Yisrael Valis: Two Versions of a Story
by Sarah Shapiro
On April 10th, Erev Pesach, an appalling news item appeared in The Jerusalem Post:
The Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office on Sunday filed an indictment against a 19-year-old father on the day a medical team at Hadassah-University Hospital, Ein Kerem, declared the baby, whom he had severely beaten, clinically dead.
Without my realizing it, the wording, “whom he had severely beaten” established instantly in my mind that there was no question so far as the facts were concerned: a father had beaten his baby and the baby had died. The article went on to inform us that the man was “charged with abuse and violence of a minor or helpless person, causing severe injury, and faced a maximum sentence of nine years in jail.” Of course he should go to jail, I thought with disgust. “There were “signs of violence on the baby’s body,” the report continued, “including teeth marks.” With horror and indignation, I wondered what in the world was going on with the baby’s mother, to have entrusted their newborn to her psychopathic spouse.
During questioning by police, the father at first denied that he had deliberately hurt the infant. He said he had tried to calm him down and that the baby had slipped from his hands. Afterwards, however, he admitted that he had bitten the baby in the face, pinched him in the neck and chest and slapped him because the baby’s cries wouldn’t let him sleep….On the night the baby lost consciousness, the father allegedly slapped him and shook him violently. The baby slipped out of his hands and his head struck a wall.
As Pesach approached, each morning’s headlines about the case produced fresh dismay and new disgust, and for me as an Orthodox Jew, a personal sense of shame. “Police in Jerusalem,” I read “are preparing for possible violent protests over their refusal to release a young ultra-Orthodox man charged with the killing of his three-month-old baby boy.” Didn’t my haredi brethren differentiate between the guilty and the innocent? And if the young man was mentally ill – which seemed likely, given such bizarre, savage behavior — wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to acknowledge the reality and help him and his family on that basis?
Someone showed me a cartoon of the father from a secular Israeli website. There was the face that had by then become familiar, with its straight, dark eyebrows and long curled payos. The cartoonist portrayed him sitting inside a baby’s crib in a pool of blood, a pacifier in his mouth, eyes shut nonchalantly in blithe self-absorption. It looked like something from Der Sturmer.
One morning a few days after the end of Pesach, an elderly woman in Yerushalmi black scarf and shawl was sitting in the visitor’s chair when I arrived at the hospital to see a post-operative friend. My friend, who lives in Mea Shearim, was conversing with the woman in Yiddish, and told her that I write for various papers.
The visitor, whose broad, placid face had until now borne a faint smile of aristocratic serenity, turned a penetrating gaze my way. Switching to Hebrew, she asked starkly, “Why not something about the young man in prison?”
“The young man in prison? You mean the one who…”
“You know him?”
“I know him well.”
“All right, I will. If you can put me in touch with the family.”
Which is how I was introduced to relatives and neighbors of the father in question. What follows is the other side of the story.
One night while his wife was working late Erev Pesach, Yisrael was taking care of their three-month-old newborn and the baby was crying. The father had been trying for some time to calm him, and lying down on his bed, lifted the baby up over his head and was moving him forward and back when — dozing off for an instant, or from sheer carelessness – he dropped the baby. The baby’s head struck the wall in back of the headboard before he fell down into the corner next to the bed, hitting his head again.
When the father saw that the infant’s head was bruised and bleeding and that he had lost consciousness, he panicked and ran across the hall to the neighbors but no one answered. He ran back to his apartment and called Magen David Adom. Communication was difficult. The father’s mother tongue is Yiddish; in his Yerushalmi community, Yiddish, not modern Hebrew, is the language used in daily life. It was highly unusual for him to interact with anyone from the secular world.
They told him on the phone to try pinching the baby and slapping it to awaken him, which he tried, desperately, to no avail.
