For Uriel Goldman, it’s deja vu all over again.
Just as had been the case in Canada, Lev Tahor, the ultra-observant Orthodox sect has been the subject of intense scrutiny in Guatemala by police and child care workers. And just as had been the case in Canada, investigation of the community has failed to turn up any evidence of child abuse or of any sort of law-breaking.
Goldman, a spokesperson for the group, said in a phone interview last week from New York, where he had travelled to meet supporters, that Guatemalan police raided two adjacent apartment buildings on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where the 350-member community resided.
Arriving without warning at 6 a.m., armed police broke windows and smashed doors in the apartment buildings. Everyone was frightened.
“You know what trauma is?” Goldman, a native of Israel, asked.
Police were accompanied by doctors and child care workers, who spent the day in the homes of Lev Tahor members looking for evidence of child abuse.
“They expected beaten children. They didn’t find anything,” Goldman said.
According to The Times of Israel, Guatemalan authorities said the Sept. 13 raid was carried out at the request of Israeli authorities to search for a girl who was barred from leaving Israel and to investigate allegations of child abuse. The group consists of Israeli, American and Canadian citizens, as well as a few other nationalities.
Arutz Sheva, another Israeli news service, reported that Israeli child welfare authorities travelled to Guatemala to monitor local law enforcement’s interaction with Lev Tahor, and found no evidence to substantiate the allegations against the Orthodox sect.
Lev Tahor, which in Hebrew means “pure heart,” has been dogged by allegations of child abuse, neglect, bad hygiene and of sanctioning child marriages. Residing for about 20 years in Quebec, they ran afoul of local child welfare authorities, they say, for refusing to teach their children evolution and sex education, as required by the provincial school curriculum. They uprooted their community in one night in 2013 and travelled to Chatham, Ont., where they felt the school curriculum allowed them more latitude to home-school their children.
They set up residences in bungalows on the outskirts of town and were repeatedly investigated by local child welfare authorities. One child was removed from her home when a bruise was found on her face, but a judge returned the youth to her home shortly afterward.
On another occasion, after the group had left for Guatemala, two teenage girls were placed in foster care in Toronto after they were separated from their parents en route. They escaped and fled to the United States to be reunited with their father, who is American. Apprehended by U.S. border authorities, they came before a court to determine whether they should be reunited with their family. Canadian child welfare personnel presented American child welfare authorities with the children’s dossier, outlining the case against the father.
The children were returned to their father after local child welfare authorities withdrew their application to hold them.
The fact U.S. authorities declined to argue the case before a judge, even after viewing a broad set of allegations against Lev Tahor, demonstrates how weak the case was, the group’s Canadian lawyer, Guidy Mamann, said at the time.
Mamann travelled to Guatemala last month to advise Lev Tahor. Just as had been the case in Canada, officials found no evidence of child abuse or neglect. “Guatemalan authorities found nothing because there is nothing,” he told The CJN last week.
Mamann, however, called the continuous investigation of Lev Tahor “a witch hunt,” and likened the early-morning police raid to Kristallnacht, the prewar Nazi attack on German Jews.
What’s particularly egregious, he said, was that armed Israelis, wearing Guatemalan police jackets, participated in the raid. One Lev Tahor father was forced to stand with his hands against the wall for one hour as his children watched. When he asked to put his hands down, the officer said to him in perfect Hebrew, “Put your hands down and I’m going to shoot you.”
Mamann said the raid and that sort of statement “scared the crap out of the children” and was more harmful than anything alleged against their parents.
American diplomats and Guatemalan elected officials later visited the community and all say the children are well treated, Mamann added.
Goldman, a native of Israel, suggested the “very secular” Israeli sister of one Lev Tahor member is behind many of the allegations.
“This is the family of a ba’al tshuvah” a secular Jew who becomes observant, he said. The individual who became Orthodox had been “a programmer” for the Israel Defence Forces “in a very high position. Very intelligent.”
He became religious more than 15 years ago and “[his] family member since then is attacking them, not leaving them alone.”
The Israeli and his family joined Lev Tahor three years ago, but his sister continues to approach the Israeli media with allegations of Lev Tahor practices, despite never visiting the community, Goldman said.
The Guatemala raid was the latest result of allegations stemming from Israel, Goldman suggested.
Mamann agreed. Lev Tahor is an ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist group that rubs many Israelis the wrong way.
“These allegations come from families and from people who left the group and were unhappy with the group. That was used to fuel the investigation in Quebec,” he said.
It’s long past time for the media, legal authorities and the Jewish community to “rethink what they’ve heard about this religious community,” Mamann added.