Jerusalem — Two Israeli lawyers fired their opening salvos last week in a libel case that could have a chilling effect on speaking out against sex offenders here.
The case, which underscores the fact that Israel has become a safe haven for Jewish sex offenders from America, will resume in October. It was initiated by a convicted sex offender from Brooklyn who is accusing a highly respected New York rabbi of making false claims against him.
Three years ago, Rabbi Yaakov “Yankie” Horowitz, founder and dean of a yeshiva for boys in Monsey, N.Y., and founder and director of a program for at-risk teens, learned that Yona Weinberg, a convicted sex offender, had moved from Flatbush, Brooklyn, to the Har Nof section of Jerusalem. Weinberg, a social worker and bar mitzvah tutor, was convicted of molesting two young boys in Brooklyn in 2009. The charges included seven counts of second-degree sex abuse and two counts of child endangerment. At his sentencing that year, the judge criticized members of the Orthodox community for their strong support of Weinberg, noting that 90 letters were submitted to the court praising his character without mentioning his victims.
Weinberg served about a year in jail and returned to his home in Brooklyn. Four years later, according to news reports, he was accused of groping and later assaulting an 11-year-old boy. But when police came to his home to arrest him, his wife told them he was not home. He moved to the Har Nof community in Jerusalem, where his wife and four young children joined him.
A few months later, on learning of Weinberg’s relocation, Rabbi Horowitz sent out a tweet in early 2015 warning Har Nof residents that Weinberg is a level 3 sex offender — the most severe classification, with the highest rate of recidivism — and was slated to be listed on the U.S. sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
“Treat him as a terrorist with a machete,” Rabbi Horowitz tweeted.
Three months later, Weinberg filed a libel suit against the rabbi, seeking NIS 200,000 ($57,000) and a public apology.
According to a letter obtained by Rabbi Horowitz from an NYPD detective, the police will try to arrest Weinberg for another case if he steps foot in New York.
But he cannot be extradited to the U.S. because the open case he is wanted for is a misdemeanor – a non-extraditable offense.
Weinberg’s lawyer, Eitan Lehman, denied that there is a warrant for Weinberg’s arrest, and said the suit is justified because Rabbi Horowitz’s accusations “are untrue” and have hurt Weinberg and his family.
“It’s important to know that Mr. Weinberg lived in Har Nof and that Palestinians carrying machetes carried out a terror attack at a synagogue in Har Nof. Then, a few days later, all the residents heard his name and saw his picture. He has four small children and a wife. What would you do if he were your neighbor?” Lehman asked the Jerusalem court.
Weinberg was ostracized, the lawyer said.
“He couldn’t enter his children’s schools. He had to move to another part of Israel.”
Lehman said his client “doesn’t oppose” the fact that Rabbi Horowitz mentioned his conviction about a decade ago.
“We never hid the fact. We think the public can know about everything that happened, but it’s one thing to present the facts and another to call someone a terrorist with a machete,” the lawyer said.
Horowitz said he wrote the tweet after hearing that warnings he had sent to the community 10 days earlier were going largely unheeded.
“Someone called me from Har Nof saying some folks weren’t taking the warnings seriously. Weinberg had considerable support from the Flatbush community where he had lived, and that attitude carried over to Har Nof. I said, ‘Would you keep an eye on a terrorist with a machete?’”
Feeling frustrated, Rabbi Horowitz sent out the tweet soon afterward.
“One of my colleagues has compiled a list of 34 names of sex offenders from the diaspora who have escaped to Israel. This has been going on for at least 20 years. It’s not a new phenomenon.”
The rabbi hopes the case, which is being covered by Israeli media outlets, will alert Israelis to the fact that Israel, unlike the U.S., has no publicly accessible registry of pedophiles, and that foreign-born Jewish sexual predators have long used Israel as a “safe haven.”
“Sex offenders of children are allowed to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return,” the rabbi said. “One of my colleagues has compiled a list of 34 names of sex offenders from the diaspora who have escaped to Israel. This has been going on for at least 20 years. It’s not a new phenomenon,” he asserted.
Israel, Rabbi Horowitz said, makes it easy for them.
“If a pedophile is running from the law, looking for a country that will let him in, you go to one where there is no sex offender data base” and where being Jewish provides them with almost automatic entry.
In contrast to American libel law, Israel’s libel law does not require a plaintiff to demonstrate that he has suffered grievous harm from the accusations.
Rabbi Horowitz believes the case is “incredibly important in terms of establishing precedent,” and said that if he loses “it could have a chilling effect on child safety advocates and the free flow of information” pertaining pedophiles’ whereabouts in Israel.
Pedophiles could feel empowered to sue anyone who described them in less than flattering terms, the rabbi said.
Rabbi Horowitz said he and other activists have met with several Israeli lawmakers to try to convince them to create a publicly accessible sex offender registry.
Convincing the Israeli government to tighten the Law of Return “would be a long shot,” he said, based on conversations he has had with lawmakers.
“Israel has been not only lax, but is bordering on criminally negligent” by allowing Jewish pedophiles “to come in and roam around like animals.”
A source in the Ministry of Justice said the ministry has decided not to make a sex offender registry public because, among other things, it could drive offenders “underground,” and make it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor them.
Manny Waks, CEO of Kol v’Oz, an Israel-based organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse in Jewish communities around the world, said a registry is an important but limited tool.
“Only those who have been convicted would be on the registry, but the vast majority of abusers have never been charged and will never face charges.”
Mordechai Twersky, who was the lead petitioner in the case against Yeshiva University for allegedly covering up years of physical and sexual abuse at YU’s high school in the 1970s and 1980s, said his alleged abuser made aliyah and found a respectable job.
“Israel has been not only lax, but is bordering on criminally negligent” by allowing Jewish pedophiles “to come in and roam around like animals,” he said.
Twersky, whose case (along with those of several other petitioners) was dismissed because it exceeded the statute of limitations, said it is “the paramount responsibility” of the country to immediately create a public registry and to make it impossible for suspected and convicted sexual offenders to immigrate. He said his alleged abuser settled in Israel and became a top administrator of a prominent Jerusalem synagogue.
Twersky said every time a suspected or convicted pedophile is admitted to Israel, it is a failure of the Israeli government, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency. “They have an obligation to make public the files of individuals accused of abuse in their former countries,” he said.