On the way to the hospital, in the ambulance, he wanted to tell the medics what happened, that he had been rocking the baby, which in Yiddish is: vigen, but Yisrael used the Hebrew word, tittul, which connotes not “rocking,” as in rocking a cradle, but rather, a strong shaking motion. He wanted to say that when he dropped the baby, the baby got a knock on the head. In Hebrew, this should be, “Hu kibel maka,” he received a knock,” but he mistakenly said, “Natati lo maka,” “I gave him a knock.” He wanted to tell them the baby had not been able to get his breath, from crying so hard, but used the word in Hebrew, titalef, which meant that the baby had fainted. They were surprised and said, “Really? He fainted?” and he answered, “No it wasn’t unusual, it happens to him a lot.”
By the time they arrived at the hospital, the medics were already suspicious that this was an abuse case and alerted the doctors on duty to be on the lookout for the predictable signs. The first to examine the baby was an Arab doctor who had recently dealt with a case of undetected abuse, and was thus being especially vigilant.
In the meantime, the hospital had alerted the police, who arrived at the hospital and took Yisrael into a separate area for interrogation. Yisraelwas freely expressing his distress over his guilt, and was eager to answer their questions -– anything he could do to help the doctors determine the right treatment. After a few hours he was released, and allowed to join his wife and baby in the emergency room, but at 10 a.m. was summoned back for further police interrogation, and from then on, until his release from prison more than a week later, he was denied any communication whatsoever with anyone other than the police. At first, he didn’t grasp that he was under suspicion, and spoke freely in his imperfect Hebrew of his guilt for what had happened. Comprehension of Yiddish and Hebrew continued to be a problem for both him and the police.
Meanwhile, back in the emergency room, among the other relatives who were already at the hospital with H. was a first cousin of the baby’s mother, E., in her early thirties. She and her husband, Z., a close friend and chavrusa of Yisrael, later described to me the condition of the baby upon being brought to the hospital: he had a bad bruise on the forehead and on the top of his head.
I asked if there had been any signs of violence on the body.
They shook their heads.“We didn’t see anything like that,” the cousin said.“When we talked about it later, and were trying to figure out if maybe they [the doctor and the police] really saw something, we thought maybe from the pinching they told him to do to wake the baby up. Maybe there was something from that, but none of us noticed anything. They took an X-ray and said there was a small amount of blood outside the brain cavity but they wouldn’t do anything right away; they would let the baby go through the night, then see what to do in the morning. My mother and I kept asking them to do tipulim of some kind, but they said no, it was unnecessary. They would wait until the morning, then take another X-ray. Once they saw what his condition was, then they would determine what treatment was needed, if any. In the morning, when they took the X-ray, they saw that the brain cavity had filled with blood.”
I asked Z. how the story came about that there were teeth-marks on the baby’s body. He said: “Dr. Yisrael was the doctor in the hospital who told the press in the morning that there were signs of violence. Later on, he denied having said that.”
It was reported later in Haaretz that Dr. Yehuda Hiss examined the baby on April 11, a day before he died. and wrote, “There is no evidence of injuries.”
A female police interrogator was speaking to Yisrael. She told him they knew that he had lost his temper and beaten the baby and that he should confess. Shocked, uncomprehending, Yisrael denied it. She insisted. At some point -– this was about 3 a.m. — she rose and laid hands on him, shaking him. He pulled away. She was yelling, close to his face, that he might as well admit what he had done, that he had thrown the baby against the wall. She said there were teeth marks on the body and signs of violence, and that he should confess. He kept denying that he had done anything on purpose and she kept telling him to admit it, that he knew and they knew what he’d done. She said they knew that the reason he didn’t want to confess was that he didn’t want his family to know the truth, but his family already knew. She said, “Don’t think you’re going home after this because you don’t have a home to go back to anymore. Your parents don’t want to see you, and your wife says she’s finished with you.”
