Y. grew up the 13th of 14 children in a Hasidic family where money and parental attention were in short supply. He says that when he was 12, a rabbi who taught at his New York state yeshiva sexually abused him.
The trauma he still lives with began with the teacher buying him ice cream and later invitations home for lunch — seeming kindnesses that, Y. alleges, morphed into sexual abuse.
Years passed, but when he was 27, Y. (Haaretz is in possession of his real name) says he saw his alleged abuser again when he came to Y.’s father’s shivah. Something snapped inside. Y., now 38, recalls feeling a surge of rage and approaching the rabbi. “If I did not forget, you still remember,” he recalls telling him.
When Y. then started making his allegations known within the community, he says the rabbi moved to Israel. Activists say the man eventually got a job in Jerusalem, again teaching boys, until they made the accusations against him public.
Also in New York state, A., 29, alleges that an older cousin started abusing him when he was 6 and the cousin was also a minor. The two were part of the Chabad community and in 2013, A. won a U.S. lawsuit against his cousin, who was ordered to pay him $3.5 million in damages. But A. says his alleged abuser immigrated to Israel after the decision, aided by some of their joint relatives and some members of the community, and the damages were never paid.
“More than half of my life has included dealing with the fallout from what this person did to me,” A. tells Haaretz. “He never had to answer to anyone for the harm he inflicted on me and was protected by our community and even by members of my own immediate family. Despite this, and despite the pressure that has been placed on me to just ‘move on,’ I took every step possible to get justice and I’m proud of that decision — despite the steep price I paid for it."
One of Israel’s foundational laws is the Law of Return, which gives Jews the right to immigrate to Israel and become citizens — unless they are deemed a danger to Israeli society, security or the Jewish people. Israeli law, however, does not define what that means.
According to advocates for victims of child sex abuse, it is the exploitation of this law that has potentially made the country an unintentional haven for Jewish alleged sex offenders who flee here.
This issue of Israel becoming a haven, for those seeking citizenship or those who already have it, has taken center stage with the high-profile case of Malka Leifer. The headmistress of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne fled to Israel in 2008 after allegations surfaced of her sexually abusing several of her female students. Leifer is facing possible extradition to Australia on 74 counts of suspected sexual abuse, including indecent assault of a minor and rape.
“The Law of Return is basically why it’s so easy for people to come here,” says Shana Aaronson, the chief operating officer of Jewish Community Watch — an advocacy group for victims of child sexual abuse everywhere in the Jewish world, with offices in the United States and Israel.
“There is certainly more focus on whether or not the person is Jewish than there is on a possible criminal record,” she charges, alleging that criminal background checks run on individuals looking to immigrate are not as thorough as they should be.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad tells Haaretz that, in order to act, Israel is reliant on information tipping it off about a potentially dangerous applicant for immigration, such as an alert by an international crime-fighting organization.
And if a convicted sex offender manages to immigrate to Israel, officials say there is no legal way for Israel to impose supervision — which would often be mandatory if they were still living in their home country — unless they are convicted of reoffending in Israel.
‘A hole in the system’
Jewish Community Watch says Leifer and Y.’s alleged abuser are among 65 people in the last decade, most of them either ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox Jews, who they know fled to Israel. They were either already Israeli citizens, began the immigration process here, or came and stayed here on tourist visas. Though they say it is impossible to be precise about the number of convicted or alleged child sex offenders seeking refuge in Israel, they believe about half of those 65 faced criminal charges concerning sexual abuse of children or have seen proceedings started against them in their home countries. The other half have been accused by alleged victims but not prosecuted.
However, the Jewish Agency, which helps facilitate the aliyah process for many potential immigrants, counters that its staff conducts what it calls “extensive background research on applicants.” Every year, it says, cases are found where some of the applicants have lied and their applications rejected, although it could not say precisely how many were found to be lying in any specific year.
The Israeli police do not keep data on such alleged child sex offenders, making it nearly impossible to verify their number.
Aaronson says that of those alleged offenders who have faced criminal proceedings, some have served time and others took plea deals that included parole time in their home country or state — where they were supposed to be monitored by local police under the terms of their probation.
It is illegal for those on parole to leave their country of residence. Others, as a condition of their release or plea deal, may have been ordered to be registered on a sex offenders list. However, according to Aaronson, as long as registered sex offenders provide a forwarding address, they are legally allowed to move.
“The problem is the forwarding address given in Israel in such cases is never accurate, in my experience,” she says. “And the U.S. Registry is powerless to enforce that in Israel, because it’s beyond its jurisdiction.”
When any such individual is in Israel, the Israel Prison Service (which oversees parolees) says there is no monitoring unless the person is convicted of a crime in the Jewish state. “If the individual was never a prisoner in our system, there is no supervision,” prison service spokesman Assaf Librati tells Haaretz. “It’s a hole in the system — and it’s truly problematic.”