Breaking Israel's ultra-Orthodox Taboo on Discussing Sexual Abuse

Recent incidents highlight the increasing awareness in Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of the danger of sexual abuse and the necessity of finding communally acceptable ways to address it.

Yair Ettinger
Nir Hasson
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Yair Ettinger
Nir Hasson

Many questions still surround the alleged rape of a five-year-old girl in Modi’in Ilit, and it is too early to draw any conclusions. The source of the allegations that made a big splash last week was the supervisor of the kindergartens in the town. She told the police and interviewers from Channel 2 that she had made the whole thing up just in order to evoke a discussion within the ultra-Orthodox community, but that her story then got out of hand. However, her confession on TV contained a sentence from which it was inferred that the rape did take place. Officials in the ultra-Orthodox town hastened to call these charges one of the worst blood libels concocted against their community in many decades. Does this signal that future cases of sexual abuse will continue to be swept under the carpet? Did the alleged rape case help or hinder the opening up of the circle of silence?

Attorney Rivka Schwartz is convinced that last week’s events removed a brick from the community's wall of silence. Several months ago, Schwartz established a first-of-its kind organization called “Min Hameitzar” ("From the Depths") that provides support and legal assistance to victims of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“The public debate that arose in the community is far more important than the issue of whether the incident took place or not," she says. “The fact that this was talked about in every house in the town is a huge achievement. The discussion may have happened without a real victim, but it evoked many other real cases. People suddenly remembered stories about some yeshiva teacher who did this or that. The multiple stories that surfaced emboldened others to speak out, and hopefully will also lead to filing of charges. From my perspective that's a big accomplishment." Schwartz says that many people were angry following the complaint, claiming that “it only brought about a witch hunt atmosphere. However, people didn’t hide, and next time something happens they won’t hesitate to report it."

Menachem Roth, who completed his film "Pursued" last year, says that “noise in these cases is good. It shakes things up and leads to open discussion, which is the most important thing." His film deals with sexual abuse he suffered as a boy in an insular ultra-Orthodox community. His film will be screened on Channel 10 next month. Both Roth and Schwartz say that public discussion of sex abuse in this community is stymied by politicization and generalizations. Last week, several media outlets, basing their information on several non-profit organizations, reported that sexual abuse is more prevalent in ultra-Orthodox communities. In 2012, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services reported that it dealt with 2,400 cases of sexual abuse against children aged 12 or under. According to the ministry's deputy director general Menachem Wagshal, 150 of these cases were treated at a unique center designated for ultra-Orthodox victims, dealing with children from Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit and El’ad. The ministry says that the number of cases opened in these cities is comparable, in proportion to population size, to the number of cases in other cities.

Various activists who deal with sex abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community clarify that the attempt to compare between the general population and the ultra-Orthodox population serves no real purpose and diverts the debate from its main focus.

"We aren't in competition," says Schwartz. "We aren't looking to make comparisons. It doesn't interest anyone. Here there are more children. It's not proportional, so it's not the right method of comparison." Schwartz's says instead that there is a need "to deal with the unique problems of ultra-Orthodox victims."

There is strong taboo in ultra-Orthodox society against addressing sex crimes. Schwartz is active on ultra-Orthodox online social networks. While on them this past week, she read words written by some ultra-Orthodox colleagues passionately defending applying the principle in Jewish religious law of "din moser," which forbids betraying Jews to secular authorities, to prevent victims from complaining to the police about sex crimes. If such a debate is brewing among the media savvy segment of ultra-Orthodox society, what would rank and file ultra-Orthodox, those who don't have access to non-religious media outlets, the Internet or wider secular society, say?

In a slow process, awareness of the danger of sexual crimes in ultra-Orthodox communities has increased in recent years. More and more, rabbis and modesty patrols, especially in the cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, are cooperating with police and social services. This year, a book was added to the curriculum in Haredi girls' schools to raise awareness of sexual abuse and sexual assault with the idea that is preferable to be on the side of caution.

