For Israeli Women Who Killed Their Abusive Husbands, Prison Feels Safer Than Home

Social worker Tamar Dahan helps women convicted of murdering abusive husbands and has brought about the early release of many of them from prison. She tells Haaretz why she doesn’t consider her clients murderers and what must be done to avert new cases

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Tamar Dahan
Tamar DahanCredit: Hadas Parush
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m a social worker and I deal mostly with violent abuse of women, and women in prostitution. I’m a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, and I also define myself as a feminist and an activist who’s trying to help women who have been convicted of putting their abusive spouses to death.

You say “putting to death” rather than “murdering.”

Yes, and I use that phrase intentionally.

We’ll talk about that. How did you get to this group of women?

For my master’s thesis, I wanted to deal with violence against women. I discovered that there are hardly any studies about women who were been convicted of putting their partners to death. I approached the Israel Prison Service, the Israel Police, the Central Bureau of Statistics, but couldn’t get even the most basic information from them: how many women fit into that group in Israel. I started conducting my own study. I plowed through archives and databases, and learned that since the case of Carmela Buhbut in 1994 [who was convicted of killing her abusive husband, and eventually served three years before being paroled], there have been 20 similar cases. Of those 20 women, eight are in prison. I got permission from the prison service to interview them – only one didn’t want to participate in my study. Seven of the eight were cooperative.

You met them in Neve Tirtza, the women’s prison.

And I got a terrible jolt there. Until then I’d heard dozens, even hundreds, of stories about serious violence from my clients, but that was different. The stories I heard from these women still haunt me. Physical, mental, sexual, economic violence. One story that, astonishingly, repeats itself is that the spouse regularly places the wife on a chair and hurls knives at her. Another story I heard from several of the women is that the partner habitually beat his wife and choked her until she passed out, and then, while she was unconscious, would rape her. A pregnant woman was dragged by the hair down several flights of stairs, and went into premature labor.

Beyond the testimonies, which were harsh and appalling, a terrible wrong was done to those women. I was shocked to find out that they had appealed, time and again, for help from the authorities, but got no response.

Beyond the testimonies, which were harsh and appalling, a terrible wrong was done to those women. I was shocked to find out that they had appealed, time and again, for help from the authorities, but got no response. For example, Dalal Daoud [convicted of murdering her abusive partner in 2002 and sentenced to 24 years in prison] filed 26 complaints with the police. Each time, the state did virtually nothing.

Some of the women were successful in obtaining a restraining order [against their partners]. No small thing. Even so, the abuse went on.

On top of that, some of the men, after being arrested and even imprisoned, would come home after a few months in jail and carried on as usual. For my part, by the way, I believe they could have changed, but where there are no resources for treatment and rehabilitation, why would they change? They go back home and pick up where they left off.

Even though the authorities were involved, even though it was known that the abuse was severe and protracted, the women were classified as murderers, were tried as murderers and were punished as murderers.

Yes, and that’s what shakes me up the most. No one recognizes, understands or takes responsibility for what these women endure in life: They remain alone. In our conversations, they would always ask me: ‘What happened to the social workers who dealt with us? Where are the physicians who saw us in the hospital after yet another violent incident? Where are the police officers and judges who heard and saw the complaints about violence?’ They all asked me to be their voice and tell their stories, not to settle do conducting an academic study alone. Simona Mori [sentenced to life imprisonment for helping her lover murder her spouse in 1996, but released after 22 years] told me: I waited 20 years for someone to come and talk to me.

I felt it was my responsibility to do something for them, but I didn’t know what or how. I sent my completed study, with an abstract, to elected officials. Happily, MK Michal Rozin [Meretz] responded. We understood that it was necessary to act on two levels: to seek early release of the women already serving their punishment, and at the same time to take action to changed the legislation that addresses such cases. We presented my research to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee , and demonstrated that in other countries there is legal recognition of a ‘battered woman syndrome.’ They understand that women in such cases have been pushed to act out of deep distress.

In certain countries, if a woman kills her spouse after suffering protracted abuse, she may be subject to lesser punishment or may even be exempt from standing trial altogether. In others, the murder of an abusive spouse is considered self-defense. But not in Israel.

In Israel there are a number of criteria that may lead to a case being considered self-defense. One is immediacy; in other words, the reaction has to happen the moment the partner attacks, in which case it can be considered self-defense. In practice, that is absolutely not relevant for a woman suffering from “intimate partner violence.” When the man attacks her she will usually not fight back, both because, objectively, he is stronger, and also because, subjectively, she feels like a nullity, worthless, because of battered woman syndrome.

Dalal Daoud after her release from jail in June, 2019, after serving 18 years of a 24-year sentence for murder. Credit: Meged Gozani

‘Hatred, recoil, anger’

Explain briefly the term “battered woman syndrome.” It’s become a cliché, so it’s worth examining its original meaning.

Battered woman syndrome involves an ambivalent relationship and is characterized by a very broad range of emotions. There’s love and affection and concern, and at the same time, because of the violence and the fear, there’s also hatred, recoil, anger.

