In this February 27, 2018, photo, Malka Leifer, center, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
In this February 27, 2018, photo, Malka Leifer, center, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Inside story'The naiveté in our relationship with Israel was shattered'

Australian Jews’ Israel ties sorely tested by saga of alleged sex abuser Leifer

Community leaders freely express their discontent over lengthy extradition proceedings of accused abuser Malka Leifer, but say their Zionist roots have helped in weathering storm

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Main image by In this February 27, 2018, photo, Malka Leifer, center, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The Australian Jewish community’s frustration with the State of Israel reached near boiling point in late February.

The breakdown centered around one woman, former high school principal Malka Leifer, who is wanted in Australia on 74 charges of child abuse. Many in the community saw Jerusalem as dragging its feet on an extradition process that has long been in the works. Some felt the Jewish state was even protecting Leifer from facing the charges against her in Australia.

In 2008, the 53-year-old Israeli mother of eight fled to Israel as allegations emerged that she had sexually abused pupils at Melbourne’s Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls high school. Police complaints against Leifer were submitted by three sisters in 2011, Australia filed for extradition in 2013, and Israel arrested her in 2014.

But in the four years that followed, Leifer managed to convince Israeli courts that she was too mentally unstable to even leave her bed, let alone remain in jail or be sent back to Victoria to stand trial.

Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school headmistress Malka Leifer (left) with her students, among them Nicole Meyer (center) in 2003. (Courtesy)

In 2018, after being filmed appearing to lead a fully functional life, Leifer was rearrested, and she’s remained behind bars since. But in the two and a half years that followed, no decision has been made to extradite her, as the Jerusalem District Court — despite the damning footage — has delved repeatedly into the question of the former headmaster’s mental fitness.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is slated to hear an appeal against the Jerusalem District Court decision that found Leifer fit for the extradition hearing that took place last week. The district court won’t hand down a decision on extradition until September 21, at which point Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn will have to sign off on the move. While both a ruling in favor of extradition and a subsequent signature from Nissenkorn are likely, they too can be appealed to the Supreme Court, further extending the Sisyphean six-year process.

For the staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish community in Australia — unaccustomed to openly criticizing Israeli authorities — the 69 (going on 70) court dates have seen it dragged into largely uncharted waters.

The newly combative position taken by the Australian Jewish leadership as a result has had some onlookers concerned that the Jewish state might be souring a relationship with one of its closest friends in the Diaspora for good.

“There are some donors who will halt their donations,” Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) president Jeremy Leibler told The Times of Israel in late February.

Leibler was one of nearly a dozen prominent members of the Australian Jewish community who spoke to The Times of Israel regarding the broader impact of the Leifer trial. They compared the case to several other crises believed at the time to be equally ground-shaking and explained why the alleged abuser’s trial resonated with so many.

When Leibler first spoke to this reporter at the start of the year, President Reuven Rivlin was on his way back from a visit to Australia, during which he declined a request to meet with Leifer’s alleged victims. This refusal underlined the uneasy relationship between Canberra and Jerusalem over the case.

A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she did some shopping in Bnei Brak on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The apparent snub came weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to reappoint Yaakov Litzman as health minister. Police in July 2019 recommended that Litzman, who represents the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, be indicted for allegedly pressuring psychiatrists in his office to deem Leifer mentally incompetent. The bombshell development presented an explanation for the drawn-out proceedings, which included the Jerusalem chief district psychiatrist changing his diagnosis of Leifer three times.

The ZFA’s Leibler had sent a letter to Netanyahu after the reappointment, calling it “a slap in the face to the Australian Jewish Community, the Australian people, the community of Australian immigrants in Israel and most shockingly, the survivors of Malka Leifer’s alleged abuse.”

“It’s really just an embarrassment because we want to go out and celebrate Israel’s successes, but this puts us in a very difficult position,” Leibler said.

