Panic in Jerusalem
Parents in a tight-knit neighborhood believe a pedophile ring is terrorizing children. What if it doesn’t exist?
The majority of the allegations include reports of video-recording and photography, and the children say they were forced to watch pornographic movies and violent sexual encounters between their abusers. Some children say they were abducted at night from their homes, viciously abused, and returned to their beds. Others say they were abducted from school and then returned. Babysitters were said to be threatened with severe physical punishment or death unless they brought the children in their care to the pedophiles. There are reports of witches, magic doors, secret basements, and large dogs used to intimidate the children. Many allegations include elements of ritual and Christian abuse, including forced prostration and benedictions, sexual acts involving massive iron crosses, and various other forms of foreign worship. Some children say they were taken to a nearby church, where they were abused by priests, as well as other undercover Christians.
In the wake of these allegations, the neighborhood underwent an immediately noticeable change of spirit. No one could be trusted. Parents were daily being informed by their children and friends that neighbors they’d known for years, invited over for Shabbat meals, or given charity to, were actually perverted sadistic pedophiles who had been terrorizing their children in ways no one could imagine. At this point, seemingly no family has gone unaffected: In certain sections of the neighborhood, 100 percent of families have children, and often more than one, who have been reportedly abused. I have heard reports of a family with 10 children, all claiming abuse.
Many residents began to feel unsafe in the neighborhood, and a few families moved out in the summer of 2011. The rest, most of whom can’t afford to leave, entered into a continual state of panic and powerlessness, terrified by the accused perpetrators still living freely among them. The police discredited all but nine of the children’s testimonies, deeming them unreliable and unsuitable as evidence, which community members began to see as indicating, alternately, that the police did not take their claims seriously, that there was considerable anti-Haredi bias, that proper personnel was not assigned to the cause, that they stalled and delayed investigations, “lost” paperwork, and did not promptly collect potential evidence. The police repeatedly refused or ignored my requests for comment.
But after a few confused and shell-shocked months, the community began to organize itself in late 2011. Parents began raising awareness via personal blogs and websites, spearheading fundraising campaigns for therapy and legal fees, and organizing various sympathetic newspaper and radio reports. Most significantly, the community found a central organizing force in Altea Steinherz, an American therapist who lives in Rechavia, a neighborhood adjacent to Nahlaot. Steinherz, who specializes in addictions and eating disorders, began devoting herself on a volunteer basis to the alleged victims and their cause. “This [case] is not going to go away by itself,” Steinherz told me.
Steinherz arranged interviews with police and lawyers for most of the families, many of whom, according to Steinherz, “simply have no idea what to do in a situation like this.” Steinherz does not have a degree in psychology or abuse counseling; she has a certificate called a CASAC, which certifies her to do alcohol- and substance-abuse counseling. Nevertheless, in late 2011 she emerged as the strategist and spokesman for the cause: directing the collection and dissemination of information, raising awareness and support, and coordinating the collection of testimonies and any available evidence. She’s also organized PR and media campaigns—critical work, since many of the Haredi residents of Nahlaot don’t have the Internet.
At some point, though, a strain of vigilantism—rhetorical and actual—emerged, nurtured by the perceived ineffectiveness on the part of the police. By September 2011, less than a year after the first allegation surfaced, a local named Sid Marcus (known in the community as Skippy), an older American who doesn’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish but is nonetheless widely believed to be a ringleader, was arrested but never charged. While he was being held, a small mob destroyed his “garden,” a sort of public art project of drilled-in pots and pans. That same month, residents attempted to saw through a pair of willow trees that Zalman Cohen, one of the men currently in custody, used to tend. Another man accused by many in the community, 16-year-old Motti Friedman, was beaten near his home.
In December 2011, the consequences turned deadly: Yochanan Spielberg, a man in his sixties and a neighbor of Satz accused of taking part in the ring (though never arrested by the police) was found hanging in his apartment. The police ruled it a suicide, which some found to be curious, since Spielberg’s hands and feet were bound when his body was found.
What’s absolutely clear is that the children involved believe they were abused. “To date, I have not met anyone who has spoken to the kids who has any doubts that this is true,” Liebowitz, the rabbi, told me. “I know when a child lies,” Steinherz added. “And these children are not lying.” Many in the community believe the children must be telling the truth, if only because they can imagine no other way the children could know about such graphic sexual activity. How else would Haredi children know about such concepts like television and movies, not to mention pornography? The majority of community members I spoke to said the police are corrupt. Steinherz and others claim they have been threatened by accused pedophiles, which they believe further proves their guilt. “It’s all true,” she said of the children’s allegations. “Every single thing is true.”
Cases similar to Nahlaot’s, many whose particulars are even more extreme, have occurred frequently in the past, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, with as many as 500 or more children reporting horrific and fantastic abuse at the hands of dozens, or even hundreds, of adults. In order to classify and recognize these cases, the FBI’s Kenneth Lanning, who worked in the Behavioral Science Unit from 1981 until 2000, developed a model that describes what he termed “multi-dimensional sex rings.” (This term, Lanning admits, never really caught on; more frequently used is “ritual abuse,” “organized abuse,” or “satanic/sadistic ritual abuse.”) The model delineates four criteria: multiple offenders and multiple victims who are considerably younger than “standard” pedophile victims; the victims are controlled and coerced primarily through fear; the abuse occurs in communities that are insular and ultra-conservative; and at least some of the abuse in question is extreme, grotesque, or incorporates ritualistic aspects.
We must drop the assumption that there is no way to vanquish Hamas. Terrorists have been defeated before.