A circular dynamic. Tension. Violent conflict. Reconciliation. And so on, in a recurring cycle.

It’s known as a “cycle of violence.” The range of emotions changes dramatically and rapidly in accordance with the immediate situation between the couple. At the moment, there may be violence, or they may be in a state of reconciliation, which can seem like a real honeymoon, and the couple feels like they’re in love. In the conciliatory state, we’ll often see expensive material presents, the assailant asks for forgiveness, he promises it will never happen again, and the woman wants to believe that’s true.

Here’s where the recurring question comes in: Why don’t these women leave? Studies show that psychological violence can have greater impact than the physical sort. The woman feels she’s worthless. That she’s a cipher. She wants to leave the relationship but doesn’t believe she’s capable of it. She asks herself: Who’s going to hire me? Who’s going to rent an apartment to me? How will I raise the children? In many cases she’s told that her children don’t love her, that they are contemptuous of her, and of course there’s also the matter of economic dependence.

Also, there’s really nowhere to escape to. The women are afraid the men will find them no matter where they go.

These women attribute superhero traits to their partners. A woman suffering from intimate partner violence believes that it makes no difference where she flees or what she does – he will find her. Dalal told me that even after he was dead, her partner continued to haunt her in dreams. Every night anew she was sure she was about to return to that nightmare again. Each of the women told me, with variations, things like: He’s dead, but I died with him over all those years. That’s the terrible wound they carry with them when they move from one prison – the prison of abuse – to a second prison, the physical one.

Why don’t these women leave? Studies show that psychological violence can have greater impact than the physical sort. The woman feels she’s worthless.

Your battle bore fruit – on both levels. Almost all the women in the cases in question were released from prison, and the legislation sponsored by MK Rozin was enacted by the Knesset.

When I started the research, I met with seven of the eight women. I was in contact with them and worked for their release. Of the eight, five were released early, in the wake of interventions I carried out together with Michal Rozin, which didn’t involve the media, but consisted of meetings with the defense counsel, the prosecution, the prison service.

You can’t name these women.

No, I am pledged to secrecy, vis-a-vis both them and the prison service. In the case of the two other women [of the seven], Simona Mori and Dalal Daoud, the state prosecution raised huge objections, so I created a group to wage the struggle, together with [human rights lawyer] Sapir Sluzker-Amran, [photographer] Louiz Green and the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. Simona and Dalal didn’t want to go public, but we realized that for them to be released, we would need a media campaign, and they cooperated. [Daoud was released in June 2019, after serving 18 years of a 24-year sentence; Mori, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, was released in September 2019, after 22 years in prison.]

There was also legal progress in the wake of our intervention. An amendment to the Penal Code was passed stipulating a maximum prison term of 15 years for a person whose actions lead to the death of someone who subjected them to physical abuse over a lengthy period. We wanted the maximum term to be 10 years, the Justice Ministry insisted on 15. It’s not perfect, but obviously it’s better than a life term. The amendment, even though it didn’t apply retroactively, helped in the struggle for the release of the women who were still incarcerated, most of whom had already served more than 15 years. It will be put to the test the next time a case like this occurs.

Overall, these are normal women, not criminals. They didn’t murder out of greed or because they’re foot soldiers in a crime organization. Nevertheless, that’s how they’re treated. One of them told you, “They interrogated me the way they do criminals.”

The police and the judicial system aren’t able to grasp what they’re seeing. There is no recognition of the women’s history, of the abuse they underwent. There’s no attempt or desire to understand. Even when Supreme Court justices like [Dalia] Dorner or [Edna] Arbel have tried to raise the issue [of intimate-partner violence], they are still a minority and don’t get a proper hearing. I took my study to the big women’s organizations, too. From WIZO [women’s organization] I heard, to my surprise, all kinds of messages such as that the whole issue is very complex, very hard to digest. I would have expected women’s groups like WIZO and Na’amat to mobilize on behalf of these women, to explain to the authorities and the public why such cases occurred, but that didn’t happen.

In fact, until the Association of Rape Crisis Centers joined the struggle for the release of Dalal and Simona, there was no awareness or support on the part of other organizations for this singular population. In the campaign for Dalal’s release, I tried to mobilize Arab women’s organizations [Daoud is an Arab Israeli], but they kept out of it and for exactly the same reason and with the same response: It’s all very complex, the public won’t be able to accept it.

Neve Tirtza, a women’s prison.Credit: Meged Gozani

These stories make people recoil.

Intensely. It has to do with the authorities’ attitude toward these women and the way their story is refracted through the media.

Shock and indifference

We are shocked when a woman is murdered, but stories such as these leave us indifferent. It’s the same story, only the end is different. A woman undergoes protracted abuse. When the abuse ends with the victim’s death, we are appalled, but when it ends with the assailant’s death, it’s difficult for us to feel empathy or identification [for the woman who perpetrated it].