The female officer continued yelling at him and demanding that he tell the truth. until someone entered the interrogation room and greeted him warmly in Yiddish. He said he had been appointed by the family to help, that he knew Yisrael’s family and had grown up in the Yerushalmi community. For Yisrael, it was as if an angel had appeared. In a lengthy conversation, he gave Yisrael to understand that he was on his side, and said, “All you have to do is confess and then you can get out of here in two hours and see your wife and baby.”
Yisrael said he couldn’t confess to something he didn’t do; he didn’t want lies coming out of his mouth. The Yiddish-speaking man, who was actually a police officer in civilian garb, said, “OK, then, you can just write it down.”
“I wouldn’t know what to write.”
“I’ll help you.”
It took time –- eight hours of interrogation -– but Yisrael (who had not slept now for thirty six hours) said finally, “All right. I’ll do it.” The policeman told him to describe in detail how he had often beaten and abused the baby when the crying deprived him of sleep, that he had beaten his wife, and that he was ashamed of the baby because he had a birth defect.
Yisrael wrote as instructed. After a while, he looked up and said, “You know none of this is true.”
The officer said, “Don’t worry.”
After a while, Yisrael said, “I can’t lie anymore.”
The man said, “It’s all right. That’s enough.”
“All right, so take me to the baby,” said Yisrael. “Where’s my wife?”.
He was handcuffed and jailed. The first time his wife and family were allowed to see him was at his first court appearance, but they weren’t allowed to speak with him. Z. said that when he saw Yisrael, he stepped forward to talk to him and was pushed away by police guards.
H. called out to her husband across the room, “Don’t worry! We know you didn’t do what they’re saying! What happened is min ha shamayim! [a decree from Above.]”
The police wanted to give Yisrael’s name to the press, but a judge ruled that the name could not be publicized until the baby actually died, so the police requested a document from the hospital that the baby was brain-dead. The document, however, was not accepted by the court as proof of death, so release of the name was delayed until the baby died.
Yisrael, still in jail –- was informed in this manner: someone said to him, “Now you can be happy, you got what you wanted. Your son is dead.”
Yisrael was not allowed to attend the funeral. Without being told why, he was led from his cell, brought to a room, and the baby’s body, in a shroud, was brought before him. The father said kaddish.
Had I not interviewed people who were personally involved in the above events, I would have simply believed what I’d read about the father in question. For people to suggest that there could be more to the story would have struck me as wishful thinking and self-deception, or intentional cover-up.
If your reputation or mine, God forbid, or anyone’s in our families, were being destroyed in public, we would want our fellow Jews to exercise the self-discipline and wisdom to know we don’t know. The only way to become worthy of such mercy is to extend it to others, reserving judgment in the privacy of our own minds.
A typical set-up job–bad cop, good cop. This story has the ring of truth to it.
At the risk of sounding heartless, is anything being done to prevent the next misunderstanding between Magen David Adom and members of the Yiddish speaking community? Being able to communicate symptoms, etc. with the medics could save a patient’s life.
Maybe there should be a 24/7 rotation of translators, who will do this as Gmilut Chasadim and Pikuach Nefesh.
Just for your information:
The EMT’s who treated him at the scene were Hareidi. They were members of Hatzolah. The ambulance driver (head of crew) lives in Bayit Vegan and has a long beard and a big black yarmulke on his head.
When that information is digested, the ‘miscommunication’ with MDA sounds a bit less likely than if MDA EMT’s were earring wearing Hiloni people who dislike Haredim.
One of the witnesses for the *prosecution* was a haredi EMT who asked the Father what happened to the child, and he was told that he turned over in bed and accidentaly pushed the child into the wall. Please note that this was not a Hiloni testifying – rather, one of the fellow Hareidim of the accused. It may be that he was scared to tell the truth due to fear of his Mother in Law (whom he surely feared much more than the zionist police), but there are still gaps in the story.
The protocol of the court case is available online, and one thing that must be said is that Mr. Vallis has a top-notch lawyer. This is evident simply by reading the protocol – his lawyer is far better than the prosecution. The prosecution has not yet brought their witnesses, but unless they have rock solid proof, there is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Vallis will be found innoccent.
