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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Rabbi, a Cop and a Firecracker

From left: Maj. Gen. Menashe Arbiv in the white kippah, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, journalist Yossi Elituv, and Businessman Lev Leviev.

It all happened years before the current case being pursued against a rabbi over claims that he attempted to bribe a senior police officer. The rabbi is Yoshiyahu Pinto, who has maintained extensive ties with top police brass. The police officer whom he allegedly bribed is Ephraim Bracha. But first some background.

In November 2011, a firecracker exploded in the yard of the Ashdod home of Rabbi Pinto.

His home is spacious. It sits in a prestigious neighborhood near the city’s beach and was purchased for the rabbi by a wealthy American Jewish businessman, Jay Schottenstein of Columbus, Ohio, for $1 million for the rabbi’s use on his visits to Israel.

In the evening of the day the house was shaken by the firecracker, the home was filled with anxious followers and supporters. Pinto sat in his bedroom with several associates. He engaged in urgent discussion with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others.

The FBI staff was dealing at the time with an investigation of Pinto over a case of extortion allegedly committed in New York.

Waiting in a seating area on the ground floor of the home was Doron Weiss, who until a few months before had been the deputy head of the Shin Bet security service.

And who should then cross his path in the house but retired police Maj. Gen. Uri Bar-Lev, who certainly would have noticed investigators from the international crime unit of the Israel Police who arrived in the company of their superior, Chief Superintendent Yaron London.

“Why would such a senior officer in the unit that deals with organized crime and sensitive security crimes be assigned to an uncomplicated police case in which no personal injury was caused?” one of the guests at the house asked another.

“Would people of this caliber investigate the throwing of a firecracker at the home of an average businessman or a plain citizen? They’re milling around here with serious expressions as if it were God forbid a murder scene.”

London had been sent by his commanders in the investigation unit. In the course of the unsuccessful investigation into who threw the firecracker, senior investigators from the FBI also asked to be kept informed over developments.

“It was a rather bizarre scene,” said a person who had worked in the police investigations unit. “A rabbinical court in which open contacts were maintained with the FBI on one hand and the brass of the [Israel Police] investigations unit on the other.

And in the mix of the rabbi’s major followers were wealthy businessman and crime figures and politicians, some of whom could find themselves at that moment under covert surveillance.”

As a rabbinical presence, Pinto beat all of the competition when it came to ties with the Israel Police.

The close relationship between the rabbi and the police escaped media attention until the case of senior police officer Ephraim Bracha burst into the open about two years ago. Pinto is suspected of attempting to bribe Bracha.

A criminal investigation was opened against him, culminating in a recommendation from the police to put him on trial.

Pinto’s line of defense was essentially that the two had maintained a friendship of many years during which the rabbi had helped him without regard to his police position, Bracha had asked Pinto for financial assistance.

The top echelons in the State Prosecutor’s Office have a different take on things, however, in their defense of Bracha. “He came out against his rabbi and since then he’s paying the price,” said one knowledgeable source. “We’ve checked all of the allegations provided by the rabbi’s people against Bracha, and we haven’t found any basis for [the claim] that he asked for or received money.”

One of Pinto’s followers said that providing assistance, monetary or otherwise, was almost routine and was given to other police officers who approached the rabbi for help.

“Of course I didn’t know about money, but it was enough for me to see senior police officials with close ties to rabbinical [institutions], contacts that looked to an outside observer not at all as a good thing,” said one former police investigator.

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