(JTA) — 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.”
Another Moroccan Jew who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity had similar concerns about the presence of Israelis fleeing legal troubles.
“The criminals here cast a negative light on the Jews and undermine years of intercommunal work,” the man said. “They are drawing negative and dangerous attention.”
The attention has spilled onto the front pages of major Moroccan media. The Ya Biladi daily ran a front-page article recently calling Berland a pedophile. Last year, Les Temps magazine published a front-page expose about Israeli criminals in Morocco, noting that their presence justifies a boycott of Israel.
Another Moroccan Jew speaking on condition of anonymity said the attention has also helped create popular support for two bills submitted to parliament this summer that propose to outlaw all contact with Israelis. The bills are supported by the ruling Islamist Justice and Development party.
Ben Chetrit, Kadoch and others say the bills have little chance of passing because King Mohammed VI will block them. The king has generally been solicitous of Morocco’s Jewish community, undertaking a massive renovation of more than 100 synagogues and supporting an addition to the constitution recognizing the contribution of “Hebraic influences” to Moroccan culture, an unusual gesture in the Arab Middle East.
But the measures are supported by a majority in parliament and if they do pass, Moroccan Jews stand to lose a lot.
Morocco is arguably the Arab world’s most open nation to Israel and annually receives an estimated 45,000 Israeli tourists. Many of them go on Jewish heritage tours run by members of the local Jewish community.
“This Berland guy, I don’t know if he’s guilty,” a local community member told JTA. “I only know he could not have come at a worst time for us. And I think that’s the reason he is no longer here.”