When former Israeli President Moshe Katsav pleaded guilty to charges of sexual harassment and resigned his post late last month, no one was more surprised and saddened than his strongest supporters in Southern California, the Iranian Jewish community.
Many local Iranian Jews share a common ancestry with Katsav, and were particularly disappointed as they had backed his claims of innocence amid the frenzy of criticism of his sexual conduct from politicians and the media in Israel.
“While some diehards will continue to look for excuses, most of his supporters feel betrayed and deceived by his denials,” said H. David Nahai, an Iranian Jewish attorney in Century City. “His ignominious downfall is a matter of great sadness and deep disappointment for Persian Jews everywhere.”
The scandal began last July, when Israeli government investigations led to a total of 12 women accusing Katsav of sexual assault and harassment. Additional allegations were brought against Katsav for giving state-funded gifts to private individuals, committing fraud, harassing a witness and obstructing justice.
Finally, in late June, Israeli Attorney General Menahem Mazuz offered to drop all charges and suspend any prison time for Katsav, citing a lack of evidence in the case, on the condition that Katsav would plead guilty to sexual harassment and resign his post as president.
While many local Iranian Jewish leaders remained tight-lipped on Katsav’s resignation, his close allies in the community said they refuse to believe Katsav is guilty of any wrongdoing.
“I’ve known him for many years, and I’ve never seen any of [the] things they’ve accused him of,” said Shimon Magen, a Los Angeles resident and close friend of Katsav. “He loves his family, is a decent human being, good hearted, and a God-fearing man.”
In April, Iranian Jewish leaders in Los Angeles said that a nonprofit group was set up on behalf of Katsav’s legal defense fund. Community leaders declined to comment on how much money was raised for Katsav’s attorney fees, but Magen said that he was frustrated with the lack of financial support for Katsav during the scandal.
“I was surprised that after members of our community were once fighting to be photographed with Moshe Katsav and shake hands with him—but now that he had fallen, no one was willing to come to his aid,” Magen said. “I haven’t spoken to him since his resignation, but he told me he was very upset that no one from our community stepped up to help him.”
Katsav’s ascension to the presidency nearly seven years ago was a source of tremendous pride for many Iranian Jews worldwide, as he was the first from the community to achieve such a high political office in any government. Ironically, the Iranian Jewish Woman’s Organization (IJWO), a Los Angeles-based social group, honored Katsav’s mother, Goher, last year for her success in raising Katsav to become a source of pride for Iranian Jewry worldwide.
For the past year, both Katsav and his legal team have vehemently denied his involvement in any sexual misconduct. His attorney, Avigdor Feldman, said Katsav only agreed to plead guilty for pragmatic reasons.
“We almost had to use force to persuade the president to plead guilty to the charges, because had he not done so, the prosecution would have filed an indictment including two rape charges,” Feldman said. “He would have been acquitted in the end, but he would have gone through the hell of a prolonged trial, media attention, media hullabaloo, sitting on the defendant’s dock and facing harsh and humiliating accusations.”
On June 28, Katsav’s son, Yisrael, told Israeli Channel 2 television reporters that Katsav’s acceptance of the plea bargain was not an admission of guilt by his father, but rather a decision to end the intense media scrutiny of their family life.
“We wanted our quiet, and that was the deciding factor in accepting the deal,” Yisrael Katsav said.
Nahai and other local Jewish legal experts said they are not convinced of the excuses Katsav and his attorneys made for accepting the plea bargain.
“I think the case against him must have been overwhelming and futile to defend against,” Nahai said. “An innocent person would have wanted to clear his name. Instead he will carry the stigma of being a sexual offender for the rest of his life.”
If convicted, Katsav would have faced a maximum sentence of three years in prison for obstruction of justice and a maximum of 16 years if convicted for rape, according to Israeli laws.
In a July 3 interview on Israeli Channel 2 television, Katsav still maintained his innocence and said he was a victim of a “campaign of incitement” and “false allegations.” In a January press conference, Katsav had said the Israeli media and his opponents were motivated by racism and had been trying to discredit him ever since his 2000 victory over Shimon Peres for the presidency.
Many of Katsav’s friends and supporters in the Iranian Jewish community said despite Katsav’s embarrassing exit from politics, they believe the majority of local Iranian Jews would still welcome the ex-president within their ranks.
“President Katsav is and will be held in the highest esteem in our community,” said Ebrahim Yahid, a West Los Angeles resident and 40-year close friend of Katsav.
“He is an outstanding individual who from a young age has been in public service in Israel and rose to the ranks of president; this is a great achievement for someone from our community,” Yahid said.
Leaders from the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation declined to comment on Katsav’s resignation. Calls made to Katsav’s attorneys in Israel and the IJWO in Los Angeles for comment were not returned.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: