Iraq expels extremist Jewish sect | IJN

By Asaf Shalev

NOTEW YORK – Traveling from Guatemala City to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, travelers can’t exactly take a direct flight.

Members of the Lev Tahor sect are preparing from La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan in October.

But this is the path taken in recent weeks by some 70 members of a small Orthodox sect that has traveled the world for more than 40 years in search of a safe haven to practice a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism – an interpretation that has led the Israeli press to nickname him the “Jewish Taliban”.

Since Erbil, the group, whose sect is officially called Lev Tahor, had planned to cross a border with Iran and settle there, according to a group of activists monitoring Lev Tahor’s activities.

The activists include former Lev Tahor members who escaped, relatives of the group and Hasidic businessmen concerned with allegations of child abuse in the sect. The activists have asked to remain anonymous for the sake of their safety and privacy.

The choice of Iran by Lev Tahor is perhaps linked to his adherence to anti-Zionism. Sect leaders sought asylum in the Islamic Republic in 2018.

It is not known whether Iranian authorities intended to host the group. But activists told JTA that in recent days, before the next phase of the trip could begin, local Kurdish authorities scuttled the plan, arresting the group and deporting them to Turkey.

Created in the late 1980s in Israel, Lev Tahor adheres to an extreme interpretation of kosher dietary rules and demands that women be covered from head to toe with black veils. The cult’s rules allegedly require girls to be married off to older men.

Some of the cult leaders are currently on trial for child abduction in the New York area – a development that has attracted little attention even in Israeli media which has closely covered the cult’s international movements.

THEev Tahor has between 200 and 300 members, including adults born into the sect, as well as dozens of children. A significant number of followers are believed to be Israeli citizens.

Although the sect is tiny, its potential to cause international incidents – as well as the way it defends itself by tapping into accounts of Jewish persecution – has drawn inordinate attention.

The prospect of seeing Israelis crossing en masse into enemy Iranian territory had spurred an Israeli media frenzy with speculation about what would happen to them.

Some have expressed fear of becoming a currency of exchange like Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years until Israel agreed in 2011 to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. in exchange for his freedom.

This prisoner swap remains controversial in Israel a decade after it took place.

It is unknown what led the Kurdish authorities to block the group’s passage, why Turkey agreed to serve as their crossing point, and how Israel reacted to the possibility of a new dispute with Iran. It is also unclear why Romania, where the group allegedly landed after leaving Turkey, agreed to accept them.

Activists who stalk Lev Tahor denounce the media on some issues but are reluctant to divulge too much information for fear of compromising their own sources or inadvertently endangering members of the Lev Tahor base they hope to help.

And as civilian volunteers, the activists themselves do not always fully understand the diplomatic maneuvers that have taken place. Divided between Israel and the United States, the Lev Tahor-focused lawyer community pays private investigators to hunt down the cult, and also lobbies law enforcement and diplomats around the world to act on it. suspicion of child abuse.

Tmain enemy heir, and leader of Lev Tahor, is a man named Nachman Helbrans. He rose to the head of the sect after the death in 2017 of his father, Shlomo Helbrans, who founded Lev Tahor.

Nachman Helbrans did not participate in the exodus of his group from their complex in Guatemala and he did not manage to make it to Iraqi Kurdistan. That’s because he’s on trial on child abduction allegations in federal court in White Plains, NY, just north of New York City.

Helbrans and eight alleged accomplices are on trial in the 2018 kidnapping of Yante Teller and Chaim Teller, who were 14 and 12 when they were taken from their mother in Woodridge, NY, a hamlet in the Catskill Mountains, and transported to Mexico .

Three weeks after the kidnapping, US law enforcement and local police discovered the children outside of Mexico City. At the same time, authorities also arrested three men: Helbrans, Mayer Rosner and Jacob Rosner.

According to court documents, Jacob Rosner is considered Yante’s husband within Lev Tahor, and the kidnapping was an attempt to force Yante and Chaim back into the sect’s fold after their mother smuggled them out.

Several other people have been arrested in connection with the case, including, most recently, brothers Yaakov, Shmiel and Yoel Weingarten, who were arrested in Guatemala by local authorities earlier this year.
On November 3, prosecutors finished presenting testimony and other evidence, triggering the next phase of Lev Tahor’s trial, in which the defense will make its case.

Activists monitoring Lev Tahor have hired an informal spokesperson in Shana Aaronson, executive director of Magen for Jewish Communities, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to combating sexual abuse.

Even though several Lev Tahor leaders are on trial and cult members are dispersed, Aaronson said the fight is not over and it is not yet time to end efforts to help the victims. presumed.

“These children are suffering right now,” she said. “They don’t really understand what’s going on. They are dragged from one country to another. They are half starved to begin with, incredibly sleep deprived, and completely dependent on cult leaders, who control their passports and flights.

THEEv Tahor leaders have said the sect is being persecuted for its religious beliefs, a claim that Aaronson says is essential to maintaining the sect’s internal cohesion. Aaronson acknowledged that efforts to hinder the cult, including calling for the arrest of its leaders or helping individual escapees, may play a role in the persecution narrative.

“They are all convinced that they are being persecuted,” Aaronson said. “There is obviously a huge desire on the part of every defender – and hopefully more law enforcement – to prosecute, not persecute but to prosecute, the abusers who have attacked so many. people in this community for so many years sexually, physically, financially, spiritually and psychologically.

Aaronson hopes the media coverage will help break through and convince cult members not to fear strangers.

“We all really want them to be safe,” she said. “It’s important for me to say this because they read these things. At least some of them do.

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