Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers on Thursday denied they were negotiating with the Shuvu Bonim community of convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland for its political support in the April elections.
The denial came as recordings surfaced of the leader of the Agudath Yisrael party, Yaakov Litzman, and fellow member Meir Porush allegedly discussing a political deal with a Berland aide last fall, ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem.
It also came several days after Porush, the deputy education minister, was photographed conversing with the disgraced religious leader, raising an outcry.
In a radio interview on Thursday, Deputy Health Minister Litzman called the fringe Bratslav Hasidic group “very important” and said politicians were rightfully eager to secure its support — though he was adamant he never made overtures himself.
After evading arrest for three years, Berland, 81, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016 on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal. He was freed after five months, in part due to ill health.
Since then, Berland and his Shuvu Bonim community have been ostracized by many in the ultra-Orthodox community, though Haredi politicians have met with him on more than one occasion.
In April 2017, following Berland’s release from prison, then-United Torah Judaism leader Litzman visited him in the hospital, and fellow MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes has toured Shuvu Bonim institutions and pledged increased funding for the community. In 2016, Porush visited Berland in jail.
Earlier this week, Porush was spotted speaking to Berland at the wedding of the latter’s great-grandson in Beit Shemesh, drawing an outcry.
On Tuesday, Hadashot TV news aired recordings indicating Litzman and Porush had negotiated with a Berland aide ahead of Jerusalem’s municipal elections in October to clinch his followers’ support for a Haredi mayoral candidate in exchange for a public comeback.
The formerly Litzman-led United Torah Judaism comprised two parties, the Hasidic Agudath Israel and the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah. The parties ran separately in the local elections, and Berland’s supporters apparently made use of this rivalry to offer the support of his followers in exchange for legitimization. (UTJ officially split into its two parties this week, but stressed that the breakup was only “procedural” and would not prevent the separate elements from running together in April’s elections.)
According to the report, Berland was seeking acceptance by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and a coveted photo op — part of a long-sought bid to end his pariah status within the broader Haredi community. Litzman and Porush, fearful of the public backlash, appeared reluctant to agree to the terms.
The deal discussed in the recordings was apparently not implemented, as Shuvu Bonim ultimately supported an independent candidate in the mayoral race. Berland later supported Shas’s preferred candidate in the mayoral runoff, Moshe Lion, after Shas leader Aryeh Deri sent several associates to be photographed with the rabbi, according to the TV report.
But the recordings underlined that contacts continue between the ultra-Orthodox politicians in government and the shadowy Bratslav Hasidic community that has been designated a cult.
“I came to [visit Berland] in prison and they came out against me, I got complaints from the secular women,” Porush is heard in the recordings as telling the Berland aide in the fall, apparently referring to feminist activists. “Afterward, I went [to visit Berland] in the hospital. I didn’t care. I know why he sat in prison — did it bother me?”
Porush has yet to comment publicly on the recordings and wedding attendance. But in interviews on Thursday, his fellow party members said there were no contacts with Shuvu Bonim.
Speaking to Army Radio on Thursday, Agudath Israel leader Litzman insisted, “I didn’t speak to Berland” and “I didn’t deal with [his aides].
“Everyone wants this community[‘s votes]. They’re a very important community, Berland’s people, and they certainly want their support, and I respect them,” the deputy health minister added. It was unclear if Litzman meant he respected those seeking the votes of Berland’s followers, or the community itself.
Litzman also defended a hospital visit to Berland in April 2017, claiming it was merely in his line of duty as deputy health minister.
“You must distinguish between what he did — if he did it — and medicine… and his health,” said Litzman of Berland.
At the time, Litzman stressed that his visit was not intended “to legitimize the serious charges [Berland] was accused of.” He rejected claims that the visit was an insult to Berland’s victims, and said he apologized if it was understood as such.
MK Yaakov Asher — who is part of the Degel HaTorah party — on Thursday said he wasn’t aware of the Porush negotiations and maintained that the party wasn’t seeking the political backing of Berland’s supporters.
“If you are asking whether we, Degel HaTorah or United Torah Judaism… is in contact with this kind of group or others like it, the answer is no,” said Asher.
But, he also told the radio, “behind a man, there is also a community,” adding that politicians would not blackball an individual simply because “he’s the Hasid of someone” such as Berland.
The exact numbers of Berland’s Shuvu Bonim community are difficult to pin down, with anti-Berland activists saying his now-dwindled following amounts to some 200-300 families, and Berland’s aides placing the figure at 800-1,000 families.
Long considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav sect, Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had molested several female followers, one of them a minor.
According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and its suburb Beitar Illit, and hold 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 engage in sexual acts with women, including minors, according to the charges against him.
He was on the run from authorities until 2016, avoiding 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. Berland was apprehended by South African authorities, extradited to Israel, and detained upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport, in July 2016.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.