Panic in Jerusalem
Parents in a tight-knit neighborhood believe a pedophile ring is terrorizing children. What if it doesn’t exist?
Overzealous investigators, which can include parents, therapists, and even other children, can seriously affect a child’s account or even memory of what has happened, especially when those investigators are convinced that the child in question has indeed been abused and it’s their job to get the child to admit it. “Many of these investigations are started by the parents who are not properly investigating,” said Lanning. “They’re just trying to find out what happened to their kid.” And they will not stop until they do so. “A single complaint, whether true or not, can set off a moral panic,” Rabinowitz, the journalist, told me. “Which can quickly get out of control.”
A community in the grips of a moral panic will, as a rule, first target its misfits. All who have been arrested or questioned by police in Nahlaot are very clearly outsiders in the community. They were, a neighbor told me, “atypical, easy to accuse, misfit, single older men.” Many, like Satz and Primashelanu, are mentally handicapped. Noach Friedman, who was institutionalized after being released, would barge into homes and break plates and has had to be rescued from his studio apartment twice after setting his bed on fire. Naftali Zilberman and Yaakov Weissfish, who were both arrested and released, are also mentally handicapped. Zalman Cohen is a belligerent South African immigrant married to a convert who used to interrupt walking tours of the neighborhood. Skippy is a non-Haredi senior citizen with a ponytail who was repeatedly described to me with terms like “obnoxious” or “asshole,” and is an exercise fanatic. (He was originally identified, I was told by a parent, after the kids said they were forced to do calisthenics. “These retarded guys were forcing the kids, as part of the molestation, to do exercise,” the parent told me.) Missionary Christians, of course, are the ultimate “other” in a Haredi community.
This is the reality that the Nahlaot community now finds itself in. There is no room for skepticism. Even the accused pedophiles whom I have communicated with believe there are pedophiles in Nahlaot—it’s just not them. But the required logistics of a secret pedophile ring this size—the organization necessary to continually and extensively abuse an entire demographic of a whole neighborhood without being discovered—remains the least credible aspect of the allegations. The difficulty of keeping a conspiracy a secret increases exponentially with each additional member, and with as many as 70 it’s virtually impossible. “You cannot be engaged in this kind of activity for this long and leave behind little or no corroborative evidence,” Lanning said. “The more people involved in a crime, the greater the crime, the greater the likelihood that there’s going to be some kind of corroborative evidence left behind, physical evidence.”
After expressing the findings of my early research, I told Steinherz, the therapist, that I needed corroborative evidence aside from the children’s testimony in order to report that there was indeed a pedophile ring in Nahlaot. The evidence I was ultimately provided or made aware of included: court documentation that strongly suggested police incompetence or corruption; archived web pages that showed that some of the accused had lied about not knowing each other; medical records of various ailments; pictures the children drew; the detailed account of a therapist named Levana Khalili, a witness for the prosecution; and stories of corroboration among the children. None was evidence of a pedophile ring; all was material that reinforced an already assumed narrative. Yet in all my conversations with Steinherz, parents, rabbis, therapists, and community organizers, not once was it acknowledged that these might be the products of a child’s imagination.
The question of whether Satz—or anyone—molested children has now, unfortunately, become impossible to answer. It’s also, from a criminal perspective, in all likelihood irrelevant. “If you ask me, everyone will be convicted,” Politi said. In total cases, “not-guilty verdicts in Israel are 4 percent. In sex crimes, it’s zero-point something. The basic assumption is ‘Why should the victim lie?’ ”
“One of the real tragedies of these cases is that once contamination takes place, you can’t undo it,” said Lanning. And it is clear that the case in Nahlaot has been contaminated—in other words, the facts can no longer be reliably determined—whether by the parents, whom police say are at fault for asking their children leading questions, or the police, whom the community says provided no guidance and were generally incompetent. “I believe that in most of these cases, maybe not all of them, there are seeds of truth, something happened here,” says Lanning. “And then through a complicated process, however sadly and unfortunately, the whole thing got exaggerated and embellished, and the sad result may be that someone who did bad things to children may now get away with it.”
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We must drop the assumption that there is no way to vanquish Hamas. Terrorists have been defeated before.