Panic in Jerusalem
Parents in a tight-knit neighborhood believe a pedophile ring is terrorizing children. What if it doesn’t exist?
The neighborhood of Nahlaot in Jerusalem is less a single neighborhood than a cluster of smaller semi-distinct neighborhoods that, beginning in the 1870s, grew incrementally as the city’s population expanded beyond the Old City. Batei Rand and Batei Broydes are two of these clusters, each with a few hundred residents. Both are overwhelmingly Haredi and built around semi-enclosed courtyards. The apartments are continuous and are stacked on two levels, the upper one accessible via a shared, wrap-around balcony. Most of the apartments are single-entrance and open into the courtyard, so there is little privacy, and the residents are, for the most part, very poor. Most families don’t own their home, but instead lease it on extremely favorable terms from a charitable organization. Many of the families have been in the neighborhood for generations, and the area, marked by labyrinthine cobblestone alleyways, Jerusalem stone, and gardens, has long been beloved by those that live there.
“It was the most quaint, amazing, incredible, peaceful, loving community,” a former resident recently told me. “A place where religious and secular got along with each other. It was like an example of what Israel could be.”
All of this changed in October 2010, when a 44-year-old man named Binyamin Satz was arrested. Satz is mentally handicapped, and court documents note that he is on state disability, has schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, and “a non-specific eating disorder.” According to his lawyer, Roy Politi, he eats “only bread and cheese, but not when they are touching.” Politi told me that Satz weighs less than 90 lbs. A neighbor described Satz as “very strange, very slight,” with an “extremely pronounced twitch from his shoulder to head.” Politi described Satz as “functioning like a 12-year-old kid.”
When Satz, who had been living with his parents in another section of Jerusalem, moved into his second-floor apartment in Nahlaot in the early 2000s, his father visited his son’s new neighbors. “His father came, he sat down in our living room,” said Malka Lerner, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym. “And he told us, ‘Please accept my son, he is a special boy. He loves kids, he’s very nice to kids. He has no sexual yediah [knowledge]. He’s like a 7-year-old.’ ”
For as long as people can remember, Satz was socially involved with children, who, with their parents’ knowledge, would visit his apartment. How pervasive this was is hard to determine. Politi says, “the whole neighborhood, 30 to 40 kids,” but one parent told me, “no more than five children.” In any case, Politi says his client played chess or balance games with the local kids. Lerner would occasionally find one or both of her sons in Satz’s apartment. “Every once in a while, I would find them in the house, and I would call them out,” she said.
The first complaints surfaced in early October two years ago. Lerner, whose older boys, aged 6 and 7, had showed signs of developmental issues since moving to Nahlaot three years before, received a call from a close neighborhood friend, Noa Klein. “Her son came home crying that someone bit him,” Lerner told me of Klein. (Klein declined to be interviewed.) The boy wouldn’t say where, but when Klein was bathing him that night “she saw a bite on his private parts,” according to Lerner. Klein’s son wouldn’t say “who did it to him, but said it happened after he visited Binyamin Satz.” Lerner urged Klein to go to the police. And on Oct. 11, Klein reported to the police that her son had been bitten on the penis. According to Politi, the police have photographs of the wound, though the police would not make them available to me. Politi, who told me he has seen them, acknowledges that the pictures show a mark but says its cause is unclear. “It can be anything from closing a zipper to a real bite,” he said.
In her complaint—what the investigating officer wrote down on Oct. 11—Klein specifically said that Satz was not the one who bit her child, but that the child had left Satz’s apartment before meeting someone else who bit him:
The kid came home from Talmud Torah [school] at two o’clock and immediately started crying about someone biting him. I asked him, “Where?” and he said, “On my arm,” but there’s no mark. I told him, “Let’s find out who it was and we’ll catch him.” I gave him my hand, we ran outside, and then he told me that he met Binyamin, our neighbor, and he asked for toffee, or that Binyamin asked him if he wants toffee, I’m not sure, and then they went up to Binyamin’s apartment. [Speaking in voice of her son:] Binyamin has a “round thing” on his bed, and whoever stands there for a little bit gets a toffee, and whoever stands there longer gets ice cream, and I didn’t make it [i.e., didn’t manage to stand for a long time on the round thing] so I left there and then someone bit me. So, I asked him [and here she returns to her own voice], “Who bit you? Binyamin?” He answered in the negative. He said: “No, someone else, scary, without a kippah.”
