The text message came in Hebrew and English. “A warning to the citizens of Israel: JCW [Jewish Community Watch, an organization that monitors child sex abuse] has received credible information that [redacted] has plans to return to Israel in early November, with intentions of moving to the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The authorities in Israel have been notified, as well as local community leaders.”
The text message, sent to thousands of people on the JCW update list, raced through Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood. According to New York’s sex offender registry, the person in question is a Level 2 sex offender, at moderate risk of reoffending. The message continued with more background and allegations against the immigrant offender.
“In 2007, [redacted] had escaped to Israel through Canada in an effort to evade arrest from the police in New York. He was formally charged in absentia with 8 counts of deviate sexual intercourse with two 13-year-old minors on the same day his aliyah status was approved. Months later [redacted] was extradited back to NY where he was convicted in 2009 and served time until his release in February 2012. Currently [redacted] still holds Israeli citizenship under the alias [redacted].”
According to Shana Aronson, the Israel operations coordinator for Jewish Community Watch, the text message is a public service.
“People have a right, after they serve their time, to live their life,” said Aronson. “But the community has a right to know who they are. They shouldn’t be vilified any more than is necessary to protect the community. But nothing is more devastating than a repeat offender. It’s infuriating. It could have been prevented.”
One of the country’s founding pieces of legislation, the Law of Return allows any Diaspora Jew to receive citizenship in Israel. But child rights activists contend there is a dark loophole to the law which allows Jewish pedophiles to effectively flee court-mandated supervision in their home countries and move to Israel with a clean slate.
In a grassroots effort to deal with the problem, activists and concerned parents are starting to raise awareness on social media, issuing “warnings” via text message, Twitter, and Facebook to parents in neighborhoods where convicted or alleged pedophiles are moving. But their unregulated efforts are also drawing a backlash.
On November 24, the Jerusalem District Court held the first procedural hearing in a case from convicted pedophile Yona Weinberg, who is suing child rights activist Yakov Horowitz. Horowitz tweeted out a warning to parents in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood after Weinberg moved there.
In his suit, Weinberg, from Brooklyn, New York, accuses Horowitz of slander and libel for encouraging parents to treat him like “a terrorist with a machete.”
However, child abuse activists say that especially in the case of Israel, these social media warnings are warranted.
“There’s a danger that Israel is becoming a safe haven for pedophiles and alleged perpetrators,” said Manny Waks, a survivor of child abuse and the founder of Kol V’Oz, an advocacy group addressing child sex abuse in the global Jewish community. “Of course, any criminal can flee to another country, but it’s about getting the visa to remain there. Because Israel welcomes all Jews, they’re protected from that perspective,” he said.
How easy is it for sex offenders to make aliyah?
A registered sex offender under supervision in their home country will not have that supervision transferred to Israel when they receive citizenship. A convicted criminal can make aliyah if the Interior Ministry approves their application, especially if the person has already served their sentence or the crime was a misdemeanor.
Jewish Community Watch says that 32 pedophiles in their database have moved from countries around the world to Israel in the past decade. By contrast, during the same period it has tracked just 12 Jewish pedophiles that have moved abroad from their homelands to countries other than Israel.
When sex offenders move to other countries, there is no international procedure in place for how to monitor or supervise them in their new country. However, international visa requirements make it difficult for nonresidents to live long-term in a new country. Israel is a particularly attractive destination for sex offenders, because the Law of Return allows all Jews to receive citizenship in a very short period of time.
In another, related issue, alleged pedophiles — suspected but not formally charged with any crime — sometimes flee to Israel before authorities get involved. In close-knit Jewish communities, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, a distrust of authorities and tradition of keeping problems “within the community” means that allegations of abuse can arise well before victims notify law enforcement. This gives the purported pedophiles ample time to flee to Israel and apply for aliyah.
If there are no ongoing legal cases against them at the time of their application, they are approved for citizenship in Israel. Even if the authorities in their home countries do move to press charges after the aliyah process is completed, Israel is often reluctant to extradite citizens, meaning the perpetrator can continue to live in Israel and move about freely.
“Education of this issue in the Haredi world is lacking. There are serious shortfalls,” said Waks, who grew up in Melbourne’s Chabad community and was abused at the Melbourne Yeshiva. “They bring teachers in and out of yeshivas without doing checks. The Israeli government needs to look at this issue to address it, because it is an injustice to the victims and a danger to Israeli children.”
Waks has just published his first book, “Who Gave you Permission?The Story of a Child Sexual-Abuse Survivor Who Fought Back” about his own struggle as a survivor of child sex abuse.
