Israel, heal thyself: 7 things to know for February 9
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Israel, heal thyself: 7 things to know for February 9

The arrest of a high-profile sex offender religious leader, accused of extorting money from the sick, floods the press, as coronavirus fears linger

Police officers seen during a raid on offices in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem on December 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers seen during a raid on offices in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem on December 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Doctor (rabbi) Death: The Sunday morning press is awash in reports of the arrest of Eliezer Berland, the head of a Hasidic sect who is accused of making followers give him money in exchange for supposed prayers and healing.

  • Police didn’t confirm that Berland is the one arrested but the facts of the case laid out in a police statement, a description of the person arrested and the fact that police descended upon his Jerusalem home early Sunday morning make it pretty clear what is up.
  • According to police, the central suspect “took cynical and terrible advantage of hundreds of citizens and their families, apparently in the midst of their toughest times, and demanded tens of thousands of shekels from them for prayers and healing.”
  • The investigation was apparently launched after Nurit Ben Moshe, whose daughter gave Berland money instead of taking cancer medication and then died, filed a police complaint against Berland. “I want him to pay for his crimes. It’s not right that a killer should walk free.”
  • That set off a Channel 13 investigative report that included video of Berland making similar pitches. A separate investigation by Channel 12 reported that Berland told followers that he could revive people who were officially declared brain dead, if family members pony up some NIS 20,000 ($5,400).
  • While charlatanism is not illegal, Channel 13 reports that authorities are looking to nab him on hundreds of millions in tax offenses — kind of like Al Capone.
  • According to Hebrew media reports, police interviewed some 200 witnesses and seized a cache of fake medicines during their raids overnight Saturday-Sunday.

2. Points for journalism, not police: Globes reporter Avishai Grinzaig notes on Twitter that a year ago the Jerusalem prosecutor said he did not intend to go after Berland, who is well connected politically. The police report notes that they were able to gather information in just a few months about activity that had been going on for years.

  • “A tip of the cap to Channel 13 and attorney Issachar Bar Hillel, who brought the multimillion shekel suit against Berland. They gave the police golden evidence on a silver platter,” he writes.
  • Adds Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson on Twitter: “When you see the violent and criminal conduct of the Berland gang, one can only bow to [Channel 13’s] Ariela Shternbuch of Channel 13 who didn’t bat an eye and publicized the truth. The most courageous journalist today.”

2. Mea Shearim melee: A number of news sites focus on the donnybrook that broke out during the arrest operation, as rioting supporters tried to stop the arrest.

  • Videos shared by Kan news shows followers trying to stop a car, apparently carrying Berland, by jumping in front of it, or lying down in front of it, as police try to shove them away.
  • “Rabbi, kill them,” a person is heard shouting in one video, apparently still believing that the octogenarian has special powers.
  • Channel 12 news reports that police used stun grenades to disperse the protesters, among other methods.
  • The Behadrey Haredim ultra-Orthodox news site reports that the protesters were yeshiva students from Berland’s school, calling the events “drama.”

3. Bitter pill to swallow: Israel will need more than prayers with health fears rising around the Chinese coronavirus and old-fashioned malpractice.

  • The top stories in both Haaretz and Israel Hayom are centered around the virus, while Yedioth leads off with reactions to an investigation that accuses Rambam Medical Center in Haifa of giving cancer patients expired medicine, with the dates fraudulently changed, leading to their deaths.
  • “We don’t sleep at night from so much grief,” says Daniel Kahan, who says his son Gilad died in 2018 despite having a good prognosis for recovery, like other kids treated in the same oncology unit at the same time, who also died. “We’ll always have this doubt, that our son died because someone wanted to save a few shekels.”

4. Just a drill: While Israel does not have any confirmed cases of coronavirus, Army Radio reports that the military is training in the south with visiting members of a military from an unnamed country where the virus is “widespread,” despite the risks, because it fears cutting off the drill could harm bilateral ties.

  • According to the report, there is a medical unit attached to the exercise, constantly monitoring soldiers’ temperatures.
  • “A live fire drill also has risks, but the benefit is greater. It sounds like the army put serious thought into this,” public health advocate Hagai Levin tells the station.

5. Na-nnexation: Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud continue to spar over West Bank annexation, after the premier walks back his insistence it will happen before the March election.

  • As Netanyahu distances himself from his previous position on an immediate annexation, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Sunday also reversed his earlier stance, saying any “unilateral” Israeli decision to annex parts of the West Bank would endanger Washington’s Middle East peace plan unveiled last month.
  • Bennett on Saturday night urged Netanyahu to bring the annexation of settlements to an immediate cabinet vote. “There will never be a more appropriate time to extend the sovereignty in our country. I call on the prime minister to bring the extension of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria to an immediate vote in the cabinet. Prime minister, we will stand on your right side. Without sovereignty, we will get a Palestinian terror state with its capital in Jerusalem.”
  • In response, unnamed “sources in Likud” blast Bennett in briefings to Hebrew media. “Bennett is unaware of the details and the diplomatic process vis-a-vis the US administration. His comments only endanger the extension of sovereignty that Netanyahu is advancing in coordination with, and with the backing of, the Americans. While Bennett holds talks with [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz, who will be [politically] dependent on [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi, the mapping process [of annexation] is going full steam ahead and the extension of sovereignty will be completed shortly.”

6. Show them the money: Amid Likud accusations that he’s in cahoots with Likud rival Gantz, Bennett on Sunday stresses that he continues to partner with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Likud’s staunchest allies. Because, he says, they can easily be bought.

  • “With them it’s very easy,” he says at a campaign event in Givat Shmuel, according to The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Israel. “The Haredim say: Give us the money. And now, do you want a Palestinian state? Have a Palestinian state. You don’t want a Palestinian state? Don’t have a Palestinian state. You want some sort of economic change or the Second Lebanon War? They say, give me the money.”

7. You talking to me? The national election is just 22 days away, but election season has largely been eclipsed by the Trump peace plan and renewed tensions with the Palestinians.

  • There are some exceptions, however. Haaretz features on its front page an article outlining plans by the two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, to court smaller interest groups in an effort to pull ahead of their rivals. Blue and White is seeking the Ethiopian-Israeli vote, the Russian-speaking vote, the Druze vote and the national religious vote, it reports. In addition, the centrist party is seeking to woo French- and English-speaking Israelis, pensioners, and tech workers, it says. But, confusingly, despite the headline, the paper notes that Blue and White has invested little money into this campaign effort.
  • Likud has previously sought the vegan vote and the pro-cannabis legalization vote and is now courting small business owners  — and taxi drivers, it says.
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