Israelis feel betrayed by celebrity rabbi’s corruption

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto's plea bargain has exposed the extent of abuse by Israel's popular rabbis, some of whom have made hundreds of millions of shekels in donations from their followers.

al-monitor Jewish worshippers walk between images of rabbis offered for sale during an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan-born sage and Kabbalist also known as the Baba Sali, on the anniversary of his death in the southern town of Netivot, Jan. 5, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

rabbis, rabbi pinto, jewish culture, israel, extortion, corruption

Sep 26, 2014

Sassi Gez, a star defense attorney who is a welcome guest in the courts of rabbis and Kabbalists, recounted to Al-Monitor Sept. 21 that he had seen with his own eyes how they achieve prominence and accrue unusual power.

Over the years, influential rabbis have emerged in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox sphere and also within the Sephardic world, attracting both religious and secular followers. Some of them created courts and became known all over the country for their Jewish wisdom and unique blessings. But now a new phenomenon has sprung up. Self-proclaimed rabbis have gathered around them flocks of followers who admire them blindly, attribute to them supernatural qualities and even hand them money and gifts.

But the past year has been tough for these rabbis. Their standing has been eroded and the adulation has been immeasurably weakened. All of a sudden, their faults are being exposed, and as if that were not enough, some of them may have gotten mixed up with the law to the extent that they face imprisonment.

One of these rabbis, Yoshiyahu Pinto, is about to serve a year in jail after turning state’s evidence and signing a plea bargain Sept. 17. Others, such as the chief rabbi of the city of Holon, Avraham Yosef, and Rabbi Eliezer Berland, have been detained and interrogated, and some have simply disappeared from the public eye. They seem to have gone underground, and haven’t been seen or heard from since. Barring the unexpected, Pinto will begin serving his one-year term after the district court approves the deal he cut with the state prosecutor.

Pinto’s popularity had once soared. It surpassed that enjoyed by other rabbis, especially the most prominent of them all, Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan from the southern town of Netivot, known as “the X-ray” for his reputation of providing medical diagnoses after only one look at a person. Pinto is considered a rising star among the Kabbalists. Even before turning 40, and though he rarely spoke in public, he managed to amass devotees and well-known followers, among them senior Israeli defense officials, politicians of all ranks and business tycoons. Until his indictment, he was a revered figure, drawing tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the country and from Jewish communities in the United States, all seeking his blessing.

It turned out that among his many followers was a senior interrogator in the Israeli police. According to publications detailing the indictment, one day, the rabbi turned to his disciple, the police officer, and asked him to obtain secret information for him regarding an investigation into a charitable organization with which he was involved. The rabbi did not stop with just this unusual request, promising to reward the officer with $200,000. The officer, named Ephraim Bracha, briefed his commanders about the proposed bribe. Forced to make the ultimate choice between his religious faith and his public position, the officer abandoned the rabbi in favor of his duty as a policeman. The money was delivered in an envelope, the deed was captured on camera and the photographic evidence forms the basis of the indictment against the rabbi.

“We are at a time when people are searching for spiritual figures they can follow,” Gez told Al-Monitor, trying to explain the attraction of rabbis like Pinto. “I’ve seen people of vast financial means waiting in the hallway for more than three hours to meet Pinto. When he came out to them, their bodies shook. There’s nothing charismatic about this rabbi and he is far from being an enthusing figure. But I saw with my own eyes how people cried with excitement when they kissed his hand. It was the rich and powerful who shook when he embraced them. They developed a dependence on him because they saw in him a guardian angel who could protect them from any trouble that may befall them. You have to understand that people who get to the very top look for an anchor with which to preserve their standing and success. The rabbis and Kabbalists have become the anchors of modern times.”

But no rabbi or Kabbalist went as far as Pinto. Not only did he allegedly try to bribe the second most important investigator in the Israeli police, he also counts in his circle the head of its investigative branch — a position comparable to that of the director of the FBI. The country’s top echelons were amazed when it came out that Commander Menashe Arbiv had apparently established a give-and-take relationship with the rabbi. But what generated the major controversy was not the shoulder-rubbing with police officers, but the rabbi’s attempt to avoid a bribery indictment.

What did he do? To save himself, he offered the attorney-general a dubious deal in which he would expose financial and other benefits he had given to Arbiv over the years in return for escaping indictment.

In the dilemma of whom to indict, the state opted for the public servant over the rabbi. The deal provoked a storm, both among the public and in law-enforcement circles. As the state weighed the rabbi's offer, Arbiv quit the police force. According to reports, the police are expected to open a criminal inquiry against him in the coming days.

On Sept. 17, the rabbi's plea bargain was inked and the man responsible for the shakeup in the police force will serve a year in jail. Putting a rabbi on trial in Israel is far from a run-of-the-mill occurrence. Rabbis are considered to hold unofficial immunity through their spiritual position. News that an indictment had been filed against a rabbi of Pinto’s standing was received with amazement. It led all the television and radio news broadcasts and made front-page headlines for days.

Despite Israel being a secular state, many Israelis flock to rabbis and credit them with unusual spiritual powers. When they seek solace, many turn to rabbis and Kabbalists. “That means something is missing from their lives,” says Gez, who has represented rabbis in the course of his work. “I know of rabbis who have amassed hundreds of millions of shekels in their accounts from donations of followers. What saddens me is that most of the money comes from people like my mother and yours, who barely make ends meet. They built up empires at the expense of the poor.”

There are already signs that the rabbis' influence is weakening. The traditional Hilula festivities conducted by the Kabbalists every year used to attract tens of thousands. Gez says most of his friends who used to take part in the mass celebrations intend to stay away in the future. According to him, this is a direct result of the corruption in which Pinto was involved. “My friends are disappointed and they feel cheated,” he added.

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