Monday was a momentous day for the fight against sex abuse in the Jewish community. Malka Leifer, the alleged paedophile that Israel seemed unable to extradite, was finally loaded on a plane to Australia.
“This is an incredible day for justice,” announced Manny Waks, an activist who has been campaigning for extradition, as Leifer boarded one of the last flights out of Israel before its new coronavirus-induced airport closure.
For the last 13 years, three heartbroken sisters have been desperately hoping that the woman who allegedly abused them at Melbourne’s Adass Israel school would face trial. But Leifer, the ultra-Orthodox institution’s former principal, could not appear in court in Victoria to face her 74 charges, as she flew to her native Israel almost as soon as allegations surfaced.
In 2014 Israel arrested her but her lawyers managed to evade extradition proceedings for years, largely by arguing that she was in no mental state to face trial. These arguments by her legal team continued even after Israeli authorities arrested her over allegedly faking mental illness in 2018.
I sat in a Jerusalem court for dozens of court dates, watching the build-up of frustration among state prosecutors, activists, and, on several occasions, the sisters alleging abuse who had flown in from Australia. The pain of Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper at the drawn-out proceedings was palpable. And there was nothing anyone could say to reassure them.
The case hinged on Israel’s state prosecutors proving a negative, namely that Leifer was not mentally ill, and time and time again as they appeared to make progress, the defence team presented arguments or expert witnesses to dispute this conclusion.
There were endless twists and turns, including a police recommendation in 2019 that then-deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman was indicted for allegedly pressuring state psychiatrists to declare Leifer unfit for trial. Mr Litzman denied wrongdoing.
The cycle of indecision in the case was broken in the last year as the judge gathered more expert opinions and made a final decision in May that Leifer was mentally fit to face extradition proceedings, which took place in September. Leifer was approved for extradition, the Supreme Court rejected the inevitable appeal from her lawyers, and the Justice Minister signed the extradition order.
The drama is over — or rather, the Israel episode, is over. The deep friction that the chaotic proceedings caused between Israel and the Australian Jewish community, and on a diplomatic level between Jerusalem and Canberra, can start to heal. And for abuse survivors everywhere, it is encouraging to see that progress can be made even in a seemingly intractable case.
But for the sisters, this is just step one in their attempt to heal. They now face the prospect of an emotionally-wrenching trial in Victoria.
They prayed for the wheels of justice to turn, but it will still be a deeply painful process.