Ex-Melbourne teacher too 'panicked' to deal with sex abuse claims

By Jamie Walker (The Australian)
February 20, 2016

If she holds true to form, Malka Leifer will have checked herself into hospital by the time her potentially make-or-break day in court comes around tomorrow in Jerusalem.

The former principal of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne has been ducking hearings over her extradition to Australia for 18 months, claiming she is too panic-stricken to show up, forcing adjournment after adjournment.

Leifer is wanted in Australia on 74 criminal counts of alleged child sexual abuse of her former female students; the Israeli authorities want her on a plane; and her alleged victims from the Adass Israel School in Melbourne's leafy inner southeast want to have their day in court.

Yet an Israeli judge has so far accepted her lawyers' argument that she lapses into a psychotic state ahead of each court date, rendering her unfit to appear or even communicate with them.

A stout, kindly looking woman, last photographed with her thick hair cut short, Leifer ingratiated herself with the most conservative of Melbourne's religiously observant Jewish families after being recruited from Israel.

She allegedly breached that trust by preying on the unworldly girls placed in her care.

Her husband, Jacob Leifer, is a rabbi who keeps a low profile but stands resolutely by his wife and mother of their eight children. Malka Leifer is little known beyond the close-knit Haredi circle in which they move in the Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak in central Israel. An insular community has closed ranks behind them.

Her defence appears to be well funded, involving two law firms, each with defined areas of specialisation. Speculation abounds about who is paying for what, but no one really knows beyond the Leifers and their lawyers. No one will speak publicly.

The situation would be farcical were the pain not so acute - both for the young women who say their lives were blighted by what Leifer allegedly did to them, and for the fugitive woman who lives under house arrest in Israel as the legal bickering grinds on.

The case has also put the Israeli justice system on trial in the court of international public opinion. Leifer's critics accuse her lawyers of exploiting legal loopholes to avoid extradition, seeking to drag out the case for so long that it becomes impractical to run, instead of trying to get it dismissed by judge Amnon Cohen.

"This is critical for Israel," says Manny Waks, a 39-year-old survivor of sex abuse at another Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne who is rebuilding his life near Tel Aviv. "Many individuals and communities around the world are looking at this case … it will certainly either increase or reduce confidence in the Israeli justice system.

"It will also have implications in terms of how people view Israel as a state of the Jewish people, because if this country is seen to become a refuge it will be very off-putting, to say the least."

Privately, Israeli prosecutors are deeply critical of the stalling and, by implication, the judge's willingness to entertain a defence tactic that Leifer is perfectly entitled to pursue under law.

At the last hearing in early January - ahead of which Leifer checked herself into a clinic, sidestepping the latest summons to appear - Cohen suggested he might order a stay of the proceedings until there was a change in her mental state.

The State Attorney, advancing the case for extradition, has argued the judge need not go into whether or not Leifer is fit to stand trial. That would be a matter for an Australian court to decide post-extradition. The issue before the Jerusalem District Court is a relatively straightforward matter of dealing with her ability to travel to Melbourne, prosecutors have said in submissions.

The problem for the State Attorney is that Israeli law requires a defendant to be present at all proceedings and to be capable of interacting with defence counsel. Cohen has evidently put weight on independent assessments by a state psychiatrist that Leifer's purportedly paralysing panic attacks are genuine and that alternatives, such as linking to her by video or even convening a hearing at her home in Bnei Brak would not fly.

Still, the way in which Leifer has conducted herself does smack of contrivance.

Typically, she goes into the local hospital or to a private clinic a day or two ahead of any court appearance. Once an adjournment is secured, she signs herself out.

This has been the pattern since she was arrested in Israel in August 2014 in response to an extradition request from the Australian government and, for a time, held in custody.

In fact, she has not set foot in court since the early proceedings involving her arrest and subsequent release into home detention. Her life is far from easy, however. Leifer is allowed out for only an hour a day and must wear an electronic tracker. A person approved by the court has to be with her round the clock.

Waks agrees the situation can't go on for much longer. "From my perspective, I genuinely hope the judge will say, 'enough of this nonsense'," he tells Inquirer.

Expectations are building that tomorrow's hearing will be decisive one way or the other - although it is entirely Cohen's call.

Israeli judges are as ferociously independent as their counterparts in Australia; if there is a lesson from this saga it's that the course of justice can take its stately time in Israel.

