Eliezer Berland, the ultra-orthodox Rabbi and founder of the Shuvu Bonim chassidic sect, who fled his homeland of Israel in the wake of complaints that he was groping and raping female followers and who then spent two years zigg-zagging across the world before being arrested in Schiphol airport last September, is now taking his fight against extradition to the Dutch Supreme Court.
Ultra-orthodox jews observe strict gender segregation and women are expected to observe “tzniut” laws of modest dress, avoiding clothes that draw male attention and, if married, they should, of course, cover their hair. Gender segregation is encouraged, including in transport, with men sitting at the front and women sitting at the back. The Israeli national airline, El Al, even provides gender-segregated flights to cater to this community.
Men and women who are not closely related or married are not allowed to touch although the rule apparently does not apply if you are being raped by your rabbi. Allegations of systematic abuse have emerged in recent years in orthodox communities all over the world, usually provoking substantial amounts of hostility and aggression against victims who dare to come forward; the usual line is that such things should be dealt with within the community and that to reveal them to outsiders is a betrayal. This has meant that many victims do not feel able to come forward until they see others doing so first, often resulting in an avalanche effect.
In the case of Rabbi Erland, all his victims were too frightened and ashamed to come forward until, in 2012, one of the Rabbi’s male followers, Itai Nachman Shalom, happened to walk in on the Rabbi while he was entirely naked with a distraught female follower. Itai reported the incident and that led to 18 women coming forward with allegations that the 77 year old Rabbi Berland had either groped or raped them.
The victims statements all agreed that an unusual amount of licking was involved, with many initially confused as to whether this was meant to be part of ceremonies, such as the pre-marriage blessing. Rabbi Berland staunchly denied these allegations as he ran to catch a plane out of the Israel, claiming that all the complainants were related to his enemies.
Since then, the Rabbi and his followers have hopped from country to country, in search of a safe haven, stopping off in Switzerland, Italy, the USA, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe, but always being moved along by the authorities. Everywhere, the Rabbi stayed in top hotels, raising questions about his finances, particularly after his son and grandson were arrested for money laundering and fraud.
Rabbi Erland is determined to fight any attempts by the Dutch government to return him to Israel, saying “I’m done with Israel. They have nothing to do. Instead of looking for real criminals, real terrorists, they are looking for me. We will prove that they have nothing and have no clue. We have established 10 communities. Where I go and there are people, they repent and return to Judaism.”
Before finally being caught in Schiphol airport, the Rabbi had a dramatic escape when the South African policed tried to arrest him as he travelled to officiate at a wedding ceremony. Spotting their roadblock, the wiley rabbi spotted leapt out of his car and into a nearby BMW which mounted the kerbed and sped away, smashing through trees and pot plants. The South African police had flagged his passport, which meant that he should have been unable to fly out of the country but, somehow, he did.
Having been released by the Dutch police but having his passport withheld after his detention in Schiphol Airport, the Rabbi told reporters that the Amsterdam police told him that “all the complaints about me are ‘Bubba Maisas’, there is nothing there”, a sentiment that commentators point out the Dutch police are unlikely to have expressed.
Fighting his extradition, his defense team came up with the ingenious defense that, as the alleged crimes all occurred in occupied territories that the Netherlands does not officially recognize as being part of Israel, the Israeli government has no right to seek his extradition. The globe-trotting rabbi also tried to claim he was too sick to travel to Israel. The court threw out both claims and, so, now, the rabbi is taking his fight all the way to the supreme court.
Many are questioning whether the decision to allow the Rabbi to live freely during this process might be a danger to the people of Amsterdam, especially in the light of allegations that one of his victims was a fifteen year old child.
The Catholic church have also complained on the grounds of copyright infringement.