Former minister Shlomo Benizri
Former minister Shlomo BenizriIsrael news photo: (file)

Former Shas Minister Shlomo Benizri spoke to several hundred of his followers in the Or Chaim yeshiva in Jerusalem on Thursday night. Benizri slammed the state and the media for “cruelty” and “character assassination.”

The former minister faces a four-year jail term after being convicted of taking bribes. Benizri maintains his innocence, and told the crowd that his innocent social interactions had been misconstrued as political deals.

"They said that when one of my students gave me money to buy a table, it was a bribe,” he said. “And they said that when I made a donation to the yeshiva, it was a bribe.”

The former minister complained that his family, particularly his elderly parents, have suffered extensively due to his conviction. “My mother had two heart attacks, my father had a stroke,” he said.

The media played a large role in his suffering, he said. “From the beginning, they were publishing rumors on top of rumors... I went through eight years of suffering.”

Benizri got support from Uri Zohar, a former screen actor-director who became religious decades ago and has since played an active role in encouraging Jewish observance. Zohar criticized Israel's court system as lacking even “an ounce of justice.”

In his speech, Benizri expressed sympathy for three widely divergent and much maligned suspects in criminal cases: Dudu Topaz, a former entertainer, Avraham Hirschson, the former Finance Minister, and the so-called 'Taliban mother,' a hareidi-religious mother of 12 suspected of child abuse.

The press was guilty of character assassination in all three cases, he said. Topaz, who was accused of ordering attacks on media figures, committed suicide in his jail cell on Thursday, Benizri recalled. “Within minutes, it was in the media. Even his children heard what had happened from the media reports. That's how I saw the kind of cruelty that exists in this country.”

Hareidim Feel Persecuted

Benizri said his feelings of anger were not merely a reaction to his personal situation, but to the feeling on the “hareidi street” in general. “Do a survey in the street. People feel harassed, there's a lot of pain. Leave us alone.”

"There's so much hate,” he said. “Yesterday [Shas spiritual leader] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said a few words about the court system, and right away they were saying, 'How can the rabbi talk like that? Doesn't he know that words can kill?' Where is the tolerance, is everything a one-way street for you? Your words don't kill hareidim?”

Benizri's jail sentence will begin on September 1. The Thursday night rally was meant as a call for justice, he said.