Op-eds

Malka Leifer’s evasion of justice – an indictment of us all

  • WendyHendler
The ugly Malka Leifer saga began 12 years ago, when three sisters, Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper, and Nicole Meyer, came forward in 2008 and reported to the Adass Israel school in Melbourne that they had been sexually assaulted by the principal, Malka Leifer, over a period of seven years, from 2003 to 2008 while they were teenagers.
by REBBETZIN WENDY HENDLER | Sep 25, 2020

The school board met, and its response was to put Leifer on a plane to Israel that very night and spirit her out of the country to escape any form of justice and accountability.

Little did they suspect that these sisters wouldn’t keep quiet, and would agitate until the Canberra authorities opened a case in 2013 for her extradition from Israel to Australia to face charges of 74 counts of sexual abuse, including rape and sexual assault.

They would fight not only for themselves but for eight other students whom they knew had also suffered similar abuses but were unwilling or unable to report them.

And so began a legal saga of seven years of agony, with 71 court hearings in Israel, to finally reach the point on Monday this past week, when judges ruled that Leifer was fit to be extradited to Australia to face justice in the country where the alleged assaults were perpetrated.

Why has it taken so long for a case of this seriousness to go through the Israeli justice system? How is it possible that Leifer was able to live in freedom for a number of years before she was arrested in 2014, and for many more years after she was released?

From the outset, she successfully employed a tactic of feigning mental illness to evade extradition proceedings. This tactic worked for almost eight years. It took an undercover investigation by a detective who tracked Leifer’s daily movements and found her to be living a normal lifestyle to expose these fraudulent claims.

In 2018, she was re-arrested, with further victims from the West Bank claiming they had been abused by her during her years in Israel.

In spite of personal pleas by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene to speed up the process, the case dragged on.

Almost seven long years followed the initiation of the case against her. Can one even begin to imagine the hardship of these years for Dassi, Ellie, and Nicole, the hopes that were dashed after each hearing?

How is it that the Israeli legal system failed these victims so thoroughly? Why is it that the rights of alleged sexual predators are prioritised over those of the victims time and time again?

Three courageous sisters who were preyed on in the most horrific manner by their principal, a woman they revered and trusted, have repeatedly had to disrupt their lives to travel to Israel from Australia to attend court hearings. They have experienced disappointment and frustration more times than one can conceive of in this never-ending story.

And yet they persevered against all odds.

They drew on support from people all around the world who have taken these brave young women into their hearts. The whole world watched, and is celebrating this decision with them. But what a struggle it has been.

And what a terrible indictment it is on the Adass Melbourne school authorities who facilitated her flight from the country and who sought to protect her from justice. It also says so much about the Israeli justice system where this circus played out.

What an indictment of then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is said to have interfered in the legal process in order to have Leifer, a member of the Chassidic group to which he belongs, freed from prosecution.

How far do we still have to go until we reach a place where victims are put first, where their pain is considered, and the damage to their lives is understood and appreciated? Did the perpetrators not give up their rights over those of their innocent victims when they chose to harm them?

It’s easy to point fingers overseas when cases happen far from our shores. But are we as a community here in South Africa any different? What’s our track record in holding the perpetrators of sexual offenses liable, civilly or criminally?

I believe we fall far short of the mark. We are often desperately determined to believe in the innocence of the person we know, the person who is a respected member of the community.

We castigate the victims, calling them liars, hysterical females, people on a witch hunt, and we do our best to undermine them. Not all of us, certainly, but enough of us to make a difference.

In our minds, we all believe that victims should be protected and supported. However, when push comes to shove, as soon as the person implicated is part of our own lives or close to us in some way, we tend to want to explain away their misdeeds.

And the victims, once again, get left out in the cold.

Is it then any wonder that few victims are willing to come forward, and that perpetrators walk freely in our community, to offend again and again?

As we approach Yom Kippur, I believe that it would be a powerful act of repentance for each of us to look inwards, and ask ourselves whether we are guilty of this subconscious allegiance. Are we able, personally and practically, to demonstrate a “no tolerance” approach to abuse in our community? Don’t we owe this to those we care so much about? I believe we do.

Wishing you all a ketiva vechatimah tova.

  • Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler is a director and co-founder of KoleinuSA, an organisation fighting abuse that provides a confidential helpline for victims. It also has an advocacy and training wing to raise awareness of child abuse and domestic violence in the community, runs workshops for primary school children to help prevent child sexual abuse, and helps organisations formulate anti-abuse policies.

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