However, raising awareness of sex crimes is a long and complex process and a sense of fear among crime victims remains. The difficulty ultra-Orthodox society has with dealing with cases of sexual assault against children has come to the fore in a court case that has come to a close in recent days.

This was the first case that tried someone accused of pedophilia in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot that was at the center of a pedophilia scandal last year. The scandal was branded as it unfolded the largest case of pedophilia in Israeli history and along the way increased the awareness among the ultra-Orthodox public of the dangers of pedophilia in its community. At the height of the scandal, neighborhood residents claimed that no fewer than 200 neighborhood children had been harmed by a sophisticated ring of pedophiles operating in the neighborhood. The police arrested 15 neighborhood residents on suspicion of having been involved in various sexual acts with minors. But soon enough it became clear that the testimonies of children taken by youth investigators were not reliable enough to be used in court and most of the suspects were released. In the end, indictments were filed against only three suspects. One of the suspects, Binyamin Satz, was convicted last week with committing indecent acts with minors, three counts of sodomy with children. The cases against the remaining two suspects are still ongoing.

The defendants' lawyers as well as various people living in the neighborhood have raised the possibility that most if not all of the supposed pedophilia cases in the neighborhood were actually the result of a mass panic and not actual attacks. According to these people, an insular society like the ultra-Orthodox community in Nahlaot didn't know how to deal with the phenomenon of potential child abuse and was dragged into a witch-hunt that ensnared innocent people. On the other hand, many parents of the children who filed complaints feel that the police didn't understand the codes of conduct in the community and, consequently, didn't find the children's testimony to be reliable. Some parents also claim that because the community is a very insular and conservative one, the children could not have fabricated testimony describing various acts of sexual abuse on their own and, thus, they should be believed.

Schwartz, who became an accredited lawyer only half a year ago, became acquainted with cases of severe sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community during her internship with the State Prosecutor's Office and after a friend broke her own silence and confessed to her that she had been the victim of sexual abuse.

"After years of familiarity with this area, my theory is that many ultra-Orthodox commit these acts because they are unaware that a specific act is a crime and because a lack of awareness of the punishments associated with these crimes," says Schwartz. In her words, ultra-Orthodox society is not aware enough of the relation between crime and punishment.

"In the secular world, there is a crime, there's a criminal, he's caught and punished and the news is relayed through newspapers and television," says Schwartz. "The message is clear. In the ultra-Orthodox community, the media doesn't report [such crimes]. There's no newspaper or other place to hear about what happened to some ultra-Orthodox person who committed a crime even if they were punished, no one knows what happened to them. The neighbors think that they moved abroad. One of the goals of punishment is deterrence, but there is none in the ultra-Orthodox public. There is always someone will hide things."

Schwartz believes that this difference is significant. "[A situation] has been created where people are ignorant of the punishment. An ultra-Orthodox person who commits a crime because of a momentary impulse says to themself that it's their own problem and that will find a way to square things with God. He doesn't know how serious [his crime] is in this world, that there is also someone here who can punish him."

Roth has a different view of the problem.

"The media is too focused on how the ultra-Orthodox are different in their treatment of sexual abuse victims but forget that there is we have a lot in common [with secular society]," says Roth. "Every victimized child's parent has to deal with their own confusion and difficulty coming to terms with what has happened. It crosses all sectors of society."

On the other hand, Roth adds, "Ultra-Orthodox people's problems are in the community framework. A large portion of ultra-Orthodox communities don't know how to address these kinds of things. That's why it's important to reinforce the parents' sense of responsibility, so they know that some important rabbis say it's obligatory to file a complaint with the police. At the same time, children also need to be aware never to keep secrets. This is the strongest means of defense, to give tools to the children."  

Ultra Orthodox men walking at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Attorney Rivka Schwartz established a first-of-its kind organization that provides legal assistance to victims of sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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