Links to the court protocol (Hebrew):
Tomorrow is to be the third day.
Thank for taking the time to research and present the family’s point of view.
It sounds strange to me that he was instructed by MDA to slap and pinch a bleeding, injured baby. Are there recordings of the telephone conversation or witnesses willing to testify that he was instructed to do so?
It seems probable that if there were signs of pinching and physical blows the prosecutors would claim he attacked the child out of frustration and anger at his incessant crying, before his excessive rocking sent the poor baby flying against the wall.
The confession sounds as if it would be dismissed by any reasonable court, and I do not know how I would react under similar pressures, but why would anyone think that lying and admitting he’d committed a serious crime, possibly murder, would help his situation? There is a serious fault in his personality, upbringing, and education if he could be so foolish and shortsighted.
The chareidi community of Meah Shearim, at least according to their wall posters, viewed this event as an attack on their insular way of life, “against the holiness of our community.” They framed it as part of a larger attempt to infiltrate their community and force social changes or the like.
If they are producing individuals who may be unable to properly manage their anger and frustration, or perhaps even worse, and yet are completely unwilling to deal with these problems, this is a very disturbing issue.
Furthermore, the community’s reaction to the perceived “blood libel” was violent and destructive of city property that I must pay for with my taxes, and completely indefensible.
I think SephardiLady made the best comment I’ve seen: “If you’re tired and frustrated at all the crying, put the baby down and go into another room.” (Not exact quote). That is something practical we can all learn from this, and teach to our children.
Causing pain to discover if somebody is conscious is a standard part of first aid. However, there are specific places and ways in which you’re supposed to do so, to make sure you don’t hurt them further. AFAIK, slapping is never part of it – and pinching is supposed to be done in specific places.
With all due respect, this is not a credible counter narrative to the news stories. The police and hospital have no agenda, contrary to the underlying insinuations and the outright charges that they intend to make the chareidi community look bad. The father does have an agenda, to clear himself of serious charges and to stay out of jail. The community has an agenda – to whitewash its reputation. Sarah writes a heart rending story — but if it is based on interviews, where are the references to who said what to her? Weaving this together as a seamless narrative does no service to the cause of getting to the truth. It makes the story sound like just that – a pathetic story.
As I suggested previously, what we see here is an example of why confessions are viewed as almost inherently unreliable by the Anglo-American legal syste,-especially under stress, anxiety and in the absence of counsel. We also see that someone on the medical staff con concocted evidence of abuse when none was present. As more and more details unfold, the prosecution’s case herein seems more and more shaky and approximating a rapidly developing and collapsing house of cards. Once again, the secular press enjoyed a feeding frenzy on this story in a manner completely similar to the claim that the IDF, as opposed to Hamas laid land mines, caused “civilian casualties” in Gaza.
WADR, it would seem to me that Haaretz gave one side of the story, Mrs Shapiro is to be credited for giving the other side of the story (unfortunately in a smaller venue). However, it seems from the reporting that the Chareidi masses are convinced of the second camp, that a history of confrontation with the police convinced them that in this case, the father must be innocent. Down to rioting at the injustice of arresting and arraigning him. And yet, it reads like the police themselves are the only one who haven’t taken sides.
I don’t know if Sarah Shapiro was told the truth – certainly this version of events is plausable – and I won’t rule out the possibility that the baby was killed exactly as Sarah’s sources say.
However, I do know two things: (1) Dropping a baby off a bed would not cause the sort of injuries reported here. A three-month old’s head is still soft, as a form of natural protecction against this exactly. (2) Criminal defense lawyers make their living concoting exactly the sort of story Sarah tells here.
Again, I wish to reiterate that I don’t know what happened, and that I refuse to say that Yisroel Valis killed his child. But given that the community and the family have an agenda the police don’t share (as Tvee pointed out) and, also, given that the injuries don’t match the accident I don’t think Sarah’s story is exculpatory.
