JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police said on Friday they were looking into allegations of sexual abuse against one of the country’s most famous and politically influential rabbis, in a case that has triggered dramatic headlines this week.
Mordechai Elon — known as “Rabbi Motti” by viewers of his popular TV show and by many young men in the West Bank settler movement — has vehemently denied the accusations by a group of fellow rabbis who say their aim is to combat sexual harassment by authority figures.
But that has not stopped a wave of soul-searching, which has some parallels with recent turmoil in the Roman Catholic church.
At issue is the power of charismatic clerics over young people in their care, as well as questions about the extent to which religious communities should regulate their own affairs without involving the Jewish state’s secular authorities.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said the attorney-general had asked police to consider whether there was sufficient evidence to mount a formal criminal investigation, after the organization Takana alleged Elon had broken a promise made to fellow rabbis some years ago to limit his contacts with young men and youths.
Elon, 50, gave up his regular TV show and retired as head of a major yeshiva religious school in Jerusalem three years ago.
A police spokesman said on Friday no investigation had yet been launched but officers were considering the request.
Since Monday, when Takana issued a statement saying Elon was the subject of complaints about “acts at odds with sacred and moral values” and that it wanted to “protect the public,” supporters and critics of the rabbi, a scion of a prominent religious Zionist family, have poured out emotions in the media.
Former students have rallied to his home, some telling of the “fatherly hugs” he was wont to bestow. Others have spoken of “heartbreak” at the division sown within their community.
Columnist Nahum Barnea of Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said: “Every word in this story becomes an emotional atom bomb when it happens in a religious society — sex, homosexuality, charisma, minors, a rabbi’s power.
“This is not a storm in a teacup. This is a typhoon. No wonder many in the national-religious public felt this week that their world had collapsed,” Barnea wrote on Friday.
Elon’s father sat on Israel’s supreme court and one brother was a cabinet minister. The leftish Haaretz newspaper called the Elons “the Kennedys of the religious Zionist camp.”
While many of Israel’s founders were secular socialists, the religious, nationalist right has a growing role, notably in settlements in occupied land Israel seized in its 1967 war with the Arabs.
Religious Zionists are distinguished from more traditional ultra-Orthodox groups which tend not to share the same focused commitment to building up Israel’s state power and territory.
Mordechai Elon was an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s move in 2005 to pull settlers and troops out of the Gaza Strip and was once spoken of as a future chief rabbi. But he has had a much lower public profile in the years since.
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche