A fugitive Israeli rabbi accused of several sexual offenses may have been granted citizenship by South Africa, stymieing extradition efforts.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a 78-year-old wanted on charges of child molestation, may now have some sort of diplomatic status that would serve to protect him from prosecution, according to the South African Jewish Report.
A member of an offshoot of the Breslov Hassidic sect, he left Israel after several females, including a 15-year-old girl, complained he had sexually abused them.
Berland’s son described his father’s new citizenship as a “victory over the Israeli legal authorities,” according to the report.
Last year, he was arrested in Amsterdam under an international warrant. While the Netherlands’s top court in June ruled in favor of Berland’s extradition to Israel, he fled before it could be carried out.
“After more than three years of persecution of the rabbi, tonight it can be said that the king is alive and well,” one of Berland’s supporters was quoted as saying, calling the rabbi the most righteous man of his generation and comparing him to King David.
“From one day to the next our community is growing despite the exile it is enduring. We believe that very soon the rabbi will return to lead the people of Israel and the entire world with the coming of our righteous messiah and with true peace,” the supporter continued.
The South African Jewish Report also quoted an interview that Berland’s Dutch attorney Louis de Leon gave in December in which he said that the fugitive “has a kind of diplomatic status, making him criminally immune, and [he] cannot be held if Israel appeals to South Africa.
“He is raising money for a yeshiva. I asked him before his flight: ‘Do you mind if you never set foot in Israel again?’ He replied: ‘Moses also did not succeed after 40 years.’ I do not think Berland would ever voluntarily return to Israel,” de Leon said.
Last week several media outlets published pictures of Berland, seen holding a large bundle of multi-colored balloons, celebrating his 78th birthday in Johannesburg.
This is the second time that Berland has visited South Africa as a fugitive, and he has also made stops in Miami, Zurich, Morocco and Zimbabwe with a coterie of devoted followers. During his first visit to South Africa in April 2014, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein sent an email to his colleagues throughout the country, warning them not to provide any assistance to the group.