It was attitudes such as Leibler’s that has led some familiar with the 120,000-strong Australian Jewish community to speculate that the Leifer case represented a fundamental shift in its relationship with Israel that would lead to a willingness among members to openly criticize the government over other issues as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yaakov Litzman at the start of the the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

Annexation tests new ‘freedom of expression’

That theoretical willingness to openly criticize Israel was put to the test several months later in the lead-up to July 1, which Netanyahu had vowed would mark the start of his government’s plans to annex large parts of the West Bank. But despite what one Australian official described to The Times of Israel as “near unanimous” opposition to annexation in the country’s Jewish leadership, none of the umbrella groups issued statements warning against the move akin to the condemnations publicized by various self-described pro-Israel groups in the United States and Britain.

In a follow-up interview with ZFA’s Leibler the day after Netanyahu’s annexation target date, with Leifer’s extradition now appearing to be set for approval, his tone has softened. He called the affair a chance for Israel and Australia’s Jews to find a way forward while agreeing to disagree on some matters.

Regarding annexation, Leibler said his organization largely refrains from commenting on the matter because the Israeli government had yet to announce what exactly it plans to annex and how.

The ZFA president also sounded less concerned regarding the long-term ramifications the Leifer case might have on his community’s relationship with Israel. In the four months that had passed since he first spoke with The Times of Israel, a judge had found Leifer fit for an extradition hearing (which took place last week), and Leibler described a feeling in Melbourne that this part of the proceedings against her was finally close to wrapping up.

Jeremy Leibler (Courtesy/Zionist Federation of Australia)

While Leibler stopped short of referring to the case as a watershed moment in the community’s relationship with Israel, he maintained that it had “signaled new territory of strained relations.”

“There were many in the community who had an image of Israel as this perfect little country that defies reality. With Leifer, a little bit of that naiveté was shattered,” Leibler said. He added that he viewed the change in perspective as a “positive development.”

A unique Israel-Australian Jewish relationship

Australian Jews are quick to point out that their community is unlike many others.

“Israel is seen as a home away from home, and you don’t criticize it because you might eventually need to go there,” said Ittay Flescher, who taught English at Adass’ boys school and is now the Israel correspondent for Plus61J — a progressive Australian Jewish news outlet.

Leibler described a community that was heavily influenced by a post-Holocaust wave of immigration, which expanded its size significantly and also led to a “fundamental shift toward Zionism.”

An Australian delegation meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu (4th from L) at his office in Jerusalem on October 28, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/PMO)

“Australian Jews saw their safety and well-being as tied to the success and survival of the Jewish state, even though they weren’t living there,” he said.

That outlook has been passed on to the younger generation, 50 percent of whom are enrolled in Jewish day schools, according to Leibler.

Contrary to many other communities where Zionist sentiment is more strongly felt among older generations, a 2017 survey in Australia found that more Jews between the age of 18-29 identified as Zionists (75%) than any other age range.

“Australian Jews saw their safety and well-being as tied to the success and survival of the Jewish state”

ZFA’s communications director Emily Gian acknowledged that today’s Jewish youth are “definitely more critical than their parents, but we’re probably a generation behind America in that sense.”

“J Street does not exist here,” Leibler added, referring to the progressive pro-Israel lobby in the US that has not shied away from criticizing the Israeli government. “There isn’t an overwhelming amount of support among Jews for one [political] party in Australia. It’s traditionally more conservative, but it has never been overwhelmingly so.”

J Street U students march on the White House on February 25, 2017, the eve of J Street’s annual conference. (J Street via JTA)

However, the ZFA president clarified that the strong connection to Israel does not mean the community has refrained from criticizing the Jewish state entirely. Among the issues denounced by his organization, he cited the Israeli government’s reneging on an agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall, the passage to the so-called Nation State Law and the treatment of African asylum seekers.

“There has been an unwritten rule: everyone is free to express their views, but we don’t criticize Israel on security issues, as we’re not living in Israel or serving in its army. But that does not extend to all other issues,” Leibler said.

But others argued that even that criticism is rather limited.

Former Executive Council of Australian Jewry vice president Manny Waks recalled that in 2010, he had raised the idea of having a meeting to discuss the main umbrella body’s role in Israel advocacy while speaking with another member of the group. The other member quickly shot the idea down.

“I was immediately told straight out not to make such a proposal,” said Waks, who now lives in Israel and serves as the chairman of Kol V’Oz, an international group that supports victims of child sex abuse.