A jury needs to hear all the facts and make a decision. Until that happenes the media and the blogs should wait patiently, and resist the urge to muddy the waters and escalate the bad blood with absurd allegations against the media, the police, or the Eduth Haredi community.
I don’t have the full protocol in front of me, but from todays court hearing it seems that the Police lied to the press.
Basically, according to the police, the father admitted his guilt to one person – a police officer by the name of Brikman – the fellow mentioned in article above. He did not admit guilt to anyone else. Only to Brikman. When interrogated by the policewoman, he denied everything, and that is all written up in the police report.
After he admitted his guilt to Brikman, the policewoman was interviewed by the press (TV, radio, newspaper), and she told them that the Father told her that the child was born with a disability, and ‘he didn’t want him’.
It seems that the Father said no such thing, and she made up the statement in order to smear the father. Additionally, she claimed that the ‘she couldn’t handle hearing the Fathers description [of beating his child]’.
Unfortunately for her, not only could she not handle it – she never heard it at all, and she admitted that fact on the witness stand.
Info from part of the protocol found here:
As I said before – his lawyer is VERY good. Should anyone ever need a good criminal lawyer in Israel, look him up – and win the lottery in order to pay for him.
You can say that a three-month-old baby wouldn’t have these injuries from an accidental fall, but one of Israel’s leading neurosurgeons says otherwise.
As the writer of the above article, I would like to respond to some of the comments in order of their appearance:
Ori Pomerantz, in # 2, asks: “[Is] anything being done to prevent the next misunderstanding between Magen David Adom and members of the Yiddish speaking community?”
I appreciate her prescience. In relation not only to the particular problem of communication but also to the incident as a whole, one of the neighbors whom I interviewed, a middle-aged mother, said, “You know why we’re so angry about this? Because now people will be scared to call an ambulance when something happens.”
In regard to comment #3, by Moshe, that “the EMT’s who treated him at the scene were Hareidi” and “’miscommunication’ with MDA sounds a bit less likely than if MDA EMT’s were earring wearing Hiloni people who dislike Haredim.”
One of those on the Magen David ambulance team that night, who suspected Yisrael Valis of abuse, was an eighteen-year-old haredi girl who speaks no Yiddish.
From what I could gather within the limited scope of personal interviews, it appears that on the night of the baby’s injury, there were honest misunderstandings, misperceptions and missteps from the outset, across the board.
Moshe continues that “one of the witnesses for the prosecution was a haredi EMT who asked the Father what happened to the child, and he was told that he turned over in bed and accidentaly pushed the child into the wall.”
With allowances for mistranslation, this is basically consistent with what members of the family told me. My guess, though, is that in his panic, Yisrael Valis might not have been completely sure himself exactly how it happened that he dropped his baby.
Moshe speculates: “It may be that he was scared to tell the truth due to fear of his Mother in Law (whom he surely feared much more than the zionist police)…”
Though I am aware (as a mother-in-law) that we are a feared species, the mother-in-law of Yisrael Valis is reportedly not his adversary. What I was told is that the couple had stayed in her home after the birth, and that she supports her son-in-law and does not suspect him of fabrication.
David, in question #5, asks “why would anyone think that lying and admitting he’d committed a serious crime, possibly murder, would help his situation?”
This was my question, too, which I asked repeatedly during interviews. Signing a false confession would seem, on the face of it, to have been an act of inexplicable stupidity.
Their response was that because Yisrael Valis was being forbidden during the all-night police interrogation from seeing his son (or the rest of his family), he was swayed by the assurance by the Yiddish-speaking officer that all he had to do was confess and he would be released. The family also told me that Yisrael Valis, age 19, was a young man who had little if any experience with the outside world, and was admittedly naïve. They said that 36 hours without rest — sleep deprivation is, of course, a regular feature of police interrogation – also played a part, increasing his vulnerability. We can assume that many of us would not be at our most coherent under such circumstances.