Right now, Binyamin Satz, Benzion Primashelanu, and Zalman Cohen are in jail, charged with sodomy and violence against Israeli children. Six other men have been arrested, questioned on suspicions of the same, and released. A 70-year-old woman named Sarah Vorst was violently beaten by five men in February, her apartment ransacked, and her computer and telephone stolen—according to many because her attackers believed she was a mastermind behind the pedophiles’ plot.
To date, more than 70 children, nearly all from Haredi families in the tight-knit community of Nahlaot, have been interviewed by Social Services and have claimed to suffer severe sexual, psychological, physical, and ritual abuse at the hands of nearly 60 individuals. At least another 50 children have claimed abuse, though they were not interviewed by Social Services. The children have identified the perpetrators either by name or by telling characteristics: the one with the ponytail, the one who exercises, the filmer, the one with a walker, the one who wears a knitted kippah, and so on. Those accused include American immigrants, middle-aged men, elderly women (nearly half of those accused are female), geriatric couples, teenagers, mother-son teams, mentally handicapped individuals, at least one Arab, suspected Christian missionaries, and, more recently, a few prominent members of the community, including a rabbi. Some of those who have been identified by one or more children are unaware, or appear to be unaware, that they have been accused.
There was no hint of pedophilia in the community before October 2010. But the Haredi community in Nahlaot now believes that the highly organized ring has been operating secretly for years—possibly generations—and is governed by an elaborate hierarchy. According to community members with whom I’ve spoken over the past year, they believe that a small number of masterminds, including the 70-year-old Vorst, a convert to Judaism who directs Ohel Sarah Imenu, an organization that facilitates Haredi conversions, used formerly abused teenagers and mentally handicapped locals as scouts for the victims. Community members believe that these scouts watched the children and parents from outdoor locations that offered prime vantage points—under the guise of tending gardens, doing calisthenics, or panhandling—and memorized their schedules, recording when the children would be unsupervised. The pedophiles noted the schedules of various homeowners, residents of Nahlaot claim, and they allegedly snuck into dozens of apartments and sheds in the neighborhood in order to abuse the children, who have pointed out these locations to their parents. Many are convinced that there are Christian missionary motivations at play here and that false converts have infiltrated their community. A number of locals told me they believe that the videos and media produced by the pedophile ring are being sold for tens of thousands of dollars or more.
The Nahlaot situation is already widely referred to as the worst pedophile case in Israel’s history. This is a phenomenal understatement. If true, this would be, in terms of the number of perpetrators and the scope of conspiracy, unprecedented in known criminal history. Indeed, not only that: It would be the first proven instance of an association generally acknowledged to be the great white whale of sex crimes. “To be perfectly blunt,” said Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board who won a Pulitzer Prize for her extensive coverage of such cases, “there is no such thing as a pedophile ring.”
By the summer of 2011, there was, in the eyes of many in the community, no doubt that a pedophile ring was in their midst. It was around this time, too, that Leiby Kletzky, an 8- year-old Hasidic boy from Brooklyn, was abducted and gruesomely murdered by someone in his community. Parental fears were at a fever pitch. Aaron Leibowitz, a rabbi in Nahlaot, wrote an open letter to the community:
A great darkness has come over our community. I am sorry to have to share with any of you who may be hearing this for the first time that over 100 children, almost exclusively from the charedi camp, have been molested by a circle of despicable sexual predators living amongst us. While a few of these monsters have been put behind bars, there are others who continue to walk free due to a lack of hard evidence, and the problematic nature of child testimony. I was personally told by the social service official in charge of interviewing the children that there is no doubt that some of these men are guilty, only a lack of admissible evidence.