The book, available from Scribe, also explores the aftermath of his allegations — how his family was treated and ostracized in the wake of his decision to go to the Australian police about the abuse, and his role as a victim’s advocate in the Jewish community. The title comes from an angry sermon given at the Melbourne Yeshiva synagogue, directed at Waks’s father, demanding to know “Who gave you permission to speak to anybody?”
“The broad statistics are that one in five kids is abused by the age of 18. This is true for the US, it’s true for Israel, and true for Australia,” said Waks. “Only 30% of victims ever disclose their abuse, and on average it takes 20 years for them to disclose it.”
When a criminal moves to Israel
Approval for a convicted criminal to make aliyah, i.e, immigrate to Israel, would depend on “the nature of the crime, when it was committed, and what has transpired in the interim,” said Jewish Agency spokesperson Avi Mayer.
In 1954, the Law of Return was adapted to exclude “a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.” Mayer said that only the Interior Ministry determines what kind of criminals are considered to “endanger public welfare.”
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said any aliyah application coming from someone who was convicted of a crime goes to a special committee within the Interior Ministry, though the final say for rejecting an applicant rests with the interior minister. Hadad refused to comment on what kind of crimes render a person inadmissible for aliyah.
Even if the Interior Ministry is aware that a convicted sex criminal is under supervision in their home country, only an order from the Israeli courts can place a convicted criminal under supervision in Israel, explained Prison Services spokesman Assaf Librati. Israeli courts are unlikely to hear a case if the crime happened in another country, he added. The Prison Services monitors pedophiles convicted in Israel.
But Librati added that sex criminals are unlike other types of criminals, a position echoed by many activists. “If someone robbed a bank and served their time, they don’t need continued supervision,” he said. “But if someone abused children, they will need ongoing supervision, even if they already served their time.”
Librati called the Prison Services’s inability to monitor these pedophiles a “hole” in the law that allows convicted sex offenders to roam freely in Israel.
Just 19 countries around the world have a national sex offender registry, according to the US Department of Justice (PDF). Of those, the US is one of the few countries that makes their registry public, a situation which has its supporters and detractors. The US national registry is easily searchable on the National Sex Offender Public Website or the new mobile app. Israel has a private national sex offender registry, which only Israeli police and prison services can access.
In Israel, people who want to work in schools and with children are often asked to provide a teudat yosher from the police, which states that the person is a citizen of good standing who does not pose a risk to children’s welfare.
But because the list only relates convictions in Israel, someone who was convicted of sex crimes in another country could obtain this document in Israel, clearing them to work with children.
Where does this leave parents?
Jewish Community Watch is controversial in the child rights field because it publishes an online “Wall of Shame” with photos and information about accused child molesters, sometimes even before authorities convict or even arrest the alleged perpetrators. This raises concerns about vigilante justice and false accusations, though Aronson insists the organization’s internal vetting process before putting someone on the Wall of Shame is rigorous. Other organizations are more cautious, only naming perpetrators who have been indicted or convicted.
Aronson said that while the Israel branch of Jewish Community Watch does not take part in the Wall of Shame, the organization considers it an important tool when law enforcement does not adequately address abuse. It sends out updates via text message about once a month of Jewish pedophiles in its database who are getting out of prison or moving to a new community, either within the same country or abroad.
The inability to supervise repeat offenders is part of what infuriates activist Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the founder of the Center for Jewish Family Life, a New York-based organization that deals with child sex abuse, among other issues.
When he heard that convicted sex offender Yona (Jason) Weinberg, a licensed social worker and bar mitzvah tutor from New York who was convicted in 2008 of eight counts of second-degree sexual abuse and child endangerment, Horowitz decided to take matters into his own hands. According to the New York sex offender registry, Weinberg is considered a Level 3 Sex Offender, which means he poses a high risk of repeat offense and a threat to public safety.
And Weinberg has allegedly already reoffended after serving his 13-month sentence in 2009. According to USAToday, in June 2014, Weinberg allegedly groped an 11-year-old boy; the police investigated and didn’t press charges. When the same boy accused Weinberg of attacking him again in August, police showed up at Weinberg’s home to arrest him and found he had moved to Israel.
Weinberg was approved for aliyah because he had already served 13 months in connection with his previous crime, and police had not yet charged him with a new crime when he submitted his aliyah application.
“I tweeted out the warning that Weinberg moved in, and the next thing I know I got sued for slander even though it’s demonstrably true,” said Horowitz.