“Things have changed since then, but only to a degree,” he said. “The general mainstream attitude is that the establishment [groups are] an additional mouthpiece and defender of the State of Israel and the government of the day.”

Victims rights advocate Manny Waks (right) holds up a phone from which Malka Leifer’s alleged victims Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elie Sapper speak to reporters at the Jerusalem District Court on May 26, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

‘The zeitgeist of the time’

Many of those who spoke to The Times of Israel acknowledged that the Leifer case brought the community to voice a degree of criticism that until recently hadn’t been heard.

They said that much of the fury had to do with the timing of the proceedings, which unfolded against the backdrop of the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The commission was established in 2013 and its findings were published in 2017.

The inquiry exposed massive failures in the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse, and Jewish institutions such as Melbourne’s Yeshiva Center and Sydney’s Yeshiva Bondi were also revealed as having covered up decades of sex crimes perpetrated by faculty against their students.

“Thanks to the Royal Commission, the issue of child sex abuse became front and center in Australia,” said Waks, who testified before the inquiry.

“Sexual abuse and institutional cover-ups have been the zeitgeist of the time,” said Flescher. “The Royal Commission made it acceptable to talk about the issue, which then made it okay to talk about the Leifer case, despite its rather intimate and gruesome details.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, center, delivers a formal apology to Australia’s victims of child sex abuse as a result of the findings of his government’s Royal Commission, in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra on October 22, 2018. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

BDS or bust?

And yet, one of Leifer’s alleged victims, Dassi Erlich, recalled facing “quite a bit of resistance” from Jewish communal leadership when she launched the “Bring Leifer Back” campaign with her sisters Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper in the beginning of 2017, calling for their former principal’s extradition.

At that point, her alleged abuser was a free woman living in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel, after a judge concluded that Leifer was too mentally unstable for extradition.

“There were a lot of organizations that paid lip service to my cause, but weren’t really willing to do much beyond that,” said Erlich, naming the ZFA (pre-Leibler ) among others.

At one point, Erlich was asked to address an event organized by a pro-Israel group she requested not to identify, whose organizers repeatedly reminded her beforehand to stress to the audience that she does not pass judgment on the entire State of Israel, despite the repeated delays in the Leifer case.

(From L-R) Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper and Nicole Meyer pose for a photo in Jerusalem on November 29, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Time of Israel)

“It felt like they, in a way, were using me to raise money,” she said.

Erlich described a “general hesitancy” from various groups, which didn’t want to be seen as publicly criticizing the Jewish state, to honestly address the issue and Israel’s role in it.

“I was very naive when I started the campaign and could not understand why I was encountering so much resistance,” she said. “Growing up in the [ultra-Orthodox] Adass community, which is strongly anti-Zionist, I had no idea of the extent to which the wider Jewish community was in a completely different place.”

Erlich said some advised her to join forces with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as such activists would be able to amplify her message regarding ongoing injustice taking place in Israel.

“But that wasn’t what the campaign was about,” Erlich said, explaining her decision to resist such advice. “Combating sexual abuse is its own issue and we didn’t need another platform to hang ours on.”

Australian sisters Nicole Meyer (L) and Dassi Erlich (R) take part in a demonstration on March 13, 2019, outside the Jerusalem District Court after an extradition hearings for Malka Leifer, a former girls school principal wanted for sexual abuse in Australia. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Erlich recalled meeting with former Australian politician Ted Baillieu, who recommended starting her outreach at the national level and leaving the Jewish community aside for the time being.

“As he predicted, the Jewish community’s support eventually followed,” she said, citing a late 2017 meeting held by community elder Mark Leibler (Jeremy’s father) with then Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked. Leibler stressed the importance of bringing Leifer back to Australia, which Erlich said “effectively gave permission for others in the community to make the same demand.”

As for Erlich herself, she admitted that she hasn’t been able to make that separation between the case and the state in which it is currently unfolding.

“My sister’s buried in Israel, so that’s the only reason I would go back there after this,” she said. “The place just holds too much trauma for me right now, and I can’t ever imagine feeling like I’d ever want to go back there.”

