Malka Leifer’s journey from gated community to a Melbourne court

Wearing a white head wrap, accused child abuser Malka Leifer sat in silence before a Melbourne court via video link on Thursday, stooped over and hiding her face with her arms crossed.

Her hunched position was familiar from court appearances in her native Israel, but for the first time something was different: she was finally facing prosecution and her accusers on Australian soil, six years after the case against her was opened in 2014.

Malka Leifer: returned to face the courts in AustraliaCredit:Mark Stehle

For the most part Leifer, now 54, did not attend court hearings in Israel, claiming to be unwell.

“She started to shake and make noise in the courtroom, and then the fainting began, and then she refused to come upstairs from the holding cell,” recalls anti-child-abuse activist Manny Waks, who attended the vast majority of the case hearings in Jerusalem’s district and supreme courts. “Eventually the judges allowed her to remain [in the cell].”

In 2016, Israeli courts dropped the initial extradition effort, declaring the former principal of Melbourne’s Adass Israel School mentally ill and unfit to be tried in Australia, where she now faces 74 charges comprising 11 counts of rape, 47 of indecent assault, three of sexual penetration of a child and 13 of committing an indecent act with a child.

Malka Leifer’s home is located in one of the central streets in the settlement of Emmanuel, next to the main grocery. Credit:Gabrielle Weiniger

Instead of being extradited, Leifer moved with her family to the small and sleepy ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel, deep in the stone-stepped mountains of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A gated community, the isolated Jewish enclave is an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.

Her house was the first on a winding road that cut straight through the middle of the town. Random piles of discarded fridges and washing machines dotted the dirt roads. Leifer is a member of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect that practises strict adherence to Jewish law.

Living with her rabbi husband and children in the unremarkable, tea-stained block of flats with plastic-shuttered windows and makeshift nets blocking out mosquitoes and the Middle Eastern sun, Leifer’s life was a far cry from a Melbourne prison cell.

“She came here to hide,” says Daniel, a resident of Emmanuel who asked that his surname not be published. “It’s super-religious here. It was a landing zone for her. Emmanuel was so corrupt that its mayor eventually went to jail.”

Daniel lives in the valley near Emmanuel, a stone’s throw from Leifer’s house.

He says he was one of the first to raise the alarm to the Australian authorities that Leifer was not, as an Israeli court had found, incapacitated and unable to perform daily tasks. He says she was continuing to tutor young children.

“I gave the police the stills of kids going in and out of her house,” he recalls. “⁣The people of Emmanuel are very poor. She would give them money, candy, tutor them.”

Private investigators’ pictures of former Australian school principal Malka Leifer apparently showing her leading a normal life in Israel despite her claims to Israeli authorities that she suffers a debilitating mental illness.

Shana Aaronson, formerly of Jewish Community Watch (JCW) – an organisation that assisted in bringing the taped evidence of Ms Leifer living a normal life in Emmanuel to the police in 2018 – says there are many cases of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Aaronson, who is now director of Magen, which deals with sexual abuse in Orthodox communities in Israel, claims there has even been an uptick in abuse in Leifer’s home town of Bnei Brak – one of the poorest and most densely populated cities in Israel – since the COVID-19 pandemic.

JCW footage shows Leifer waiting at the bus stop, talking on the phone and visiting the post office in the city. It was enough to convince Israel’s police to arrest her on the grounds of lying to court and feigning insanity to evade the judicial system.

The revelations re-ignited the extradition effort. Her mental fitness was re-examined and during the next three years of proceedings Leifer was locked away in Israel’s only women’s prison.

While many ultra-Orthodox community members refused to comment for this article, one member of Bnei Brak’s Justice Court, ultra-Orthodox educator Mordechai Zeev Blewi, gave a brief comment that he believed Leifer should see fair treatment and not be made an example of.

Alleged vicims Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer arrive at a press conference after the news that an extradition hearing date has been set for alleged sexual abuser Malka Leifer.Credit:Jason South

“If she is not OK, then she needs to be dealt with. As long as she doesn’t get more than she deserves,” he told The Age.

Yet allegations of Haredi community support for her have run long and deep in this case, with accusations of interference reaching as high as the Israeli government.

An ultra-Orthodox doctor currently working in the Israeli healthcare system, who asked not to be named out of fear of a threat to her employment, claims to have exposed political meddling in Leifer’s extradition case just months after she was re-arrested in 2018.

According to the source, accounts of Leifer during her time as school principal in Melbourne as “a wonderful person, charismatic who everybody loved” did not match up with the court-ordered psychiatric reports “that she has chronic schizophrenia”.

The doctor says the medical team consulted with a psychiatrist colleague in Jerusalem, who verified that the psychiatric departments ordered by the court to report on Leifer’s mental state were being contacted by then Israeli health minister Yaakov Litzman.

A year later, Israel’s police said they had enough evidence to indict Litzman for witness tampering.

In a statement, police said that besides belonging to the same religious sect, Leifer worked alongside Litzman’s wife in the education sector. Litzman is currently Israel’s housing minister.

A private investigator’s photograph of Malka Leifer apparently showing her leading a normal life.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relies on the support of ultra-Orthodox political parties such as Agudat Yisrael, which Litzman leads, to maintain his ruling coalition.

With elections approaching, the source said that although she will vote, as an Orthodox woman, she does not want a new government that includes the Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) parties.

“They aren’t embarrassed to grant favours to those in the community – they don’t see it as corruption, just ‘helping’.

