Arrests in Alleged Charity Scam Spark Protests by Chareidim

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The conflict between Chareidim and Israeli police over the arrest of Edah Chareidis charity staff is but the most recent in an ongoing series of clashes, like the one pictured above from July, 2011.  (EuroNews Screen Cap)The arrests of six Chareidi men in Jerusalem – including a high-ranking member of the Edah Chareidis – on charges of scamming money from a charity fund sparked a large protest by members of the community on Sunday afternoon. As hundreds of Chareidim gathered in Meah Shearim to express their anger over the arrests, many of the demonstrators moved on to block a central thoroughfare and then threw stones at police officers after they arrested three men for blocking traffic.

The six men – who operated charities under such titles as “The Fund for Widows and Orphans” and “Charity Bank” within the umbrella organization known as Vaad Artzi (National Committee to Save Needy Families) – were arrested on suspicion of embezzling charitable funds, money laundering, tax evasion and other tax offenses, following a year-long investigation by authorities. After a day in detention – with Justice Dov Pollack stating during the hearing that there was absolutely no evidence against him – the authorities released Rabbi Amram Shapira, an aide to Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, the head of the Edah Chareidis. Another of those arrested – Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi-Lovtzki, the director of Vaad Artzi – was ordered to be held in jail until Thursday. 

According to investigators, who used wiretaps and other methods to build the case against the Edah-run charities, the suspects allegedly siphoned off tens of millions of shekels in charity donations and kept it for themselves. The investigators further allege that the suspects paid salaries totaling hundreds of thousands of shekels annually without reporting to tax authorities, and engaged in money laundering between Israel and the United States, and possibly other countries. State officials are claiming that the case is solid, based on months of meticulous planning and evidence gathering, indicating a sophisticated tax evasion scheme that involved many players. The prosecution has also claimed that funds from the Edah’s Vaad Artzi charity were used to support the activities of the Sikrikim, a group of extremist Chareidim who have become notorious for attacking stores and individuals for not meeting Chareidi religious standards.

 “I am confident that at the end of the investigation involving the suspects, a different picture will unfold than what is being seen today,” stated attorney Kobi Goldman, a tax law expert who is representing at least one of the defendants. Goldman explained that, in the past, there were a number of cases wherein the police tried to place such matters against the Chareidi community in the criminal realm, but the courts subsequently returned them to the administrative arena. Goldman expressed his sense that this case has been blown out of proportion by the authorities.

During his weekly Torah class on Sunday night, the Edah Chareidis head publicly spoke out against the arrests of the charity administrators, singling out his assistant in particular for a defense. “It is a blood libel,” Rav Weiss declared. “I personally know Rav Amram and he is clean, he is pure. It is a libel like the Jews of Russia and Hungary endured.” Rav Weiss was also reported as saying that the arrests were designed to injure him, and that if the police so desired, they should come and arrest him too.

The demonstrators on Sunday afternoon first massed outside Edah Chareidis headquarters in Meah Shearim and listened to fiery speeches condemning the authorities for the arrests of the charity employees. The crowd then streamed toward Kikar Shabbat, where – in addition to halting the flow of traffic and clashing with police – they harassed media personnel and set several garbage dumpsters on fire. “They are trying to uproot Judaism and the Jewish people,” one man in the crowd declared. “We’ve been here for two hundred years and we got on just fine – what do we need the state for?” he demanded, referring to the settlement in Jerusalem and the wider region (the yishuv) in the 18th and 19th centuries of a significant number of Jews from Lithuania, along with other European Jews.

“It’s like we’re in Communist Russia,” another bystander said. “They stage inflammatory events like the supposed spitting incident in Beit Shemesh [against an eight-year-old girl] and then come to arrest us.”

A man who identified himself as Nachman and claimed to be a nephew of Rabbi Shapira asserted that the Chareidi community just wanted to be left in peace. “We don’t want to interfere with the seculars,” he said, “and we don’t want them to interfere with us in our neighborhoods.”

Tensions similarly flared in Beit Shemesh, where some of the most extreme followers of the Edah Chareidis live. A group of some two hundred protesters blocked Nahar Hayarden Street and threw stones, prompting the police to arrest four men. A number of the protestors also attacked a bus passing through the protest area, smashing its windows and lightly injuring some of the passengers.

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