A fugitive rabbi wanted for years on suspicions of molesting his female followers was extradited from South Africa Monday and was detained upon arrival at Ben-Gurion airport
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious group, fled Israel to Morocco in 2013 amid allegations that he molested two female followers, one of them a minor.
The arrest caps years of Israeli attempts to lasso Berland, 79, considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav Hasidic sect.
Since 2013, Berland has eluded Israeli attempts to extradite him, moving between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families.
Video of his flight to Israel showed supporters singing a Hasidic tune as Berland, wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, waved his arms.
Some 300 supporters were also on hand at the airport to welcome Berland back, though he was whisked from the plane directly into police custody, pausing only to kiss the ground, according to reports.
“Since he left the country in February 2013, the police have worked… to bring him back to Israel for questioning about the allegations against him… the process was completed this morning with his arrest at Ben Gurion airport,” police said in a statement.
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Berland, 79, is a cult-like figure to his students and followers. He is credited by his followers with inspiring tens of thousands of Jews to adopt an Orthodox Judaism lifestyle.
The rabbi, who has been accused of sexually assaulting female followers, has denied the allegations against him. He fought his extradition from the Netherlands in 2015 on the grounds that the alleged assaults happened in the West Bank and Israel does not have jurisdiction there. He later fled the Netherlands to avoid extradition.
He also twice escaped arrest by South African authorities, but was arrested in April after entering a hospital for treatment.
Approximately 700 supporters of the rabbi protested outside the South African Embassy in the Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Gan after his arrest, according to Israel National News.
Before boarding the plane, Berland sent a message to his followers asking them to maintain order. “I request that all of you behave calmly, politely, not to provoke the police, not to raise a hand, not to be disrespectful, not to utter unpleasant words. Everything must be done in accordance with halacha [Jewish law],” he wrote, according to the Ynet news website.
Berland’s lawyer, Rachel Toran, said in a statement that the rabbi believed he would be cleared.
“He trusts the authorities to deal with the matter quickly and efficiently,” she said in a statement. “We have no doubt that at the conclusion of the investigation, the suspicions against him will be disproved.”