Israeli lawyer Yoram Sheftel, who represented accused Nazi war criminal and Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk during his trial in the '80s, has long-been a polarizing figure in the country’s criminal justice system.
Sheftel is one of a handful of eccentric characters portrayed on Netflix’s new docu-series “The Devil Next Door,” which follows the twisting court case of the Cleveland grandfather accused of horrific crimes. So what exactly happened to Sheftel, a man who decided to do something his fellow countrymen thought of as a betrayal?
Sheftel, who helped Demjanjuk overturn his conviction — and prevented his hanging — after he had been found guilty of 900,000 counts of murder, shocked the country and Holocaust survivors around the world when he agreed to represent an alleged Nazi.
“I was the most hated man in the country, more than my client,” Sheftel said, Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network, reported in 2012, after Demjanjuk’s death.
Sheftel claimed he didn't believe his client was the notorious Nazi death camp guard he was accused of being.
“[Israelis] were being constantly brainwashed by the prosecution,” the attorney added. “Between the prosecution and the ‘cursed Israeli media’” the public could not help hating him.”
Sheftel certainly faced intense ire: In 1988, an elderly Holocaust survivor threw acid on Sheftel’s face for representing Demjanjuk. The 71-year-old man was later sentenced to three years in prison, according to the Associated Press.
Sheftel’s own mother had even blasted his decision to take on Demjanjuk’s case.
“He'll be convicted, and everyone will say you defended a monster,” his mother supposedly said, the New York Times reported in 1987.
The criminal defense attorney noted the case was a source of several agonizing family arguments.
“My mother thought I was insane,” Sheftel told Arutz Sheva. “We had a lot of fights.”
Sheftel also ruffled the feathers of Demjanjuk’s former attorney Mark O’Connor, who was fired by Demjanjuk just weeks before testifying. O’Connor, who reportedly blamed his departure on Sheftel, accused the Israeli lawyer of a “pattern of negligence and misconduct,” the Los Angeles Times reported. He even referred to the Israeli attorney as a manipulative “family enforcer.”
Demjanjuk was sentenced to hang in 1988. However, Shefter ultimately emerged victorious in the case, after Israel overturned Demjanjuk's conviction due to new evidence that arose suggesting Ivan the Terrible was a different Ukrainian.
In the decades since Demjanjuk's case, Sheftel, who’s also a popular radio talk show host in Israel, continues to agitate, incite, and divide.
He’s openly despised by many Israelis both for his flippant commentary, as well as the controversial cases he takes. The prominent criminal defense attorney openly refers to the press as “terrorists,” and on his radio show has called Arabs animals, anti-Semites, and Nazis, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
“This loathsome man sparks holy rage in Israel,” wrote journalist and author Gideon Levy in a separate opinion piece for Haaretz.
In 2017, Sheftel represented Elor Azaria, the young Israeli soldier who fatally shot an unarmed Palestinian man as he laid helpless on the ground during a 2016 skirmish in the West Bank, the New York Times reported. That case, too, struck a nerve amongst Israelis — and horrified human rights groups across the globe. Azaria, who spent nine months in prison, was paroled in 2018, according to the New York Times.
During the trial, Sheftel made headlines for insulting and fat-shaming an Israeli Defense Forces general, The Times of Israel reported.
“A person who is fat, like the chief of staff, does not display soldiery, and he is not an example for the entire army, in the way a chief of staff is supposed to be,” Sheftel said.
Instead, Sheftel likened the high-ranking military official’s appearance to that of a “file clerk.”
“The chief of staff could never pass an army fitness test,” he quipped. “I am at least 10 years older than the chief of staff. I run seven kilometers in 40 minutes five times a week. I want to see the chief of staff do the same.”
Most recently, Sheftel was spotted by local media supposedly attending a mass protest in support of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who's facing corruption charges in Israel.
Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home in 2012 appealing separate war crimes charges in Munich, where he was accused of being an accessory in the death of nearly 30,000 Jewish prisoners, The New York Times reported. His family, who defended him until his death, insisted he had "died a free man," and that in Germany, since his case was on appeal at the time of his death, he was never technically found guilty there either.
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