Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush on Tuesday visited a rabbi convicted of sex offenses who is currently serving out a shortened sentence under house arrest after his release from prison on medical grounds.
Eliezer Berland, 80, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in November after being convicted of two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal.
Earlier this month, after serving five months behind bars, he was given permission to move to a hotel next to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus, where he will be under constant surveillance until October 2017, when his shortened sentence ends.
Berland is suffering from cancer, according to Hebrew media reports.
Opposition lawmaker Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) said that by visiting with Berland, Litzman and Porush caused harm to every law-abiding citizen who saw their leaders honoring a sex offender, Channel 2 News reported. “The filmed visits by leaders of the United Torah Judaism party at Rabbi Berland’s home are insufferable,” she said.
“It’s especially unacceptable from a sector of the population which emphasizes modesty in the most extreme of ways,” she added.
Associates of Litzman said the minister was paying the visit after many requests from Berland loyalists and that “even a criminal has rights,” the Ynet news site reported.
A source in Litzman’s bureau said Berland had paid his debts and finished his jail term. “when he was in prison, it was different,” the source said, adding that the visit “in no way gives legitimacy to the crimes attributed to him [Berland], if he committed them.”
Associates of Rabbi Berland said of the ministers’ visit, “The public will see and judge how the media [makes a fuss] when public figures who’ve been in contact with the rabbi for more than 30 years come to visit him when he’s in the hospital,” Channel 2 News reported.
Berland’s lawyer, Rotem Tubul, said the rabbi was “still very sick,” and had to be hospitalized from time to time, and that during the Passover holiday, which ended Monday, many rabbis and other figures came to wish him good health and a speedy recovery.
Considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav Hasidic sect, Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he molested two female followers, one of them a minor.
He was on the run from authorities until 2016, eluding several Israeli attempts to extradite him. He moved between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families.
According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and in Beitar Illit and held private meetings intended for spiritual guidance, counseling or benedictions. The rabbi would sometimes take advantage of the meetings and of his position in the community to commit sexual acts with women, including minors, according to the charges against him.