Dismissal of Nili Shamrat fuels controversy

Nili+Shamrat
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Dismissal of Nili Shamrat fuels controversy

Nili Shamrat

Nili Shamrat

Nili Shamrat

Nili Shamrat

Lexi Gelb, Editor-In-Chief

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The Shalhevet community said goodbye to Hebrew teacher Nili Shamrat March 3 after almost 10 years of service to the high school. She was let go after being convicted of receiving stolen property and sentenced to five years’ probation and 300 hours of community service. 

In an emotional Town Hall on March 4, students had an opportunity to air their feelings about the matter. Ms. Shamrat – universally called Nili – was not present.“What can we do to present a more balanced and accurate view of her and her reputation?” asked Agenda Chair Jeremy Lowe at the start of the meeting. In addition to teaching Hebrew to ninth and 10th graders, Nili ran the Koreh L.A. program, in which students mentor kids at Carthay Elementary School once a week. 

Nili Shamrat

 

“Nili is the heart of Koreh L.A.,” said sophomore Scott Rad, who has done Koreh L.A. for two years. “Without her, it won’t be the same.”

Jeremy was speaking generally, but he was also alluding specifically to an article that had run on the front page of the LAExtra section of the Los Angeles Times the previous day, which some felt was sensationalist and biased.

“We should flood the LA Times with letters expressing our outrage for ruining a person’s life,” said math and chemistry teacher Mr. Christopher Buckley, who promptly sat back down.

“The article was completely prejudiced and they made her look foolish,” he expanded later in the session. “They didn’t get quotes from people on both sides of the argument. They didn’t even mention that she was a teacher, or that she had a PhD.”

According to the Times and other news reports, Nili inherited a collection of over 100 clocks from her late husband, Na’aman Diller, a long-sought Israeli thief who had stolen them from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. One timepiece, a pocket watch made for Marie Antoinette, was valued by the museum officials at more than $30 million. 

 The Times article also stated that Nili had tried to sell the merchandise back to the museum. Other news reports, including artdaily.org and huffingtonpost.com, said she had tried to collect money the museum had offered as a reward. 

A week later at the next Town Hall, Mr. Buckley read a letter Nili had written to the school in which she told parts of the story herself. She said Mr. Diller committed the heist before they met, and that she had no knowledge of the crime until his last year of life, when he was suffering from bone cancer and found it difficult to communicate. Shortly before he died, he told her to return the items to the museum, she said, but she didn’t know they were stolen.

“What has been called a criminal conviction against me is misleading,” she wrote. “I was found with a few items that happened to be stolen, which I inherited from my deceased husband… The whole story is horrible. It is a tragedy.”  

The government of Israel was embarrassed at not having solved the crime, she said, and therefore pressured the U.S. to obtain a conviction. She said she could not afford to pay for a lengthy court defense, so she pleaded guilty in exchange for a very light sentence.

“My story falls under the category of ‘no good deeds go unpunished,’” she wrote in her letter.

A press release from the California Insurance Commissioner’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said that though Nili and Diller had met briefly in the 1970s, they were not in touch again until many years after the 1983 heist.

According to artdaily.org, her Los Angeles lawyer called Nili “a misguided victim.”

“It was her ex-husband’s deathbed actions that placed her in this position,” said attorney Jeff Rubenstein, according to the internet art website. (www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=11&int_new=36620) 

On March 4, many students shared sentiments of nostalgia with the room.

“One day, I was really sick and my mom couldn’t take me home, and Nili offered to give me a ride home,” said freshman Nate Erez. “I took her up on the offer. She lived all the way in Tarzana, it was completely out of the way.”

Head of School Rabbi Weinbach said he was not at liberty to discuss the incident, either in Town Hall or privately, due to possible legal ramifications, although he chipped in occasionally with points of information.

But he did explain that the discussion would not constitute as lashon harah because the information being discussed was considered public knowledge [see related story, at right]. He wanted the community to be able to openly discuss their feelings, and to clear up any misinformation surrounding the incident. 

Shalhevet’s founding philosophy is that moral development can be taught, which for some created an interesting lens through which to view Nili’s affiliation with the school.

“Some people are saying that because Shalhevet is a moral school, we had to let her go, but it’s actually the opposite,” said freshman Leora Nimmer. “We know Nili was a good person and a good teacher, no matter what other people say. As a moral school, the right choice would have been to let her stay.”

“We have the option of treating her like a child or like an adult,” countered senior Trevor Brandt-Sarif. “When you’re a child and you’ve done something wrong, you might get time-out for a few minutes, but people will say, ‘Oh, we all know you’re a good kid. We know you didn’t mean it.’ When you’re an adult and you do something wrong, there are real consequences for your actions. We should be treating Nili like an adult.”

The Boiling Point called Nili for comment and she said she was too busy to talk.  In her letter to the school, she said she wanted to “clarify a few things, because you are all so important to me… You all know how much I have invested in each one of you.”

She went on to say that the LA Times article contained “many severe inaccuracies.”

“Many of the misleading details in the press make for a sexy story, but are not exactly true,” she wrote. “You know that the way I am portrayed in the article bears little resemblance to who I am.”

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