Police on Monday arrested a Jerusalem man, along with eight women, suspected of running a cult in which dozens of women and young children lived in exploitative and slave-like conditions beholden to the man’s whims, authorities said Monday.
Some reports on Hebrew media said the man, in his 60s, was also suspected of sexually exploiting the women.
Police said the community operated for years in the Bukharim Quarter, in the city center, under the guise of a women’s seminar. In it, some 50 women lived in a state of overcrowding, deprivation and poor sanitation. Many had children — an exact number was not provided — aged one to five, who were held in seclusion within the compound on a regular basis.
Authorities said the leader of the suspected cult controlled the women’s lives with absolute authority, isolating them from their families and society at large and punishing them for transgressions through various means. The women were employed in jobs approved by the suspect, and some of their wages were transferred directly to him.
The main suspect in the case was arrested in 2015 over similar suspicions but was subsequently released after members of the alleged cult testified in his favor.
According to the Haaretz newspaper, complaints of the goings-on at the compound stretch back to 2011, when relatives of women living there complained to police. But authorities were reportedly powerless to intervene as the women were adults and insisted they were there of their own free will.
Monday’s arrest came after a number of women who left the community came forward to testify against the man, who reportedly regarded himself a rabbi, and following months of a clandestine investigation into the community.
Police forces raided the compound in the morning accompanied by welfare officials and representatives of the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults. Along with the main suspect, eight women were arrested on suspicion of cooperating with him in running the cult.
“At this stage the efforts of police and other bodies are focused on providing preliminary assistance to the minors and investigating the compound,” police said.
The suspects were to be brought before a judge for an extension of their remand.
According to Walla news, while arriving at court the suspect said: “It’s all nonsense, it’s all made up. The police arrest and the judges will release… No one believes it’s true.”
Hagit Peer, head of the Na’amat women’s advocacy group, called the case “horrifying.” She said it was “inconceivable that such a nightmare community should exist in Israel, under the radar of the authorities, with dozens of women and children exploited horribly.”
She called for a thorough probe “to find potential systemic failures that enabled this ongoing crime.”