This lack of admissible evidence was indeed a problem from the start. The two-page report of Noa Klein’s original complaint, which is now court evidence and which I read in Politi’s office, shows the interviewing officer clearly growing more and more concerned about Satz. The complaint certainly contains potentially inappropriate behavior—including having children over to play games—but nothing illegal was mentioned. Satz was nevertheless held, but after six days he was released due to lack of evidence.
Three days later, another complaint, this one filed by a local father named Dovid Manheim, mentioned Satz as well. Unlike Noa Klein’s complaint, this time Satz was directly accused. Mannheim approached the police to find out why Satz had been released after only six days. “My neighbors … told us that Binyamin Satz abused the children of one of the neighbors,” he said, according to the complaint. “We later found out that Binyamin Satz was arrested last Friday and was then released to house arrest, since there was no evidence against him because the kids didn’t tell the police or investigators. So, I came here yesterday to help, and I met the investigator Aliza, to find out how I can help in this case. She told me they need a testimony about an act that happened with a child. I came to the police today, because last night I asked my son [redacted], who’s 7, ‘Did you go into his house?’ That’s all I asked. And then he told me everything on his own.”
After hearing these stories, Lerner began to suspect that her own children’s developmental issues—which include extreme fear, antisocial tendencies, nervousness, and incontinence—might be due to Satz as well. She told me she gently interrogated her younger son, then 4-and-a-half years old. “I told him Binyamin Satz is in jail,” she recounted. “He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘because he did things to kids. Did he ever do anything to you?’ He told me, ‘No, he never did bad things, he just wanted to educate me.’ ‘How do you educate kids?’ He said he gave punishments for bad kids. He started describing, ‘He stuck a screwdriver in my backside,’ and all these sexual things that I can’t describe.”
By late 2010, dozens of children had told their parents they were abused, and the circle of accused kept growing. The acts reported by the children, nearly all between the ages of 3 and 9, are incredibly horrific and often very bizarre. Virtually none of the allegations involve only one molester and one victim; the children have consistently claimed multiple offenders and multiple victims. There are reports of orgies involving as many as 20 adults and more than a dozen children. There were, allegedly, frequent raping and forced sodomy of children as young as 2 years old. The children claim that various objects—including large branches, semi-automatic rifles, screwdrivers, and other carpenter’s tools—were forcibly stuck up their anuses and other orifices; that knives were held to their throats; that they were told that if they didn’t voluntarily return to be raped, they would be “chopped up into little pieces,” or that their entire families would be murdered. They claim that they were shown, by way of threat, the guns that would be used for this purpose and told that cameras had been installed in their homes to ascertain their silence. The children claim that they were, on various occasions, bound up and beaten, held on top of open flames, lashed with sticks, burned with chemicals, given soft drinks spiked with hallucinogens, and injected with drugs.
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.
A study of past cases reveals startling similarities: The accusation always begins with a single complaint and is always parent-driven. The children’s accounts contain fabulous or impossible elements—magic tunnels, bullets that find their target, walls and people that disappear, and so on. The conspiracies being alleged are far-reaching and highly improbable. There are untrained professionals involved driving the investigations. There are nearly always claims of video recording and of being forced to watch porn and adults having sex.
This history is relevant because, to borrow Lanning’s term, a multi-dimensional sex ring has never once been substantiated. Never, despite the enormity of the crimes in question, and despite the numbers of times they’ve been alleged, has any independently corroborated evidence been found. Many of the children who testified in these cases have, as adults, recanted their testimonies, and courts have, over the years, turned over convictions that were based purely on children’s testimonies. In the most famous of these cases—the McMartin preschool trial in California, which ran from 1984 through 1990 and in which more than 350 children claimed they had been abused at their daycare center—every single allegation was thrown out.
