LONDON (Jun. 29)
First it was a rumor in a London synagogue, then a matter for the religious courts. By the time a British jury finally came to its verdict last week, Maccaba v. Lichtenstein had garnered headlines worldwide and, at 41 days, had turned into the longest British slander trial in history.
The salacious tale of alleged infidelity had all the ingredients of a good yarn — “power, money and vengeance,” according to the lawyer for Yaakov Yisrael Lichtenstein, the defendant in the lawsuit brought by Orthodox millionaire Brian Maccaba.
For two months, Hollywood came to Britain’s High Court, with the spotlight on the normally camera-shy and close-knit Orthodox community.
After 32 hours of deliberation, the jury found in Lichtenstein’s favor, determining that he had not slandered Maccaba, who along the way had been described as a serial adulterer and sexual predator who chased young, married Jewish women.
Britain’s “Indecent Proposal” c! ase borrowed its central elements from the movie in which a millionaire played by Robert Redford offers a newlywed, played by Demi Moore, and her husband $1 million for a night with her.
In this case, Maccaba, a married 45-year-old from London who had converted from Catholicism to become an Orthodox Jew, offered a 35-year-old Orthodox law student, Nathalie Attar, $1 million if she would leave her husband and marry him.
Chief executive of the computer giant Cognotec, Maccaba met Attar in 1999, when she became a tutor to Maccaba’s children. The two grew closer when she became a teacher at an Orthodox school Maccaba founded.
As time went on, Attar grew increasingly uneasy about Maccaba’s intentions. Though he told the High Court that their relationship was purely platonic, Attar said Maccaba had become infatuated with her and made unwanted physical advances.
Attar and her husband Alain eventually became so upset about Maccaba’s behavior that they moved to Israel n! ot long after Attar lost her job at the school — a firing she attribu ted to rumors spread by a spurned Maccaba.
This was the point at which Attar’s rabbi suggested she complain to Lichtenstein, the senior rabbinic judge of the fervently Orthodox Federation of Synagogues.
In 2001, Lichtenstein took the matter to the federation’s religious court, the Kedassia Beth Din. The court found that Attar’s charges lacked evidence.
In bringing the matter before the religious courts, however, Lichtenstein made an enemy of Maccaba, an influential philanthropist in the Jewish community.
It was during Lichtenstein’s investigation of Maccaba that the infamous “indecent proposal” was made in a poem the millionaire wrote to Attar, which she then shared with Lichtenstein. The poem was one of several that Maccaba, who has won awards for poetry in his native Gaelic, sent to Attar.
Titled “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” it included the lines, “The stranger said she was his true soul mate, he would love her forever. He would do anything for her. If on! ly she was free — a golden key. A bachelor’s freedom again — $1m cash in the bank tax-free.”
Maccaba said it was just a “silly” poem, that the offer was never serious, and that he intended to distance himself from Attar because he believed they were becoming too close.
But, as Alain Attar told the High Court, Maccaba made the offer again in person, when he visited the couple’s Hendon home.
“He said to me, ‘If you only knew how much she is worth to me — I will throw a figure at you.’ I said, ‘OK, Brian.’ He said to me, ‘She is worth a million dollars to me,’ ” Alain Attar recalled.
“Mr. Maccaba is no Robert Redford,” Lichtenstein’s counsel, David Price, told the jury. “But this was still an indecent proposal. In fact, it was far more indecent because Robert Redford was a bachelor who just wanted one night.”
Maccaba was ostracized by the Orthodox community after the allegations became public, and his daughter was rejected by a Jewish school because of Mac! caba’s new reputation as a sexual predator.
There were allegations that he had become involved with at least three married women, Maccaba said. Incensed and feeling that he was not getting a fair hearing in the religious community, he took the matter to civil court.
Lichtenstein claimed he never accused Maccaba of committing adultery, but of breaking another sacred law.
“He never committed adultery. But he did violate the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covert someone else’s wife,” Lichtenstein said.
The rabbi also denied charges that he had embarked on a rumor campaign against Maccaba because the millionaire was a convert. He got Attar to testify on his behalf. She agreed, she said, not seeking revenge against Maccaba “but to get my name and reputation cleared.”
By a majority of 10-1, the jury found that Lichtenstein had not slandered Maccaba, breached his confidence or harassed him. Because the allegations Lichtenstein discussed had been “substantially true,” they were not malicious, the jury found.
The ruling could co! st Maccaba more than $3.6 million in court costs. Maccaba is appealing the decision.
Attar, who has three children and is pregnant with a fourth, said in a statement she was “delighted” for Lichtenstein.
“The dayan was the only person who stood up for me and my family and I am sorry he had to go through such a difficult time because of it,” she said of Lichtenstein, using his title as a religious court judge.
Speaking to reporters outside the court, Lichtenstein thanked God for the decision and described it as “a victory for the Torah, the truth and morality.” He added, “It is also a victory for clergy worldwide.”
Meanwhile, in northwest London’s Orthodox community, there is a sense of relief that the trial is over.
“Frankly, this has been embarrassing for us,” said one Orthodox community member. “It should have been dealt with by our own courts and left out of the prying public eye.”