Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Sex offender rabbi ‘negotiated with deputy minister’ for public comeback 

A popular rabbi convicted of sexual offenses has been negotiating his public rehabilitation with ultra-Orthodox politicians in exchange for his followers' political support, according to a television report on Tuesday.

After evading arrest for three years, Eliezer Berland, 80, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016 on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal. He was freed after five months, in part due to ill health.

Now, his associates are working to bring him back into the fold, according to a recording obtained by Hadashot.

In the recording, captured before the October municipal elections in Jerusalem, an aide to Berland, Natan Bezenson, is heard speaking with United Torah Judaism's MK Meir Porush.

The TV report was aired days after Deputy Education Minister Porush was photographed speaking with Berland at a wedding, sparking an outcry.

UTJ is comprised of two parties, the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel and the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah. The parties ran separately in the local elections, and Berland's supporters apparently made use of this rivalry to offer the support of his followers in exchange for legitimization.

"Today in the ultra-Orthodox community [Berland] is an outcast," Bezenson says in the recording. "We really have a very simple demand, very simple, a single demand: that [leading rabbis] will accept him."

He then suggested a photo op where Berland will meet with Hasidic leaders and call to vote for Agudath Israel in the local elections.

Porush responded that this would be unlikely to happen, and the aide pressed him. "They need to make some effort to honor him, some minimal show of respect, some minimal recognition. If he's not a human being, then why do you need his votes?"

Bezenson went on to threaten to "ally with your enemies" and bring down Agudath Israel.

The offer did not appear to go ahead, and Berland eventually supported an independent slate in the first round of municipal elections in Jerusalem, which did not win a significant number of votes. He later supported Shas's preferred candidate in the mayoral runoff, Moshe Lion, after Shas leader Aryeh Deri sent several associates to be photographed with the rabbi.

Porush was heavily criticized in online ultra-Orthodox forums for meeting with Berland this week during the Beit Shemesh wedding of Berland's great-grandson.

The two were photographed conversing during the event.

Long considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav sect, Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had molested several female followers, one of them a minor.

According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and its suburb Beitar Illit, and hold private meetings intended for spiritual guidance, counseling or benedictions. The rabbi would sometimes take advantage of the meetings and of his position in the community to engage in sexual acts with women, including minors, according to the charges against him.

He was on the run from authorities until 2016, avoiding several Israeli attempts to extradite him. He moved between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families. Berland was apprehended by South African authorities, extradited to Israel, and detained upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport in July 2016.


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