Awareness of sexual abuse within ultra-Orthodox communities has risen over the past decade, after years of disregard and silence, according to a recent report by the Israeli Democracy Institute obtained by Haaretz.
According to the new report, over the past decade reports of sexual assault to the welfare authorities in ultra-Orthodox cities have spiked. The number of files opened in cases of violence or sexual offenses in all ultra-Orthodox cities together was only 0.15 per 1,000 children in 2000. In 2010, it rose to 1.5 per 1,000 children and in 2019 – 3.7 per 1,000 children.
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In the same period, in non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities the figure in the first decade of 2000 rose from 1.5 to 3 per 1,000 children, and thereafter to 6.2 children. Among Arab communities the figures decline in this period from 6.1 to 1.1 victims per 1,000 children.
This trend is unique to the realm of sexual and other violence toward children. In other categories of violence, the number of people receiving treatment by social services over the past decade did not increase in the ultra-Orthodox or any other community.
According to Ariel Finkelstein of the Israel Democracy Institute, who conducted the study, the figures do not necessarily attest to a rise in the number of sexual offenses in ultra-Orthodox cities, but rather, they attest to a positive trend in that society – reporting as opposed to silencing.
"The rise in reporting is due to a new willingness to be helped and get treatment to stop the damage,” Finkelstein says. “The high rate of sexual offenses reported in Ultra-Orthodox cities stands out particularly in comparison to the almost non-existent rate in Arab society, which is also considered a closed society. Especially considering the fact that in-depth research shows that the rate of sexual offenses in Arab society in Israel is higher than in the Jewish community.”
Until 2013, there was no separate category for sexual offenses against children in city welfare departments, and such cases were filed under violence against children. However, most files involve sexual offenses and so, categorizing them separately provides the best indication of a trend in this realm. Today, out of every 1,000 children in a given Haredi community 3.29 are treated by the social services due to sexual offenses against them, as opposed to 1.98 children in non-Haredi Jewish communities and 0.69 per 1,000 children in Arab communities.
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The analysis of Finkelstein’s figures shows that in most Haredi cities the number of child victims of sexual offenses treated by the welfare authorities is presumably higher than reported. In Bnei Brak for example, the largest Haredi city in Israel – only 2 out of 1,000 children are clients of the welfare authorities due to sexual offenses.
In the Haredi cities of Elad and Modi’in Ilit, approximately 4 children per 1,000 are in treatment for sexual assault, in Kiryat Yearim and Immanuel, approximate 4.5 and in Betar Ilit 5.6 per 1,000. In 2020, in all Haredi cities together 740 children were defined as needing treatment in the area of sexual offenses against them.
Finkelstein reiterates that the figures do not show that the Haredi society necessarily has a higher rate of sexual offenses than the general population. “The number of cases in the social services' system also reflects the confidence each group has in the system, and it’s clear that in every group the rate of sexual offenses is several times the numbers that social services have,” he said.
The report states that the extent of sexual offenses is difficult to measure because most of the victims do not want to come forward. But studies in Israel and abroad show that the phenomenon of sexual violence against children and teens is greater than welfare officials know. “Even less is known about sexual offenses in the Haredi community because of its closed nature and the tendency to silence and repress reporting,” Finkelstein says in his study.
"Unofficial reports indicate that the extent of sexual offenses in Haredi society is as high as general society if not higher.” The latter conclusion is based on Israel Prisons Service figures showing that the number of ultra-Orthodox prisoners convicted of sex crimes is greater than their percentage in the population.
The figures indicating a rise in reporting to the welfare authorities corresponds with descriptions given by welfare officials in Haredi cities. The social services administration in the Modi’in Ilit municipality published an article in 2018 on the change in ultra-Orthodox society on the issue of sexual offenses against children. The article describes the developments in Haredi society in recent decades, which has sought to limit the extent of repression and denial of sexual assault. According to the article, this change in Haredi society stems from increased awareness in the community of the harm and implications of sexual offenses.
Einat Yashfa, director of psychological services in the Bnei Brak, recently cited sexual offenses as a clear example of a realm in which the building of trust between professionals in the municipality and communities and rabbis has led to fundamental change. “Historically, 25 years ago, educational psychologists, became aware of extreme, urgent cases only,” she wrote.
“The community dealt with it with the tools they had at their disposal and there was no awareness or desire to involve outside professionals in these issues. Today the awareness is much greater. We’re at a point where if in the past this was not talked about, or talked about in whispers, today is it discussed out loud. Today rabbis are clearly relating to the issue and quite a few cases are referred to us on instructions of a rabbi or a community leader.”
In addition to raising awareness by Haredi activists in the matter and reports on Haredi news websites, in recent years, programs on protecting children, suitable to the Haredi public, have begun to operate in schools. Haredi institutes have also begun training professionals on how to deal with every phase of treatment of children who suffered a sexual offense.
Despite the important development in this issue, it seems that the road to uprooting the phenomenon is a long one. So far, rabbis have dealt with the issue on the level of the individual, and the next step should be to instruct the public as a whole on the issue. Finkelstein notes that together with the progress his study reports: “It is important to note that today as well there are attempts in Haredi society to deal with sexual offenses within the community without reporting them to the legal authorities and without assistance from social services.”
Finkelstein also highlights the issue of late reporting, noting that the interviews he conducted “show that more than once social services are approached only after the community was unable to deal with the matter and reaches the conclusion that outside professionals should be involved.”