great number of incidents, between 15 and 20 incidents, in which they had dealt with people. He had received $2,000 for every job. He said he would have to think it over very carefully whether he wanted to make such a deal and if he decided to go ahead with it, he would tell us about all the people and all the cases."

Buzaglo said that another five men were involved in the attack on Michal, including a youth called Cahane "about whom he does not know full details but he can show us the house where they live in Meah She'arim." He later said there were actions that he refused to take upon himself. "According to him, he was involved in dozens of incidents and also knows about other incidents that he was not involved in," the investigator noted, but this time, too, the memorandum ended with the remark that it had not been possible to record Buzaglo.

Nevertheless, in August the police arrested Meirowitz and also summoned Rabbi Yitzhak Safranovich, who heads the committee for the purity of our camp. At the same time, two other youths who the police believed were connected with the "patrols" were arrested.

Neighborhood demonstrations

The arrests and the investigation of the rabbi led to a wave of demonstrations in Mea She'arim and to demands that they be released. Those being held were released within days while tempers cooled, but the police claimed there was no significance to the move, and that the prosecution was planning to submit indictments against all of them. Only now, after the Haaretz investigation, does it transpire that no one other than Buzaglo is going to be indicted, for "lack of evidence."

"It is very strange," says a legal source connected to the case. "We all know what the modesty patrols are, but here they take a Moroccan and place all the blame on him. It is clear that Buzaglo is on the fringe of the fringe in this case."

The Jerusalem District police said in response that "following the assault, a number of suspects were interrogated. The investigation against them was exhausted but when insufficient evidence was found against them in order to bring them to trial, it was decided to submit an indictment against the main suspect." One of the reasons for the failure of the investigation, the police admit, was "a technical fault with the recording device."

Meanwhile Buzaglo has changed his story and found a new explanation for the fingerprint found in Michal's apartment. He says he was having an affair with her and he knows nothing about the assault. During one discussion over extending his remand, he asked that his wife leave the courtroom before admitting to the supposed affair. Police arranged a confrontation between him and Michal, and she claimed that she had never seen him before. When the investigator asked him whether he was prepared to lie by giving a bad name to a young woman he did not know, Buzaglo merely recited psalms in a monotonous voice. Since that moment, everything that he related about the modesty patrols has been forgotten.

Thus Michal was abandoned for a second time. Buzaglo's story now not only cleanses him of guilt but also supposedly backs the claim that the victim was having affairs with married men. Until a few days ago, Michal was not aware that the investigation was completed.

"From time to time, the police call me and tell me that the investigation is proceeding," she says. "That is annoying. People can do whatever is in their head, take the law into their hands, but the law itself is not put in motion. I can do nothing. I am just trying to survive."