LONDON, April 23 (JTA) – Two observant Jews who served as local elected officials here have been sentenced to jail for vote fraud.
Isaac Leibowitz, of the Conservative Party, was given a six-month jail sentence; Zev Lieberman, a Liberal Democrat, was sentenced to four months.
The two fervently Orthodox defendants were convicted in March of fraudulently adding names to London electoral rolls. The investigating officer called the case “the largest attempt to subvert the democratic process that I am aware of.”
The case has embarrassed Britain’s Jewish community.
“Wider society tends to look at us as a homogenous group,” said a representative of one community organization.
“Their names tell the whole story. Non-Jews see Jews doing this, and they’ll draw their own conclusions,” said the representative, who asked to remain anonymous.
Leibowitz, 36, and Lieberman, 29, manufactured phantom voters and tricked legitimate voters into signing away their proxy ballots, resulting in a 2,000 percent increase in the number of absentee ballots in their ward in a May 1998 local election.
About 75 percent of the 241 absentee votes went to the Liberal Democrats, Lieberman’s party.
The prosecution argued that the fraud had affected the overall composition of the local council in the northeast London borough of Hackney.
In handing down the relatively mild sentences last Friday – the men could have been jailed for up to 10 years each – Judge Jeremy Connor described the defendants as men of “good character” who had committed their crimes out of “enthusiasm for public office in order to do good things.”
The Jewish community representative said the kind of vote fraud the men had committed could happen in any tightly-knit ethnic community.
But Samuel Heilman, author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry,” said the lifestyle of fervently Orthodox communities makes it particularly important for them to have political influence.
“They have huge financial needs,” said Heilman, a professor at Queens College, which is part of the City University of New York.
Fervently Orthodox communities often do not have a “large number of people who are gainfully employed,” he said. “There is a growing tendency to study Torah as a full-time profession. Yeshivas have to provide stipends not only for students, but for their families.”
Government becomes the major source of funds for these communities, Heilman said.
“There is less and less sympathy within the wider Jewish community to Orthodoxy, and therefore they are not willing to shell out money to support these folks,” he said. “The public sector is the last source of support.”
As a result, if these communities show that they can deliver votes, “political officials will give them what they want – subsidized housing, food stamps, education,” Heilman said.
A rabbi familiar with political issues in London’s fervently Orthodox community said Leibowitz believed the community was getting “a raw deal” from local government.
“The council had not been meeting their needs. He saw” the vote fraud “as a way of redressing an imbalance,” said the rabbi, who also asked not to be named.
Another Jewish community leader said the crime was partly due to the fervently Orthodox community’s insularity. While any group might commit vote fraud, “the crudity and lack of finesse” of the plot in question “is unique” to the fervently Orthodox, who felt they could trick non-Jews, said the community leader, who also asked not to be named. “Other people who are more integrated know that the goyim are not that stupid,” the community leader said.
The community leader agreed that the conviction reflected badly on Britain’s Jews.
“The stink they create blows onto more people than just their own sect,” the leader said.
The rabbi agreed.
“There was respect for the community, and this has eroded it,” he said.
Britain’s fervently Orthodox community has refrained from publicly condemning Leibowitz and Lieberman, reflecting a “lack of maturity” on the community’s part, the rabbi said.
“We’d feel that we are condemning ourselves,” the rabbi said. “We’re not able to deal with these issues. We’re decades away from that kind of maturity.”
Leibowitz and Lieberman both were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud an electoral official and of two counts of forgery each. Leibowitz also was convicted of a second conspiracy charge.
Both have resigned their council seats.
During the trial, both men were acquitted of a number of other forgery and conspiracy charges.
Another defendant, Mesifta Talmudical College caretaker Chananya Gross, 22, was acquitted of a conspiracy charge.
The court accepted the prosecution’s stance that Gross was an “unwitting dupe” of the two politicians. Two other defendants, including one fervently Orthodox man, were acquitted of a number of forgery and conspiracy charges.