David continues: “Furthermore, the community’s reaction to the perceived ‘blood libel’ was violent and destructive of city property that I must pay for with my taxes, and completely indefensible.”
Personally, I agree that violent demonstrations on behalf of Orthodox causes usually achieve nothing but a grave chillul Hashem, and harm whatever cause is being championed. It should be noted that the rabbis who protested the “blood libel” beseeched the demonstrators to cease from such actions, and that the Valis family sent cars around the neighborhood with loudspeakers asking demonstrators to disperse. These requests were ignored.
As was the case with the anti-Shobbos-desecration demonstrations on Jerusalem’s Bar Ilan Street a decade or so ago, those haredim who participate in violent demonstrate are often boys and young men who seem motivated in large part (not unlike soccer fans) by the desire to show up in force and cheer for their team.
Tzvee in comment #7 writes that the police and hospital have no agenda. Not having spoken to any of these people, I have nothing but unsubstantiated guesses on this score. But I can see where both parties might feel the need to justify their actions – the hospital for steadfastly resisting the family’s pleas for immediate medical care upon the baby’s arrival at the hospital, and the police for their behavior during the interrogation.
Micha, in comment #9, says: “[It] seems from the reporting that the Chareidi masses are convinced…that…the father must be innocent.”
This is far from my impression. While the Yerushalmi community of Yisrael Valis is convinced of his innocence, other Orthodox people whom I’ve spoken to — while refraining from explicit pronouncements of guilt — seem to have inwardly believed what they read in the papers, as I did myself.
Yosef, in #10, writes: “I don’t know if Sarah Shapiro was told the truth.”
Either do I. All I can say is that the people I spoke to struck me as truthful.
“However,” he continues, “I do know two things: (1) Dropping a baby off a bed would not cause the sort of injuries reported here. A three-month old’s head is still soft, as a form of natural protecction against this exactly.”
The family’s opinion is that on the contrary, it might have been precisely on account of the softness of the head that the injuries proved so serious.
Yosef also writes: “(2) Criminal defense lawyers make their living concoting exactly the sort of story Sarah tells here.”
That may well be so. But in this case, the story I heard came from family members, not lawyers.
Sarah Shapiro, June 28, 2006
You can say that a three-month-old baby wouldn’t have these injuries from an accidental fall, but one of Israel’s leading neurosurgeons says otherwise.
Rabbi Menken, forgive me, but I see nothing about Israel’s leading neurosurgeon at the website you directed me to. Anyway, isn’t this a question for a forensic laboratory, rather than a neurosurgeon? A neurosurgeon treats traumatic head injuries. He doesn’t tell us how they happened.
I’m curious as to this 19 year old Hareidi girl EMT who spoke no yiddish.
As an EMT, this sounds very fishy. I don’t know of _ANY_ Haredi EMT 19 year old girls/
I did not see any 19 year old Haredi girl mentioned in the transcript.
Moreover, I know the ambulance driver in question. The fact that you claim he had a 19 year old Haredi girl in his crew is laughable.
I cannot deny that there may have been additional ambulance crews who arrived – that had a 19 year old NON-HAREDI girl, but at the scene, there were plenty of EMT’s who could speak yiddish. If you don’t know how to speak in Hebrew, it makes sense to talk in yiddish to the people who understand yiddish
The Magen David assistant who was in the ambulance that night is a friend of the daughter of my post-operative friend (mentioned in my article) through whom I eventually met relatives of Yisrael Valis.
I have her name. She belongs to Chabad and doesn’t speak Yiddish.
Your point is well-taken. Though she was described to me as “haredi,” her presence as an employee in a Magen David ambulance would probably set her in the “modern Orthodox” category.
Magen David ordinarily employs young people — both male and female — to help with the patients. This in not in contradiction to the fact that the driver was haredi.