An Israeli minister was once asked why he made it his way to exploit the public treasury for personal gain. He replied that we have it by tradition: “Your ministers are rebellious and companions of thieves. They all love bribes and chase payoffs. They do not defend the orphan nor consider the plight of a widow” (Yeshayahu 1:23).
Positions of power come with a special responsibility: to care for the weak of society, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Today, we can add several additional categories, not least of them victims of sexual assault (and especially those harmed by people in power). Rashi ensures we interpret the verse broadly: “The same applies to every person, though the verse mentions speaks of the common cases whose they are weak and their oppression is convenient.” According to the prophet, the role of ministers is to take care of the weak and fight their battles.
Positions of power come with a special responsibility: to care for the weak of society, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Today, we can add several additional categories, not least of them victims of sexual assault
But who will ensure they stay loyal to their mission?
The Porush-Berland Partnership
Over the last few days, news broke that the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Meir Porush, who also serves as a “special projector” for Uman, tried to intervene with Ukrainian authorities on behalf of convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland, a person who has admitted to having committed two of the three most heinous Torah crimes (adultery and bloodshed). On top of that, Berland caused a Chillul Hashem of gargantuan proportions and included himself most emphatically among the wicked of Israel.
Approximately a year ago, Berland received a “black visa” from the government of Ukraine, which prohibits him from entering its territory for three years. This order was executed out of concern for public order and security violations. The Ukrainian government justified the decision by noting that in light of his involvement in criminal activity and his conduct in Israel and Ukraine, his stay in the country could “undermine public order and national security interests, especially during military rule.”
Based on news outlets, Porush used his public position as a minister in Israel’s Israeli government and Knesset representative of the Charedi public to approach Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevhen Korniychuk, and attempted to cancel the ban. In the court case that ensued, Berland’s lawyers attached a letter from Porush to his petition, though the contents thereof have not been published (the local court refused to accept the letter).
The day after the affair was publicized, and following the public uproar that ensued, Prime Minister Netanyahu disavowed the effort and issued a clarification: “The Prime Minister rejects the appeal regarding Berland’s entry into Ukraine.” Rumors about the minister’s activities in this matter had already been circulating a month before, but his office staff denied them until the official information was published.
This case is not the first connection of Parush to Berland and his entourage. In the past year, the Ministry of Religious Services published official procedures for the annual kindling celebrations at Meron, stating, “The right to kindle a fire will not be granted to a body that has been convicted of an offense that renders it undeserving of the honor.” The arrangement was meant to ensure that criminals who desecrate the Name of Hashem should not receive a platform at holy sites. Porush, the relevant government minister, managed the Meron celebration and was under duty to carry out the order.
Ahead of the event, many feared that Porush and his henchmen would ignore the procedure. At a press conference that outlined the structure of the celebration, Yossi Deutch, the project leader appointed on behalf of Porush, claimed that “there is full cooperation with all the planned bonfires, including that of Shuvu Banim” (Berland’s Breslov sect). In response to a reporter’s question concerning possible disturbances of the peace (due to the volatile character of Berland’s following), Deutch responded that “there are always people who don’t understand the concept of mutual responsibility.” Needless to say, Berland was a full and active participant in the lighting ceremonies. No apology or condemnation was issued from the minister or his project manager.
Selling Your Soul For a Seat
Some will say that by virtue of his position, Mr. Porush is supposed to help anyone in need, especially a Charedi individual. In this context, assisting Berland would be no different from helping a convicted felon cross the road or helping a Chassid who had previously strayed to visit his Rebbe. Given some level of penitence (which is not the case for Berland), this argument is plausible for a private individual. It is unacceptable concerning political assistance to strengthen Berland’s power, the same power that allowed him to carry out his horrific acts on women of his community. The current story is part of a chronicle of political-social assistance in exchange for political benefits, as evidenced by the actions of UTJ Knesset members exploiting connections and granting honor to Berland.
