(April 3, 2023 / JTA)
A former principal at an Australian school for Orthodox girls has been convicted on eighteen counts of abusing students, including a charge of rape, in a case that strained relations between Australia and Israel.
The conviction came more than two years after Malka Leifer was extradited from Israel, where she had fled in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused three sisters who were her students at the Adass Israel school in Melbourne.
“To get to this moment is absolutely overwhelming. … It was so unbelievable that we’d get to this time and we have — she is guilty,” Dassi Erlich, one of the sisters, said after leaving the courtroom, according to Australian media.
Erlich and her sisters Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer alleged that Leifer had abused them while they were her students from 2003 to 2007. Erlich’s campaign, called Bring Leifer Back, aimed to pressure Australia and Israel to return Leifer for trial, and met with multiple prime ministers over the course of the years-long extradition battle that soured some Australian Jews on Israel.
Leifer was arrested in Israel in 2014 at Australia’s request but was not extradited for nearly seven years while her attorneys claimed she was mentally unfit to stand trial. Israeli authorities initially agreed, but after an investigation showed she was living a normal life in a haredi Orthodox West Bank settlement, she was rearrested in 2018 and later cleared for extradition.
In early 2021, Israel announced that it would send Leifer to Australia to stand trial, saying the country had been the “victim to a fraud perpetrated by Leifer and her supporters.”
Last year, a former Israeli minister, Yaakov Litzman, admitted to abusing his powers to try to protect Leifer from prosecution. Litzman, a haredi Orthodox politician, resigned from the Knesset and was sentenced to probation and a nominal fine as part of his plea deal.
Leifer had initially faced seventy-four charges stemming from the accounts of the alleged victims, was prosecuted on twenty-seven charges and was convicted of eighteen of them, including rape of a 17-year-old. The jury, which deliberated for nine days and at one point appeared deadlocked, acquitted Leifer of charges of rape and assault related to one of the sisters. She will be sentenced at a future date.
During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing how Leifer managed to escape Australia, showing that members of the school’s board convened after learning of the allegations against her and that board members and Leifer booked tickets to Israel for later that night immediately after the meeting. (A 2016 film about the Adass Israel community of about two-hundred families alleged that the wife of a board member had purchased the tickets for Leifer, her husband and four of their eight children.)
This week, Australian authorities said they would not charge anyone there with aiding Leifer’s flight, citing a lack of evidence.