78-year-old rabbi Eliezer Berland is a fugitive on the run from Interpol has issued a death threat against the chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein. The threat, has rattled the South African Jewish community. South African Police Service officers, acting on a request from Interpol, 10 days ago raided a hotel in Samrand, north of Johannesburg, where Berland has been staying on and off for five months with a number of his disciples.
Berland, one of the leaders of the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel and head of Yeshivat Shuvu Bonim in Jerusalem —and considered a holy man by his followers — has been on the run since 2012 when allegations were made by female followers in Israel that he had sexually harassed or raped them.
He has managed to live under the noses of authorities from Morocco to the Netherlands and Zimbabwe. In South Africa he has been staying at hotels and golf estates. He is followed by about 40 families, to whom he is a spiritual guru.
The men study with him all day and teach the younger boys while their wives take care of the many children and cook. They may not eat the food or use the crockery and cutlery at any of these establishments since the hotels are not kosher. They cook in their rooms.
Sect members — most of whom speak Hebrew only — were this week adamant that the rabbi would return in two weeks’ time or so when things were “calmer.” They said they were upset about the police raid on the hotel on Friday night last week and said their children had been “traumatized.”
Hila Nakesh, whose mother was born in Greenside, Johannesburg, said she saw a policeman pull an oxygen mask off her 8-year-old son, Nathan, who has Down’s syndrome, and who was “traumatized” by the “assault” and had to be taken to hospital in Pretoria. Brig. Hangwani Mulaudzi, national spokesman for the police, denied that the boy had been touched.
Berland, who has eluded South African police on at least two other occasions, apparently escaped from the hotel just before the raid. He is now in hiding. His followers, especially those in Israel, have blamed Goldstein for setting the police on Berland.
They went further this week and claimed that Goldstein should be subjected to din rodef (“law of the pursuer ”), one of the few provisions in Jewish religious law that permits extrajudicial killing. Taken from the Babylonian Talmud, the relevant passage speaks of “one who pursues his fellow to kill him” — this would include informing on “his fellow” to the police — and says that such a pursuer or informer may legitimately be killed.
Using the religious legal opinion of a well-known Johannesburg rabbi, the group’s spokesman posted on the group’s website: “The police were sent in an attempt to arrest Rabbi Berland on Shabbat [sabbath] night. This is a very serious crime. [Jewish law] speaks extensively on the rodef, a person who goes and tries to imprison his fellow in the hands of non-Jews.
There is a commandment to stop him at all costs. And the law refers to a simple Jew … whereas we are dealing with a great Rabbi, a great Torah Sage [Berland].” Much controversy was generated in Israel in 1995 when Yigal Amir, the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, defended his actions partly on the basis of din rodef.
Amir argued that Rabin’s offer of concessions to the Palestinian Authority would endanger Jewish lives.
Goldstein has not commented on the matter but the South African Jewish community issued an official statement “representing the full spectrum of South African Jewry.
“The South African Jewish community calls on Rabbi Eliezer Berland to return to Israel immediately to face the serious criminal charges laid against him and for which there is an international warrant of arrest against him,” it said.
“We further condemn the baseless malicious lies and incitement to violence aimed at our Chief Rabbi, including the libellous accusation that the Chief Rabbi was responsible for the police raid on Berland’s compound.” Asked why Berland’s followers had accused Goldstein of “a merciless blood libel campaign,” a spokesman in Israel, identifying himself as “Yossi,” said: “This is what we feel is being done to us. Only by us we don’t have the SAPS … or the government protecting us, and sending after us the Hawks or the police and spreading lies about us in the media — which is literally spilling innocent blood.” Mulaudzi confirmed that Berland was a fugitive wanted in Israel for indecent assault and that his arrest had been requested by Interpol.
Mulaudzi said the South African police suspected Berland had an informant who let him know about police movements, and that this was why the rabbi left the hotel before the police arrived. But Yossi said: “It was nothing short of a miracle. We’ve seen this kind of thing many times, and each time there is absolutely no other explanation for it. Two years ago when the Hawks busted into a wedding and the rabbi was in the center [of the ceremony], they literally had their hands on him and mistakenly took someone else.
“This Shabbat they went into every room at least once and interrogated every person at gunpoint. The rabbi had the door open to his room and he was studying Torah peacefully.
“God blinded the eyes of the officers and they didn’t notice his room.”
This article first appeared in Sunday’s edition of the Johannesburg Sunday Times and adapted from Haaretz