Fleeing Abuse in Israel, non-Jewish Women Fear Violence and Deportation

Non-Jewish women who follow their partners to Israel sometimes discover that the man they married is domineering and violent. But those who manage to escape often find the state unsupportive of women without residency status.

A woman without residency status at a women's shelter, February 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

Yulia left her parents’ home in a small Russian city immediately after graduating high school. She moved to Moscow, where she studied and later worked as an accountant in a good firm. At 26, she met her husband through a dating website: He was a 39-year-old Israeli who’d registered to the site through a Russian-speaking friend. They corresponded for three months in English. They seemed “to complete each other” and he was her “Prince Charming,” she recalls. She saved money and visited Israel. Three days after her arrival, she accepted his marriage proposal.

“He took me to all kinds of places, wooed me, didn’t let me pay – even though I’m used to paying for everything myself,” she recounts.

They married soon afterward in Cyprus and she got pregnant. But immediately after the wedding, she says, their relationship went awry. Her partner humiliated her, pushed her and forced her to have sex when she didn’t want to. During her pregnancy and after the birth, several times she tried to return to Moscow. Her partner threatened that he would get her deported and keep the child in Israel. She went to Russia a number of times but couldn’t earn a living, and was forced to return to Israel. The last time she returned here, Yulia rented an apartment, divorced her husband and filed a request with the Interior Ministry to remain in Israel as a single mother.

She stayed in Israel based on a humanitarian petition, and was forced to take “under the table” work to earn enough for herself and her son.

Yulia is one of hundreds of foreign women who have come to Israel in recent years because of love, hoping for a better future. In many cases, their dream blows up after a brief honeymoon period. Because marriage does not guarantee resident status – the partner has to request it on the spouse’s behalf – violent husbands are able to tighten their control.

Lacking legal residency, the women – often mothers to children born in Israel – are eligible for barely any support from the state and are condemned to lives of exploitation and poverty.

Members of the Israel Religious Action Center’s legal aid center know many of these women. The center’s Sarah Lewis says the men deliberately prevent their wives from gaining legal status in many cases. After breaking up or going to a shelter, they can petition the humanitarian committee, as per the family violence regulation that allows awarding residency status to women whose children are Israelis. However, the waiting period is long, during which they receive no permit. “The consequences for a single mother are very difficult,” says Lewis, an attorney.

Attorney Rita Ivshin Chaikin represents foreign women who are victims of violence. Until recently, she ran a project to fight prostitution and the trafficking of women for Isha L’Isha. She divides women without residency status who arrive from the former Soviet Union and suffer from violence into three categories: Some women were brought to work in prostitution and married clients; others met a Russian-speaking Israeli partner (sometimes through the Internet); and a third group met online or through agencies for Israelis specifically looking for Russian or Ukrainian brides.

Jamila (not her real name, like the rest of the brides interviewed here) is a 31-year-old Muslim from the FSU. She met her husband, an Israeli Bedouin, in another country when she was working as a prostitute. He offered her marriage and promised to support her and her family financially.

“I said, ‘Yalla, whatever,’ she says. “Where will I go after what has happened? Who will take me? And if someone does take me, he will be divorced or someone who takes me as a concubine. If I’m doing that already, I might as well get married, wear a white dress and not hit rock bottom.”

Physical and emotional violence

Jamila has spent the last few months with her two children, ages 3 and 7, in a shelter belonging to No to Violence against Women.

She was her husband’s second wife and was allocated a separate floor in the house he lived in with his first wife. Jamila had no residency permit because, even after her husband officially divorced his first wife and married her, he didn’t arrange one for her.

“I couldn’t open my mouth. I feared mentioning the documents he promised,” she recalls. “At a certain point, I stopped waiting. I was just living in his house. The State of Israel doesn’t even know I am here. I am not in the computer. I am nobody, nothing.”

She suffered physical and emotional violence. She gave birth to her two children without seeing a doctor during her pregnancies. Because the children were born out of wedlock, they also have no residency permit or health insurance. For months, Jamila lived in almost total isolation. There were days when she was starving because they did not give her money. Like many other women in her situation, she lived under the constant threat of deportation and in constant conflict with the first wife.

“He beat her because of me one evening, and the next morning she called the police,” Jamila recalls. When the police arrived, she says, “I had just gone out to buy bread and stayed in the street.” She took her youngest daughter and they hid outside the village until evening. It took six years until Jamila managed to escape from the village together with her children and find a shelter. Lacking a residency permit, leaving the shelter is not on the horizon.

