An Israel court ruled Tuesday that the extremist ultra-Orthodox community Lev Tahor ("A Pure Heart"), which lives in a jungle in Guatemala and has many Israeli members, is a cult.
"It is sufficient for my ruling to consider the conduct of the community towards its children, in order to determine that this is an abusive cult that severely harms the bodies and souls of the children of the community," wrote Judge Rivka Makayes, vice president of the Family Court contained within the Central District Magistrate's Court. Makayes ruled in the petition filed by the attorney general and relatives of minors who are in the cult.
The judge further wrote, "The evidence presented to me, both in direct testimony and in indirect testimony, led me to the conclusion that the Lev Tahor community treats the children of the community, inter alia, with severe physical punishment, with underage marriage (from the age of 14 for boys and 15 for girls), with spouses who sometimes have age differences of up to 20 years.
"In addition, there is a punitive policy towards members of the community that includes the separation of children from their parents—even in infancy—and the transfer of children to be raised in another family; preventing formal education and isolation from the outside world and all external sources of information; intimidation and threats; exiling minors from the community who are disobedient to the community's authority and its leaders and emissaries alone are able to get by in the world; allegations of unique clothing; frequent migration from place to place, leaving overnight without any preparation, all in accordance with the decisions of the head of the community.
"Finally, it was proven that when the minors leave the community, they suffer from severe psychiatric problems for many years."
In Israel, it is estimated that the sect has between 50 and 60 families, including among them between 150 and 200 children. The cult wanders around the world and made headlines after a Quebec juvenile court ruled that some children should be removed from their parents' custody. The sect then moved to another province in Canada and then to Guatemala, where it settled in an isolated place in the jungle.
The attorney general asked the court to declare the children of ultra-Orthodox who want to join the sect as at-risk. A court order preventing the children's being removed from Israel, but their parents disappeared with them before the legal proceedings were finalized, and they apparently live today in the jungle.
Therefore, the ruling was given today in the presence of one party only. Despite this, the judge explained that the court's decision is important in helping to prevent other families from joining the cult and to use the full resources of the state to try to return the children of the community.
(Translated and edited by J. Herzog)