Sex allegations against rabbi roil Israel’s Orthodox community

Many Israelis pride themselves on a kind of European sophistication when it comes to public sex scandals: For the most part, they shrug them off.

But those limits are being tested by a brewing controversy concerning an Orthodox rabbi who has been accused by a nongovernmental religious organization of sexually exploiting male students.

Rabbi Mordechai Elon, 50, a popular spiritual figure from a prominent family, has not been charged with any crime, and no evidence has emerged that any of the students allegedly involved were under age 18, according to police and child-protection advocates. No students have filed police complaints, a law enforcement official said.

But the case is rattling the foundations of Israel’s Orthodox community by casting a public focus on topics that some would prefer to avoid: sexual harassment by religious leaders and homosexuality among rabbis.

“It’s an issue that automatically makes people uncomfortable,” said Orthodox rabbi Ron Yosef, who runs a support group for those struggling to balance their sexuality and religious beliefs.

Yosef, who came out as gay a year ago, said he’s found acceptance from his own congregation but has also received death threats.

The allegations brought by the religious forum are “only a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said. “They need to deal with this. It’s not going to disappear.”

The first report of inappropriate sexual conduct involving Elon was received more than five years ago by Takana, a forum of rabbis and others from diverse parts of the Orthodox community. The group was set up to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and serve as a mediator with law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of a 1999 case in which a rabbi was convicted of sexually assaulting male students. In statements released this month on its website, Takana accused Elon of “sexual exploitation” and engaging in “a long-term relationship that was clearly of a sexual nature.”

When the group first approached Elon years ago, the rabbi told them he had “overcome his problem,” according to Takana’s statement. Sometime later, Takana leaders said they received a “more severe” complaint indicating a “more substantial problem.”

After consultations with the attorney general in 2006, it was agreed that Takana would handle the matter privately, in part because there was no evidence of criminal activity and no students came forward to press charges, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Though Takana has no government enforcement powers, its role as a go-between is viewed as critical in dealing with the sensitive issue of sexual misconduct, in which victims often are reluctant to come forward publicly or fear making allegations against religious leaders.

Under pressure from Takana, Elon agreed in 2006 to stop teaching at religious schools and was ordered to limit his contact with young male students. He retired and relocated from Jerusalem. But in recent weeks some Takana leaders received information that Elon had violated that agreement, so they issued their statement.

Since then, as many as 15 young men have come forward with similar stories, Israel’s Channel 10 reported.

After Takana posted its statement, Elon dismissed the allegations as “blood libel” from “a person whose stability is doubtful.”

Friends and former students have rushed to Elon’s defense, describing him as a warm, generous man whose affectionate manner might have been misunderstood. Critics say law enforcement agencies and even Israeli newspapers appear to have given Elon special treatment because of his standing in the religious community and his family’s stature.

Elon’s father was a Supreme Court vice president, and his brother served in the Knesset. Some observers say that similar allegations against a secular high school teacher would have been handled more aggressively.

One newspaper reportedly knew about the allegations against Elon for years but refrained from publishing anything, according to reports elsewhere.

“The non-disclosure in this case was an act of kindness to Elon but engenders a sense that a double standard was applied,” Tel Aviv University law professor Zeev Segal wrote in Haaretz newspaper.

Law enforcement agencies have not opened a formal investigation, though they said they were considering such a step.

Key details remain unclear, including the nature of Elon’s actions and the number and ages of young men allegedly involved.

Moshe Meir, educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said the Elon case offers Israel a chance to confront negative attitudes in the Orthodox community about homosexuality.

“If indeed it appears that Rabbi Motti Elon has homosexual tendencies, this is no crime,” Meir said. His possible transgression “is the abuse of authority, not the sexual identity.”