Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who fled Israel after being accused of sexual harassment, landed on Tuesday morning in the country after being extradited by the South African authorities. Upon exiting the plane, he was arrested by Israel Police officers who were awaiting his arrival and who took him for investigation.
Berland, a leader in the Breslov Hassidic movement, was greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by hundreds of Hassidim from his sect who came to express their support for him and who recited their morning prayers together.
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The 79-year-old rabbi founded the Shuvu Bonim Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 2012, one of his Hassidim alleged that he had seen Berland in an immodest position with a girl from the community. The man who made this allegation was beaten by of Hassidim, and this incident led to the police’s investigating. Afterwards, additional testimonies were collected from women regarding sex crimes.
Berland fled the country to Morocco in 2013, shortly after he was supposed to present himself for questioning to the police. King Mohammed VI expelled Berland from Morocco, and from there he travelled to Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, and South Africa.
In Zimbabwe, the local media published information regarding Berland’s alleged flight from justice. As a result, the authorities expelled him from that country as well, claiming that Berland had overstayed his tourist visa.
In 2014, the rabbi travelled to Johannesburg. Local police began searching for him there following an international arrest warrant from Interpol. Berland fled to the Netherlands, where he was arrested. There, a Dutch court decided that he should be extradited to Israel, and he was placed on house arrest.
On July 7, 2015, Berland fled again, violating his house arrest. Two months passed before it was ascertained that he had returned to South Africa.
A Hassid who came to greet Berland’s arrival at the airport said, “The rabbi’s admirers from all ethnic groups and circles are determined to come to any place that he may be where they will reside until he returns to his home and his community.”
Berland transmitted a recorded message to his supporters before boarding the plane that stated, “We ask everyone to behave calmly, with Derech Eretz, not to irritate the policemen or women, not to lift a hand, not to be impudent, not to say unpleasant words; everything needs to be according to Jewish law.” He called for each of his supporters to donate 1, 000 shekels to fund his legal defense.
Berland’s attorney, Rachel Toren, said that her client’s departure from Israel three years ago was unrelated to the investigation into his actions and that he was actually unaware of its existence when he left. She added that he intended to cooperate with the authorities and that he hoped the investigation would be finished swiftly and efficiently.
Toren stated, “Contrary to reports, the rabbi is suspected of acts of relatively low severity according to the law: Conspiracy to attack—and the attackers themselves were sentenced to community service—and indecent acts that are the lower limit of the relevant offenses. We have no doubt that at the investigation’s conclusion, these suspicions will be refuted.”