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Birthright attacker must do community service
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Birthright attacker must do community service

Israeli judge says man was ‘delusional’ when he beat NJ woman

Jonathan Haft, right, of Wayne and his lawyer, Yair Golan, in the Jerusalem courthouse Jan. 24, where Haft was sentenced for the May 31 beating of fellow Birthright Israel participant Sherry Kestenbaum of Piscataway. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem
Jonathan Haft, right, of Wayne and his lawyer, Yair Golan, in the Jerusalem courthouse Jan. 24, where Haft was sentenced for the May 31 beating of fellow Birthright Israel participant Sherry Kestenbaum of Piscataway. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem

JERUSALEM — A Jerusalem judge sentenced a Wayne man to six months of community service on Monday for the May 31 beating of fellow Birthright Israel participant Sherry Kestenbaum of Piscataway and ordered him to pay her 200,000 shekels, or $55,000, in damages.

Jonathan Haft will begin serving his sentence Monday at a Beit Shemesh senior citizens’ center and will be allowed to leave Israel for the first time since the attack as soon as he completes his time.

Following the attack, Haft was imprisoned for two-and-a-half months and also spent time at a psychiatric hospital and under house arrest at a hotel.

Citing psychiatric findings that Haft was “temporarily insane” at the time of the incident, the judge rejected a request from Kestenbaum’s family that he be sentenced to 18 months in prison for aggravated assault. Instead, the attacker received a two-year suspended sentence of jail time that he will not be required to serve unless he commits a violent act during that time.

Kestenbaum’s family, who were not present at the sentencing, were outraged by the sentence, noting that even the judge acknowledged that Kestenbaum’s injuries were life-threatening.

“We are enraged,” said Art Kestenbaum, Sherry’s father. “We really can’t believe it. Here you get community service for vandalism, if you throw paint on a building, but not for a violent crime. It doesn’t make sense.” (See related article.)

On the day of the sentencing, a kipa-wearing Haft stood up as Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Rachel Shalev-Gertel read her seven-page verdict in the small downtown Jerusalem court room. In her ruling, she expressed sympathy for the victim but also for her assailant.

“The incident was grave and harsh,” Shalev-Gertel said. “It is a miracle the victim did not lose her life.”

Shalev-Gertel described Kestenbaum’s injuries, which included broken facial bones and the loss of several teeth, and the surgeries she will still require. She added that beyond physical wounds, Kestenbaum also suffered great emotional harm and trauma.

“She came for an educational trip through the Birthright Israel program to strengthen her Jewish identity,” Shalev-Gertel said, referring to the program that brings young Diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel. “Such a visit is supposed to be a spiritually uplifting experience. But two days before her trip was supposed to end, she found herself the victim of an act of sudden craziness on the part of one of the group members. It is obvious that such a nightmarish experience is not what she expected.”

Regarding Haft, Shalev-Gertel said that he also ended up having “a different experience than what he had anticipated on Birthright.” She noted that he was arrested, incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, endured a conviction in a foreign country, was disconnected from his family, and served two-and-a-half months behind bars with criminals.

Haft, Shalev-Gertel said, “had no prior criminal record. Letters have been submitted indicating that he has a good personality and positive values and that he is responsible and normative. It was drugs and alcohol that brought him to delusional craziness.”

The judge said she based her decision on the lack of legal clarity in Israel and the world regarding the criminal responsibility of an assailant deemed by psychiatric evaluations to have been temporarily insane when he committed a crime.

“At the time of the incident, the guilty party was found to be in an actively psychotic state and was not of sound mind,” wrote Dr. Gil Saltzman — director of the psychiatric department at the Rabin Hospital in Petach Tikva — in an assessment read by Shalev-Gertel in the court. “There is a basis to believe that he did not understand that his actions were wrong and could not stop himself. I believe he did it in a moment of temporary insanity.”

An assessment by another psychiatric expert found that it could not be determined with full confidence and beyond a reasonable doubt that the psychotic condition of the assailant was solely the result of the hallucinatory drugs he had taken.

‘We are upset’

Kestenbaum’s attorney, Zev Korman, an immigrant from the United States, said the sentence sent the wrong message about Israel’s criminal justice system to young people who come to Israel on Birthright and their parents.

“We are upset by the verdict because it means someone who committed a vicious attack will soon walk the streets,” Korman said. “We understand the dilemma of the court [regarding the temporary insanity claim]. Based on the psychiatric evaluations we were given limited access to, substance abuse did play a role. But we believe he controlled the situation.”

Korman lamented that the judge worked out a deal with Haft’s lawyer without obtaining Kestenbaum’s consent. He said a statement he submitted was rejected by the court on procedural and substantive grounds.

“We wonder why the court couldn’t find a tool to institutionalize this person to make sure he doesn’t commit another crime that would be even more vicious,” Korman said.

Speaking outside the court room after the sentencing, Haft’s lawyer, Yair Golan, endorsed the verdict, calling it “balanced and correct.” He said the gray areas regarding temporary insanity prevented a prison sentence from being issued.

Golan, a high-profile Israeli lawyer whose clients include Rabbi Moti Elon — a one-time yeshiva head facing charges that he had inappropriate sexual relations with male students — said that the 200,000 shekels in damages Haft must pay is proper compensation for Kestenbaum. He said this was much larger than what was usually approved under such circumstances.

But Korman said 200,000 shekels was far less than the expenses for Kestenbaum’s medical and psychological treatment.

“It certainly won’t cover her emotional injuries and the suffering that she has endured and will likely continue to experience for quite some time,” Korman said.

Haft’s attack on Kestenbaum occurred at a kibbutz guest house near the Dead Sea about a week into their trip. According to her account, she encountered Haft in their hotel hallway. He allegedly made advances toward her, which she rebuffed. He then began to violently attack her, and was later charged with assault with a deadly weapon because he is said to be a martial arts expert.

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