From bridge collapse to Prisoner X

It’s easy to look at the Leifer case in a vacuum, but in conversation with The Times of Israel a number of the elder statespeople in Australian Jewry were quick to point out that the community’s relationship with Israel has faced other crises that many believed would be no less damaging.

Former ZFA president Ron Weiser asserted that “nothing has affected the Australian Jewish community vis-a-vis Israel more negatively and deeply” than the deadly bridge collapse that took place at the 1997 Maccabiah Games during his tenure.

Israeli rescue workers evacuate members of the Australian Jewish athletic team from a bridge at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv on July 14, 1997. (AP/Jeremy Feldman)

Four Australian athletes were killed and roughly 70 others were injured when the makeshift overpass above the Yarkon River gave way as they were making their way to the Ramat Gan stadium during the opening ceremony of the Jewish Olympics.

Subsequent investigations in Israel found that the Maccabiah organizers had taken negligent shortcuts in constructing the bridge, leading to the eventual conviction of five. The Maccabiah’s president and chairmen were forced to resign and a Haifa court ordered the insurance company for the event, along with the Israeli government, to pay $20 million in damages to over 50 victims.

The fallout took seven years to subside. “Fundraisers for Israel were feeling the effect,” Weiser said. “People who had sent their kids to Israel on programs during wars either were reconsidering sending them or indeed did not send them.”

During that time, Australia boycotted the Maccabiah games. This step, Weiser stated, is “something we haven’t seen during the Leifer process.”

Israeli rescue workers evacuate members of the Australian Jewish athletic team from a bridge at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv on July 14, 1997. (AP/Jeremy Feldman)

“The Leifer case is terrible, but you have to take into account that the bridge collapse resulted in death, and that’s just not comparable,” Weiser said. “Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 would tell you the same thing.”

He also added that Israel could not be solely blamed for all the missteps in the Leifer case, as the Adass Israel school employing her was responsible for booking the red-eye flight that whisked her out of the country in the first place.

But others did not see the bridge collapse as having as deep an impact.

“The community was mature enough to understand that in the bridge collapse, it wasn’t the government that was in charge of the games,” said one of Weiser’s successors at the ZFA, Philip Chester.

Likewise, the era in which it occurred made for a different response. “It happened during the pre-social media era when we were getting our Jewish news once a week on Thursdays, as opposed to now when everything is instantaneous,” said Leibler.

Another tragedy that tested the community’s relationship with the Jewish state was the so-called Prisoner X affair, in which Israel was found to have secretly held Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier before he reportedly killed himself in 2010.

Zygier was allegedly a Mossad agent said to have inadvertently leaked names of other agents in the Middle East resulting in their arrest, imprisonment, or death. He was held under a strict media blackout and became known as “Prisoner X.”

Ben Zygier. (Screenshot ABC TV via Youtube)
Ben Zygier. (Screenshot ABC TV via Youtube)

Chester, who was serving as ZFA president at the time, said it caused major uproar in the community he represented. However, because details coming out of Israel were so scarce, “the address of blame was never clear. Was it the prisoner authorities? Was it the Shin Bet? Was it the Mossad? We didn’t really know.”

Waks argued that as opposed to the Leifer affair, Prisoner X was seen as a security-related matter. As a result, many in the Australian Jewish community were more willing to “give Israel the benefit of the doubt” that it hadn’t acted inappropriately, he said.

Putting it into perspective

As for the Leifer case, Australian Jewish leaders are now confident that they will be able to weather the damage — significant as it might be — to the community’s relationship with Israel. That is, of course, dependent upon the July 29 Supreme Court hearing, and the September district court decision.

“At the end of the day they still wrote that check because Israel as a whole is far bigger than one issue”

“I think there are many in the Australian Jewish community who certainly feel that Israel has and continues to take their support for granted, and for them, this has been a very sobering experience,” Waks reflected.

Leibler expressed a more optimistic outlook and argued that the crises proved just how sustainable his community’s relationship to Israel has become.

“People who picked up the phone called to say how mad they were about this, but at the end of the day they still wrote that check because Israel as a whole is far bigger than one issue,” Leibler said.

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