“As long as they have political power and everyone needs them, nothing happens. As long as Litzman is in power, nothing is going to happen.”

The doctor pointed to a recent statement released by the president of Melbourne’s Adass Israel School, Benjamin Koppel, regarding Leifer’s trial as an example of the Haredi community’s failure to encourage reporting acts of abuse to the authorities.

The statement read: “We encourage anyone who feels affected by Mrs Leifer’s return to seek support and have made professional counselling available on a free and strictly confidential basis to any member of our community.”

The Israeli doctor was appalled. “They may have given up the fight for Leifer – how can they do anything now? – but they are saying that if anyone else is affected, come to us – which means do not go to the police.”

Undercover footage shows Malka Leifer shopping at a time when she was said to be mentally unfit to face a court.

Allegations that Leifer fled Australia in the middle of the night are disputed by her defence team in Israel, but a ruling from a civil case against the school won by one of Leifer’s alleged victims, Dassi Erlich, said that members of the Adass Israel community helped her evade justice.

Manny Waks is concerned that some members of that community might leave Australia ahead of Leifer’s trial.

“There’s a big fear and potential for people to evade justice by escaping to Israel again,” he says. “What happens if certain individuals [of the Adass leadership] realise they are on the radar? They can easily evade justice and avoid responsibility for the injustice that has taken place.”

Both the prosecution and the defence in Leifer’s extradition case reject the notion that Israel acts as a safe haven for criminals.

Mr Waks has also raised concerns about the response of the Adass Israel school.

“The Adass community are continuing with their charades. While their statement was seemingly very supportive and sympathetic towards victims, where have they been before today? Why didn’t they offer an apology before?” he asked.

“There is a lack of education, apology, acknowledgement and responsibility – this is a slap in the face for past victims but also very dangerous for current students,” Mr Waks said.

Waks adds that while some within the Adass Israel community do want to see Leifer face justice, the insular and closed nature of the community means “a statement like that would have a detrimental impact; they would be seen to be going against the community and bringing it into disrepute”.

Referring to Australia’s royal commission that found a marked absence of supportive leadership for survivors of child sex abuse and their families, Waks says that “if an institution doesn’t address critical issues, they are an unsafe institution”.

He claims that the very reason Leifer was able to avoid the Australian charges for so long was due to her supporters within the community.

“Their influence, the resources they have at their disposal – most or all are from the ultra-Orthodox community and segments within that.”

“Many of those who have supported her have an interest in preventing her facing justice.”

Leifer’s defence lawyers “completely and utterly deny” that there was a strategy of delay, yet the six-year battle for extradition has strained relations between politicians in Israel and Australia.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews met personally with Netanyahu in 2018, telling him the only just outcome was for Leifer to face a jury of her peers.

In a written statement on Wednesday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne welcomed the extradition and thanked “all those within the Israeli government whose cooperation has allowed us to reach this point”.

Attorney-General Christian Porter added that Leifer’s arrival on Australian soil “finally concluded the long-running process to see Ms Leifer returned to Australia to face serious sexual assault charges against her”.

Israeli prosecution lawyer Avital Ritner-Oron told The Age that despite the fact that proceedings have taken a long time, “the system proved itself and we reached what we see as a just decision in the district court and the supreme court, to finally be able to send her back.

“Malka Leifer used every trick in the book to avoid extradition, and that came up in the [final] Supreme Court decision also. But at the end of the day because the justice system does work in Israel, she was only able to delay extradition and not prevent it – despite all her efforts.”

Ritner-Oron says she has offered Australian prosecutors any assistance they require.

Leifer’s defence lawyer Nick Kaufman agreed that justice had been done, whether or not he “agreed with the result”. He told The Age that the case had been blown out of all proportion by the media “because of the Jewish Community Watch report and involvement of politicians on both sides of the world”.

He added that he was disappointed with one aspect of the final Supreme Court ruling which he labelled as purely technical in regards to the interpretation of the extradition treaty between Israel and Australia, signed in 1970.

Kaufman had argued that the alleged offences committed in Australia were not considered rape at the time of signing, although still an arguable case for indecent assault.

“The only way rape could be committed in those days was a lack of consent; the concept of grooming or abuse of authority as a sexual offence did not exist at the time of signing the agreement.”

Waks termed this moment in court as a low point of victim-blaming.

“To hear the sisters being blamed for the abuse they endured was very hard to bear. I had to walk out for fresh air for five minutes, take a breath and come back. That was horrific.”

Waks believes that Israel won’t have finished its part in this saga until they review the case and resolve the matter of political interference and corruption.

“Once the Israeli court did its job, the political arm acted fast. But the battle so far has been just to get to the very beginning, and now the actual criminal trial begins,” he says.

Leifer’s Israeli defence team says that the Leifer family has found a new Australian lawyer, Tony Hargreaves, and that they are “very confident we found the right person for the job”.

Due to Leifer’s strict religious beliefs, Hargreaves has requested that special arrangements be made for her when she is transferred to prison.

With her next hearing scheduled for April 9, she is currently being held in police custody during the compulsory two-week quarantine period after flying out of Israel the day before the country closed its skies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For the second time in 20 years, Leifer has arrived in Australia. In 2001 she came to assume her new role as a headmistress and pillar of the Adass Israel community. This time she comes in handcuffs, to a far more uncertain fate.

Gabrielle Weiniger is an Israel-based freelance journalist who covered Malka Leifer’s extradition hearings for The Age.

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