Before Noa Klein went to the police, no parents or any adult in Nahlaot had ever made an official complaint to police alleging anything like this. No parent claimed to notice their child came home horrifically abused, beaten, or raped, despite the fact that the abuse allegedly went on for years and is of an extraordinarily violent nature. No child was reported missing. Indeed, up until October 2010, no adult ever noticed anything amiss, despite the tightness of Nahlaot’s layout, and despite the children’s reports that they were herded up in broad daylight. No teacher ever spoke up; nobody noticed a dozen children missing from school for hours at a time, then returned after bouts of violent sexual abuse. Many of the apartments where the acts allegedly took place are immediately adjacent to other homes, but no neighbors ever noticed that anything was amiss. No forensic evidence has been found. No incriminating videos or any sort of media have been discovered, despite computers and hard drives of the accused being seized (or stolen), and despite nearly every alleged act being videotaped or photographed. (In fact, according to Lanning, no media indicating the existence of a multi-dimensional sex ring has ever been found, despite very extensive seizures of child pornography worldwide.) None of this means that instances of abuse did not occur. But the question of whether one or more children were molested has been minimized by the hunt for a massive pedophile ring.
Many in the community see the absence of evidence as proof that the police or the judge are suppressing the evidence. “The only people who have the computers are the police,” one resident told me. “And all the kids say there was video involved, and all the computers have been confiscated, yet they’ve shown us nothing.” Steinherz claims that some of the accused are computer geniuses, and that they’ve encrypted the material so that it can’t be accessed, and that the police have allowed family members of the accused to hide or destroy potential evidence.
Police did find tools in Satz’s apartment—Satz is an amateur bookbinder—that the children said were used in their abuse. But they had no traces of incriminating DNA. The only tangible evidence submitted to the court was a photo album of children from the neighborhood that was found in Satz’s apartment. In it, the children are fully clothed and in non-sexual positions.
Instead, parents have offered up retrospective insights into their children’s states: All behavioral and development issues, from bedwetting to nervousness, became indications of abuse. There were no reports of rectal bleeding or any other physical signs that would be expected. Yet entire medical records of children have been thoroughly reviewed by Steinherz and others, and seemingly every entry is now presented as an indication of abuse. Parents now recall episodes when children were missing for brief periods of time, or came home crying, or clung to their mothers. Rashes, constipation, and urinary infections—not abnormal conditions for children—are now assumed to be the result of sexual abuse. “Physically, he never had simanim [physical signs],” Lerner told me about her younger son. “If it was red, I thought he had a rash, I thought he was constipated,” she said. “I never imagined it was … you don’t imagine such things.”
According to Politi, Manheim, who made the first official complaint against Satz, later admitted in court to repeatedly asking his son, over the course of that week, if something ever happened to him at the hands of Binyamin Satz. According to Politi, Manheim’s son, who has testified in court against Satz, first denied this, then claimed that something had indeed happened. As a result, Satz was then re-arrested, and after a series of interrogations that, contra to Israeli law, were not recorded, confessed. (The confession itself, and not the hours of conversation that preceded it, is on tape. But Israeli law mandates that all police-suspect interactions—especially with suspects charged with a felony—must be video-recorded.) In the confession, Satz admits that he might have touched the kids under their clothes, and that he might be sexually attracted to children. Politi says his client was threatened: He was told he could go home if he confessed and to a large extent did not understand what was happening. Politi told me: “The investigator asked, ‘So you put your finger in his ass?’ and Satz answered, ‘I guess so, kids don’t lie.’ She asked, ‘You told me the whole truth?’ And Satz says, ‘I told you much more than the whole truth.’ ”
Did this man do this to you? To a child, this is highly suggestive, especially coming from a panicked parent convinced something has in fact happened. Some children who admitted something had happened to them were given candy or toys. Parents showed their children pictures of suspects and asked if these men had done anything to them. Many children who denied being abused were repeatedly questioned, especially after a suspect’s guilt was seemingly established. A mother, who has requested anonymity, recounted her reaction when told that Sid “Skippy” Marcus had allegedly abused her children: “We asked our kids, and they were like no, no, no, no. And the day Skippy was arrested … I asked my son: Did Skippy ever do anything immodest to you? And he goes like this [nodding].”
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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