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Hunt for Berland led to death threats, allegations

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Rabbi-on-the-run Eliezer Berland dodged an arrest attempt by Interpol and the South African Hawks for the third time last month, despite security forces arriving with a well-armed tactical team. A death threat was made, and subsequently recanted, by the Berlanders against the Chief Rabbi. This is the latest in a series of bizarre statements published by the Shuvu Banim sect in recent weeks. The SAPS and most SA Jewish communal organisations have called on Rabbi Berland to return to Israel to face his criminal charges.
by ANT KATZ | Feb 04, 2016

Berland has been on the run for four years. He skipped Israel after allegations were made by female followers that he had sexually harassed or raped them.

The fugitive rabbi is head of the enormously wealthy Shuvu Banim Breslov sect based at a yeshiva a stone’s throw from the Kotel.

After the raid at a hotel in Samrand, north of Johannesburg, where the 78-year-old rabbi has been staying on and off with a number of his disciples, a death threat against SA Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein was made on Berland’s social media pages.

The “din rodef” – against the chief rabbi - a concept in Jewish law which allows for the killing of an individual who intends to kill or harm others - rattled SA Jewry to the extent that five of the most prominent Jewish communal organisations, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the United Communal Fund, this week issued a joint call for Rabbi Berland to go back to Israel and face the charges against him.

The same sentiment was expressed by Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi who said that it was time for Berland to face the music.

After his original flight from Israel, Berland and some of his followers went to Morocco - and were later expelled from there and from Zimbabwe before coming to South Africa in April 2014. After seven months and a second botched attempt to arrest him in 2014, he fled to Holland from where he eventually jumped a reported R2 million bail after losing an appeal against his extradition to Israel.

He returned to South Africa some six months ago with 200 followers in tow. Reportedly this number has now grown to around 500.

The story went main-stream last weekend after the Sunday Times, Ha’aretz in Israel and SA Jewish Report Online all published the story. It has since created a frenzy and been republished in almost every form of media in Israel and Jewish media worldwide.

After returning to SA in 2015, Berland has managed to live under the noses of the authorities by staying at hotels and golf estates. Most of his followers have remained in Midrand, but he is followed by some of the families to whom, wrote the Sunday Times, “he is a spiritual guru. The men study with him all day and teach the younger boys while their wives take care of the many children and cook.

“They may not eat the food or use the crockery and cutlery at any of these establishments since the hotels are not kosher. They cook in their rooms.”

Most of the sect members only speak Hebrew and are hunkered down at the Midrand hotel. They are legally in SA on tourist visas which they are able to renew every three months by going to neighbouring Botswana and returning on a new three-month visa reprieve.

They’re not entitled to work in South Africa or to access social benefits. They are adamant that the rabbi will return to the hotel in a few weeks’ time when things are “calmer”. They said they were upset about the police raid and their children had been “traumatised”.

Hila Nakesh, whose mother was born in Greenside, Johannesburg, said she saw a policeman pull an oxygen mask off her eight-year-old son, Nathan, who has Down’s syndrome, and who was “traumatised” by the “assault” and had to be taken to hospital in Pretoria.

Brigadier Mulaudzi denied that the boy had been touched. He told Jewish Report this week that Berland had been at the hotel at the time of the raid, but had managed to slip through their fingers. He believes that the sect had some inside information regarding the raid. Berland, in the meantime, is now in hiding.

Nothing had been heard from Berland or Rabbi Goldstein until this week Tuesday, when Berland emerged to deny any responsibility for the threats to the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Goldstein, who is in the US for a series of meetings regarding his Shabbos Project, contacted the Jewish Report to say that he did not accept what Berland had to say (See sidebar).

Berland’s followers promptly followed suit and recanted their own positions.

The last time that the din rodef was invoked in recent times was in Israel in 1995 when Yigal Amir, the murderer of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, defended his actions partly on the basis of din rodef. Amir argued at the time that Rabin’s offer of concessions to the Palestinian Authority would endanger Jewish lives.

The joint response by the South African Jewish community to Berland and his sect read as follows:

“The South African Jewish community calls on Rabbi Eliezer Berland to return to Israel immediately to face the serious criminal charges laid against him and for which there is an international warrant of arrest against him,” it said.

“We further condemn the baseless malicious lies and incitement to violence aimed at our Chief Rabbi, including the libellous accusation that the Chief Rabbi was responsible for the police raid on Berland’s compound.”

Asked why Berland’s followers had accused Rabbi Goldstein of “a merciless blood libel campaign”, a long-standing Jewish Report contact and spokesman from the Yeshiva in Israel, Yossi (the sect only use first names), said: “This is what we feel is being done to us. Only by us we don’t have the SAPS... or the government protecting us, and sending after us the Hawks or the police and spreading lies about us in the media - which is literally spilling innocent blood.”

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