The current story is part of a chronicle of political-social assistance in exchange for political benefits, as evidenced by the actions of UTJ Knesset members exploiting connections and granting honor to Berland.
At the beginning of 2017, less than six months after his conviction (in a plea bargain) for the crimes of indecent acts and sexual assault, Berland was transferred to house arrest in the hotel adjacent to the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, where he remained until the end of his prison term. While serving his sentence, Berland received a “festival visit” from Meir Porush, who then served as Deputy Minister of Education, and his son, the mayor of Elad Yisrael Porush. Minister Litzman also made a pilgrimage to the hotel in Hadassah along with his office staff, including Motti Babchik, currently the chief of staff of Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf. At the wedding of one of Berland’s descendants held in Beit Shemesh in 2019, Porush (then a Knesset member and Deputy Minister of Education) came to pay his respects and participate in the celebration, an event that also caused a public stir.
And if all this was not enough, recorded conversations that reached the Israeli press provide a glimpse of the political trading that goes on behind the scenes, by which our Knesset representatives abuse their power to publicly honor somebody who debased his own community’s women while taking advantage of his position as a spiritual shepherd. The recordings expose a conversation between Litzman and Porush and a Berland community businessman. The meeting was held in 2018 in advance of local elections.
Berland’s assistant said: “Today, as far as the Charedi public is concerned, he (Berland) is being singled as a disgrace. […] We have a very simple demand: that the Gedolim accept him, that they make some effort to honor him, some minimal respect, some kind of minimal recognition. If he’s not human, why do we need his votes?” When Porush and Litzman made it clear that there was no chance of involving leading rabbinic figures in this matter, they pulled out the ultimate threat: “We will make an alliance with your enemies, and this alliance means that in the next elections, Shas and Degel HaTorah will run together for the Knesset. We will give them the additional seat because the rabbi will appear at every election rally. He is charismatic and captivating; if he tells the Sephardim to vote Shas, do you know what power Shas will have?”
The Berland community demanded that their leader pay a visit to the Rebbe of Gur, who would request him to sign an appeal to vote UTJ. Berland would also be photographed with the Rebbes of Vizhnitz and Belz. Litzman, however, claimed that this would not be feasible. Porush, attempting to appease the representative’s anger, began apologizing and recalling his supreme efforts to maintain Berland’s public status despite the personal price he paid for it: “I went to visit the prison. I felt that I should give him the honor. I visited the prison, and they came out against me [.. .] After that, there was the hospital. I went to the hospital. I went although I could burn for it or lose my place, you know? Someone will wave it at my face…” To prove his sincerity, Porush took the trouble to make it clear to the assistant that he had no criticism against Berland. On the contrary, he’s on his side: “So I say again, I can say in my defense, I already tried. I didn’t care. I ignored everyone. And I knew why he’s in prison. It didn’t bother me.”
At the end of the day, Berland supported an independent list that won about a thousand votes. A day before the second round of elections for the mayorship of Jerusalem, which was decided by a margin of fractions of a percentage, Zvika Cohen, the head of the Shas faction in the city and son-in-law of Aryeh Deri, who served as the director of the election headquarters, came to visit Berland. The meeting was documented, a joint video clip was filmed, and Berland publicly supported Moshe Leon, the current mayor of Jerusalem.
The Berland case can somehow be explained as an attempt to gain extra votes for the election campaign. But what can we say about other cases in which our representatives abuse their power to assist criminals just for the sake of it? To our great disgrace, this is by no means the only case.
What can we say about other cases in which our representatives abuse their power to assist criminals just for the sake of it?