Leifer fled Melbourne in March 2008, eight years after she was headhunted from Israel to be headmistress at the strictly religious Adass school.

The school board got her on a plane with several of her children within hours of standing her down over the sexual abuse allegations. She was subsequently joined by her husband, who had been with her in Melbourne.

In awarding civil damages of $1.27 million last September to one of Leifer's former students, now a woman of 28, Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush found the school board had been aware, at the time she was sent packing in "extraordinary" circumstances, that up to 10 girls had claimed to have been molested by Leifer.

The Victorian police were kept in the dark about what had allegedly gone on. "The sexual misconduct of Leifer detailed by the plaintiff is disturbing," Rush said in his scathing judgment. The woman concerned had been 15 when the abuse began in 2003.

Leifer had managed to "charm everyone very quickly'', the Melbourne judge recounted, and was viewed by the girl as "completely trustworthy" when she went to her about problems she was having at home.

Rush said in his judgment: "In accordance with the religious beliefs and practices of the Adass community, the plaintiff and her siblings were bought up in a home with no access to television, radio, internet, magazines or newspapers; not even a sales catalogue entered the home.

"Children were raised not having knowledge of world events and were completely isolated from anything beyond the community they were within."

The alleged victim told the court: "We weren't to know that a relationship could exist between a female and a male."

The Adass school, which had about 500 children enrolled in gender-segregated campuses, was a religious institution above all else. At the time, the girls' school did not offer Year 12 because female students were expected to become housewives rather than go to university or to work.

The woman described how initially reassuring touches and hugs soon turned into exploitative sex as Leifer took to "sucking her breasts and penetrating her vagina", according to Rush's judgment. The woman's older sister was also molested by Leifer, he found.

"I felt very special, I felt privileged, I felt worthy," the woman said in her evidence, looking back on how she was allegedly manipulated by Leifer.

"Because the community is the school and the school is the community … the whole community looked up to her and basically idolised her, she was seen as someone who was holier than holy."

While the outcry in Australia has been intense, Leifer's arrest and battle against extradition barely rated a mention in the Israeli media until the story was recently picked up by Reshet Bet, the country's main news radio station.

A half-hour expose lifted the lid on what was widely seen as "an almost closed case", says journalist and presenter Chico Menashe.

The allegations swirling around Leifer also had uncomfortable parallels with the case of pedophile Jewish studies teacher Todros Grynhaus, who attacked two teenage girls in Britain before using a false passport to escape to Israel.

After an 11-month extradition battle and trial in Britain, he was jailed last July for 13 years.

Menashe backs Waks's assessment that the Leifer case is damaging to their country's reputation, though he stresses that to his knowledge the Israeli authorities are doing their best to sort out the "procedural loop" in the Jerusalem court.

"I do have some tough questions to the judge who is dealing with this case," Menashe says. "I think he might have dealt differently and better in order to solve the situation."

Elizabeth Levy of the Israel National Council for the Child, which pursues children's rights and welfare, says she shares the frustration of Leifer's alleged victims. "Intolerable" is her verdict on the delays.

However, there are signs that the campaign for the disgraced principal to face her accusers in Australia is gaining traction.

The Magen child protection agency will be picketing outside the Jerusalem District Court tomorrow in support of Leifer's extradition to Australia. "I think that the state of Israel should never be used as a safe haven for sex offenders," says its executive director, Miriam Friedman.

Waks will be there, too. The Australian embassy will have an officer on hand to keep tabs on the proceedings - assuming an anticipated application by Leifer's lawyers to close the court fails, or there is no last-minute hitch.

Australia's ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, tells Inquirer: "I can confirm that Australia has made an extradition request to Israel for Ms Malka Leifer, who is wanted in Australia to face prosecution for 74 sexual assault offences allegedly committed while she was employed in senior roles at an Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne. As the matter remains before the court in Israel, it is the Australian government's position that it would not be appropriate to comment further."

Waks says he is in touch with some of Leifer's alleged victims, who live in Australia, the US and Israel. Last month he posted on his blog a plaintive statement from one of them. "It has been 18 months since Malka Leifer was arrested," the young woman said. "Where is justice? Where is the court system that is on the victim's side? Where is Malka Leifer?

"Why is she allowed to hide behind her supposed panic attacks? Is rape not considered crime enough to be trialled? …

"I cannot go on much longer, life revolves around the closure a trial will provide."