According to Social Affairs Ministry data, about 8 percent of women staying in shelters for battered women in 2013 and 2014 lacked residency permits (57 of 750 and 59 of 755, respectively). According to data compiled by No to Violence against Women, which operates three shelters, 15 of 34 women without residency permits who applied for shelter were rejected, mainly due to lack of space. The NGO’s executive director, Yael Gold, said that most women without residency permits never make it to the shelters because they are locked up and don’t know how to reach them. Those women who do make it stay for a long time “because they have nowhere to go to.” The director of one of No to Violence’s shelters added that even if the clear and present danger has passed, women remain in the shelter “because they have no solution – no identity card, no ability to work, no money, no medical insurance.”

The women without residency permits staying in the shelters come from places like Africa (mainly Eritrea) and the Philippines, who came with work visas and developed relations with Israelis. However, most of the women come from Ethiopia or the FSU. According to Gold, the men who bring the Ethiopian women to Israel are “usually men from Ethiopia whose attitude is they are buying slaves.”

Minalu, 26, says she met her husband when he visited her village in the Ethiopian region of Gondar five years ago. They married immediately, and for two years he commuted between Israel and Ethiopia. Shortly after she followed him to Israel, she became pregnant. The couple started living with the husband’s family and then rented an apartment. The violence, which started in his family’s home, grew worse.

“Did I come here for this?” wonders Minalu, recalling how her husband only let her out of the house if she was accompanied by a relative. Afterward, he started threatening that he would get her deported and that their son would remain in Israel. One day, she asked the neighbors to call the police, which is how she reached the shelter.

Minalu is a success story; she received help to obtain a residency visa while in the shelter, and recently moved with her son into a halfway house, where she is adjusting to living independently.

Exploited as breadwinners

Some of the women are exploited as breadwinners or “straw women” for illegal deals. Katrina came to Israel from Moldova when she was 19, after she was promised a job washing dishes with the possibility of promotion to waitressing. Like many of the young women, she was forced into prostitution and became depressed.

When she refused to go on and threatened suicide, her pimps introduced her to an Israeli man who immediately proposed marriage and said he wanted to have children with her and change her life. Katrina was surprised, but says liked him and he “knew how to talk.” When they married and she became pregnant, her partner began degrading and mocking her.

Still, he arranged her residency visa and opened a toy store, registering it under her name. Katrina managed the store, but at a certain point discovered that despite its reasonable income, the business was mired in debt. She didn’t know the source of these debts, but everything was registered in her name. After she tried committing suicide, Katrina and her two daughters were referred to a shelter.

Anna, 38, from Russia, met a Russian-speaking Israeli on a dating website. After a year of correspondence, he flew over to visit her. They married in Russia, where they had a baby girl. However, the partner was not working, got drunk and piled up debts that he covered by taking loans from various banks. When he realized he was in trouble, he sought to return alone to Israel and offered to send Anna and their newborn daughter money every month to cover the debts. Anna refused. “Either we divorce, or we go together,” she recalls telling him. She hoped that the familiar environment of Israel would help her husband get back on his feet.

In Israel, Anna, a trained nurse, began to take cash-in-hand jobs to support the family after her husband didn’t bother to arrange a residency visa for her. He kept drinking and also used drugs. She was afraid to turn to the authorities, lest they deport her and her daughter end up in a foster home. In the end, after an especially ugly scene that included threats with a knife and after being locked up in a room for nearly two days, Anna managed to flee the home with her daughter and reach a battered women’s shelter, where she has remained for eight months.

Ayala Meir, director of the welfare service for individuals and families in the Social Affairs Ministry, says the shelters “do what they can, but afterward the women usually return to their violent partners. They cannot remain alone, and we cannot help with rehabilitation.”

Meir says Social Affairs Ministry experts believe women without residency visas who are victims of violence should be provided with a “broad basket of rehabilitation” services, including rights to housing, work and medical treatment. However, she notes, “I regret that we haven’t succeeded in advancing this.”

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority says it halts the deportation process in cases of violence within the family. It also noted that it has created a special process by which “the case is reviewed by an interministerial committee for giving a residency permit based on humanitarian reasons.” The authority said the status is not given automatically but awarded under exceptional circumstances.

“Remember that the committee discusses only humanitarian cases, and that the committee receives dozens or even hundreds of requests,” it added. “We do our best to answer everyone within existing limitations.”