Some people took offense with the language of Horowitz’s tweet, which referenced the 2014 Har Nof synagogue massacre, when terrorists attacked the Kehilat Yaakov synagogue with machetes, killing four worshipers and a policeman.
Har Nof residents
Convicted sex offender yona Weinberg is LEVEL 3!!
Treat him as a terrorist with a machetehttp://t.co/esp0TNeX8z
— Yakov Horowitz (@yakovhorowitz) January 25, 2015
Horowitz said he will be at the trial, which has already set him back more than $5,000. “Not only is there no sex offender registry, you can get sued and have to hire a lawyer and go to court just to warn parents,” he said. “No way that I’m allowing a sex offender to silence people who warn parents about sex offenders.”
“My client isn’t denying that he was convicted in New York years ago,” said Weinberg’s lawyer, Eytan Lehman.
Lehman noted that it is legal to publish information about the conviction. “[Horowitz] claims that Mr. Weinberg fled from the States, running from a federal investigation, and this is a complete lie, and when you write lies you will be sued for libel,” he said. Lehman said that there is no open police investigation into his client.
Another recent sex abuse case that has captured the headlines is Malka Leifer, the former principal of Adass Israel School in Melbourne, which is not associated with the Chabad Yeshiva center where Waks suffered abuse. When allegations of abuse surfaced in 2008, the Adass Israel school arranged to immediately fly Leifer and her family back to Israel in the middle of the night, before police could arrest her. Leifer is wanted by the Australian police on 74 counts of sexual assault and rape of girls at her school. One of the “alleged” victims won a civil suit against Leifer and the Adass Israel school in 2015 and was awarded almost $1 million in damages.
Leifer already had Israeli citizenship, so she did not come back to Israel under the Law of Return. But Israel’s weak extradition laws mean she will not likely return to Australia to face prison time.
In June, a Jerusalem District Court ruled that Leifer was mentally unfit to stand trial for her extradition hearing. She was released from house arrest and is now undergoing psychiatric evaluations every six months to determine her ability to stand trial, a process which could be repeated for up to a decade while she continues to live at home. Because she was convicted in Australia and not Israel, she is not under any supervision to isolate her from contact with children.
The ironclad Law of Return and a ray of hope
Even though activists know that the Law of Return is partially responsible for enabling pedophiles to escape justice, they believe that the solution must come from a change in how the authorities recognize and supervise sex offenders, rather than any change to the Law of Return.
“I really genuinely understand and respect that there is great reluctance to tinker with the Law of Return,” said Horowitz. “The Law of Return is a beautiful concept, it’s really part of the DNA of the Jewish state. There’s a feeling that if you amend it for sex offenders, what about someone who did domestic violence? Or a Ponzi scheme? Where do you draw the line?”
But “at the very least, the [sex offenders] should be supervised if you’re letting them in,” Horowitz added.
Aronson, of Jewish Community Watch, says she has on occasion met with the Interior Ministry to raise concerns about specific aliyah applicants who people have accused of child sex abuse, even if there is no police case.
“But there’s nothing they can do, [the Interior Ministry has] no legal right to start an investigation into someone who there were no charges brought against them,” she said.
On November 28, the Knesset’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, led by MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), held a hearing on child abuse after multiple requests from activists.
“We are trying to understand where this issue stands, and whether or not there’s a hole in the law here and how we’re going to have to address it,” said the committee’s spokesman. “Is it about someone who has slipped between our fingers? Who has an active police record somewhere else but it doesn’t get registered in Israel? Or is it a one-time occurrence with, say, one person from Australia?”
Waks testified at the hearing and urged the Knesset to adopt better international coordination, better background checks, and establish a public sex offender registry.
Despite the bureaucratic difficulties, many of the activists see a positive change in terms of coming to grips with child abuse in the Jewish community.
“Even in the most Haredi communities, the younger [generation] under age 50 is way more likely to go to the authorities,” said Horowitz. “It’s a cultural thing… they see what happens when you don’t go to the authorities, so they’re not as reticent.”
Waks added that social media has empowered many victims to speak for themselves. “The fact that we’re seeing so many reports these days about child sexual abuse does not mean that this abuse is growing,” said Waks. “It means there is more reporting going on. When victims share, it emboldens and empowers other victims to disclose in a way that’s good for them.”
While change may be underway in the communities, the activists feel that their fight to change the government policies for reporting and supervision is just beginning.
“There’s this feeling of everyone being a cog in the machine, of everyone saying, I’m doing what I’m responsible for,” said Aronson. But meanwhile, at least 32 known pedophiles have slipped through the cracks in the past decade. “We are trying to get enough people alarmed in order to change something,” she said.