An especially egregious case was the criminal assistance Yaakov Litzman gave Malka Leifer, the daughter-in-law of a Chasidic Rebbe who ran a Charedi school in Melbourne, Australia, between 2000-2008. Leifer was accused of dozens of cases of pedophilia, sexual assaults, and acts of rape on young female students while exploiting her position of authority. She fled to Israel with the institutional assistance of the school where she worked. In 2014, Leifer was arrested in Israel following an extradition request from the Australian authorities, but the extradition process was stopped following a psychiatric opinion that she was unfit to stand trial. In 2018, Leifer was arrested on suspicion of feigning insanity to avoid extradition after new evidence culled by private investigators came to life. After the extradition, Leifer was tried in Australia, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 2019, Yaakov Litzman, then deputy Health Minister, was questioned on the suspicion that he abused his powers in violation of the law. According to the suspicion, Litzman arranged for a psychiatric opinion confirming Leifer was unfit to stand trial. Israeli police investigators concluded that Litzman had tried to influence psychiatrists to give an opinion preventing Leifer’s extradition. In 2022, Litzman signed a plea bargain, as a result of which he was fined and sentenced to probation. In June 2022, Litzman resigned from the Knesset following the settlement and retired from political life.
More cases can be mentioned, but I wish to make a more general point.
A Time for Public Responsibility
Politics is a dirty business. In Talmudic parlance, politicians are tanners. It doesn’t smell good. However, the issue here is not the personal morality of the politician but the use of public power that we, the voters, have given him. There is no point lamenting politicians who perform nefarious acts to ensure they stay in power, but there remains a public responsibility to protest and denounce wrongful acts that are done in the name of religion by public officials who claim to be our agents.
The politician is a public representative, and Charedi politicians are the face of the Charedi public. When a politician allows himself to honor a renowned villain in exchange for a few votes, he tarnishes all of us. He declares that we, the entire Charedi public, prefer another seat at the ballot box over the most heinous Torah transgressions. He proclaims that the most sacred thing for us is electoral power and that its achievement is worth any price. Porush himself made a similar statement in a recent interview: “Yes, I acted in this matter. I see criticism, but I don’t see the hurricane.” Shame. “A righteous man knows his animal’s soul,” and we can assume a politician knows his public’s soul. He will do whatever is required to stay in office and avoid whatever might drive him out. To our discredit, it turns out that helping criminals does not arouse great interest among our public.
The fact that our politicians think they will benefit from helping adulterers and those who oppress orphans and widows is a stain on us all
This situation is grave concerning any crime, but it is especially severe concerning sexual offenses, for which public condemnation plays an important role. Thus wrote Ofra Lex in a column published in “Israel Today”:
Two groups closely monitor how convicted sex offenders are accepted in society. The first is victims of sexual offenses, and the second is the group of perpetrators (and those who aid them). For these, the attitude of society in general, and that of elected officials in particular, is a signpost. The more sex offenders are legitimized, the more offenders breathe a sigh of relief and know they can continue their vicious acts. Even if one day they are caught, God forbid, there will always be someone who will accept them back. In contrast, the victims receive the message that it isn’t worth their while to turn to the authorities. It’s hard enough to convict someone of sexual offenses, so what’s the point? They continue to suffer and remain silent.
The fact that our politicians think they will benefit from helping adulterers and those who oppress orphans and widows is a stain on us all.
A purer and cleaner view of politics, one that prioritizes virtue over political self-interest, can be found in Rabbi Dov Landau’s renowned letter to Rabbi Shmuel Deutsch concerning the municipal elections in 5749 (1989):
I state further, openly and forcefully, that I do not understand this entire attitude that the Torah world needs to be powerful and militant, defending itself and protecting its rights with full strength. […] No! This is not the appropriate path for the Torah world. It was never like this in the past, and this is not how to clothe it for the present and future! The Torah world I know needs to be spiritual, elevated and refined, modest and humble, rather than warlike and violent, massive and prominent! No! This holds true even at the cost of losing, even should the losses be one hundredfold times those we would experience were we aggressive and violent like our rivals and opponents.
We should take something of his words into our political reality. The matter depends on us. After all, it is our voice, our vote.
 I have refrained throughout the piece from using the “Rabbi” honorific; three rabbinic courts came out against Berland and his atrocities, and his was likewise condemned by a special letter of the elders of Breslov.
Picture, Le’am, AMOS BEN GERSHOM