Surrounded by dozens of adoring followers at his grandson’s wedding this summer, Eliezer Berland looked like any other Hasidic rebbe marking a family celebration. But Berland is not like most rabbis.
The founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary in Israel, Berland, 76, fled to Morocco earlier this year after being accused of sexual assault by two young women, both wives of his followers. Last month he fled again, to Zimbabwe, after his residency permit expired and Moroccan authorities declined to extend it.
Berland, a charismatic figure from the Breslov sect, drew dozens of followers to Morocco during his seven-month sojourn there – including his grandson, who chose to celebrate his wedding in Marrakech in the rabbi’s presence. Dozens moved there to be with him, and hundreds more showed up on holidays.
The traffic has helped focus attention on the presence of dozens of Israeli fugitives who have fled to this North African kingdom in recent years, prompting fears for the well-being of Morocco’s 4,000 Jews, who have traditionally maintained a low profile in a country ruled by a moderate monarch locked in a quiet power struggle with an Islamist-led parliament.
“Berland was the last straw; he really had to go,” said Sam Ben Chetrit, president of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry. “Morocco’s emergence as the go-to place for the Israeli mafia is very bad for Muslim-Jewish relations there, and many Moroccan Jews know it. The last thing we need is a suspected sex offender.”
Israeli police estimate that Morocco is home to several dozen Israelis with mafia ties who have invested more than $20 million in the Moroccan economy. Among those who have settled permanently or temporarily in Morocco are Meir Abergil, a convicted extortionist and leader of the Abergil crime family; suspected drug smuggler Moshe Elgrably; and Shalom Domrani, who Israeli police believe was the dominant figure in organized crime in southern Israel.
In Israel, Domrani and Abergil were rivals involved in bloody score-settling, according to Amir Zohar, the crime reporter for Israel’s Globes financial daily. But in Morocco, Zohar said the two coexist peacefully.
“With the right papers, they can get a Moroccan passport if they stay for a few months in Morocco,” Ben Chetrit said.
Berland has a long history of associating with criminals. According to Zvi Mark, a scholar of Hasidic movements at Bar-Ilan University, many of Berland’s early followers were secular Israelis with criminal records and violent histories.
Several Moroccan sources told JTA that Berland was helped in Marrakech by Gabi Ben Harosh, a former money launderer and organized crime figure who avoided prison in Los Angeles by turning state’s witness. Ben Harosh and Berland were often seen praying together in Morocco. According to some accounts, Ben Harosh helped Berland organize his trip to Zimbabwe.
Some Moroccan Jews are supportive of Berland. Jacky Kadoch, president of the Marrakech Jewish community, called the rabbi a genius and said the case against him is flimsy. But others have been more reluctant to roll out the red carpet.
“I get a very bad feeling when I hear of the arrival of a rabbi suspected of sex offenses and criminals linked to killings,” Maguy Kakon, a Moroccan Jewish businesswoman from Casablanca and the leader of a small centrist political party, told Israel’s Channel 2 news. “Jews were never suspected of murder or rape here. We are well respected. I won’t let them destroy that.”
Contacted by JTA, Kakon flatly denied making the statement before breaking off communication. But Shimon Ifergan, an investigative journalist for Channel 2, insists she made it during a 30-minute telephone conversation in July. Last year, before Berland’s arrival, Kakon was quoted by Globes as saying that Jews are well regarded in Morocco and she hopes “no Israeli criminals shame us and destroy that reputation.”