People recoil at violent women who are not just violent but are violent toward men. It’s easy for us to be empathetic toward a victim than toward a woman who became a victimizer. The police and the courts treat them as criminals, the media presents them as murderers. Do you know how many times I have been asked whether I wasn’t afraid to meet with them for interviews? Well, really! We are all captive to mechanisms that educate us from age zero, and a woman who displays violence toward a man undermines the conventions. That’s exactly the conception that created battered women’s shelters but not shelters for battering men.

Some of these acts of murder are cruel, and maybe that’s part of it. When the act is so brutal, it’s easy to disconnect it from the circumstances and more difficult to view it as a product of long years of abuse.

There’s no doubt that this works against the women. If you read the verdicts relating to some of them, you discover that in some cases they stabbed their partner dozens of times. To therapists who work with victims of intimate partner violence, it is very clear why it happened. They are in a very extreme state of mind. Generally the act itself is a response to an act of violence that exceeded the previous repertoire of violence. Something happened that hadn’t happened previously.

In Dalal’s story, for example, it happened after her partner directed his violence at their children for the first time. Dalal returned from the hospital with a newborn, her partner was drunk, he wanted to have intercourse with her, she didn’t want to, so he took a dish full of food and threw it against the face of the two-day-old baby. She told me: I didn’t care if he raped me, he had raped me a thousand times already, but when he hurt the baby, I couldn’t take it any longer. There is always an event that completely shocks the woman. In the end, there’s this thing where [the woman feels] the partner is capable of anything, he has superpowers, and even if I shoot him 50 times I won’t be able to subdue him.

They are not murderers, and when we refer to them that way, we are rejecting them outright, as a society, and not recognizing their life story.

For me, the hardest part of your study was the section dealing with children. Many of the women in fact did what they did to defend their children. A mother protects her children, and the price she pays that they will no longer be a part of her life and she will not get to raise them, because she is in prison.

The desire to protect the children, to stay with the children, also works against them, because in some cases it makes them plead not guilty or leads them to lie in the interrogation. Dalal entered a not guilty plea [and was convicted], and long much later requested a retrial after confessing. Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said to her that she had lied to the judicial system and shown contempt for it. Excuse me? Look for a moment at what happened. Her partner attacked their newborn baby.

I find it amazing that what they went through was ignored. Only the bottom line counts. And by the way, the children of all these women are in close touch with them. Why? Because the children know very well what went on at home. They remember very well what their mothers went through.

How do the women perceive themselves, how do they view what they did?

They feel shame and guilt, but they all told me, without exception, that if they were to go back to that moment, nothing different would happen. There was no way out, there was no other option. Not only for me, they say, but because of my children. They feel they saved their children. Alongside the pain, the complexity, the huge price they paid – they also feel relief. Finally there’s no one persecuting them. One of the most absurd things they said to me was that only in prison did they at last feel protected. Safe. They felt they could get up in the morning calmly, without asking themselves whether they would survive until the night.

And still, the label of murderer is hard for them.

Very much so. Simona and Dalal were very hurt by the media attention. “Wife who murdered husband released from prison.” They said all along: I am not a murderer; I was convicted of murder, but I am not a murderer. They are indeed normative women. It hurt them and offended them, and so I make a point of using certain terminology, because I don’t perceive them that way, either: They are not murderers, and when we refer to them that way, we are rejecting them outright, as a society, and not recognizing their life story. And by the way, because they were all released early, without serving out their full terms, they are now considered prisoners on probation. That means, among other restrictions, that they are under house arrest every day from 10 P.M. until 6 A.M., they can’t travel anywhere, certainly not leave the country. For any place they want to work, they will need the approval of a committee.

After Simona’s release, [the singer] Miri Mesika, who was moved by her story, invited her to a concert. But the concert was going to end after 10 P.M. Simona submitted a request to the parole board, and actually got a positive reply – but the reply arrived after the concert. They are not free women. They are constantly in need of authorizations, and that’s something else that shackles them, physically and mentally.

You’re in touch with most of them. How do they react when the murder of a woman hits the headlines?

When a woman is murdered, they shut down for a few days. It’s very hard for them. Like every person suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, they go back to their own story, they relive the fear, the pain, the anxiety, they suffer from nightmares, from trembling. They feel like it’s their story. They don’t just feel empathy – they feel total identification.

Even as we talk, I see that the killer of Diana Raz is changing his account and claims it was self-defense. Beyond belief.

What drives me crazy is that on the day of the murder [on February 5, when a police officer allegedly murdered his wife in a West Bank settlement], the stage was set for to the insanity plea. The guy called his parents to come and take the children, he called his superior in the police – is that someone who’s acting out of insanity? In the case of Shira Isakov, too [whose husband was indicted for her attempted murder in 2020], people were occupied with the question of whether she would get a divorce. I was reminded of how Dalal had begged the sharia [Islamic religious] court to grant her a divorce from her husband. She went to them repeatedly, and simply begged for her life, but in vain.

Excuse me, are we really dealing with the question of whether Shira Isakov will get a divorce from the person who tried to murder her? What is this? And her partner, Aviad Moshe, was even offered a plea bargain. Do you think that any of the women we’ve talked about was offered a plea bargain? During the struggle for Simona’s release, I presented a long list of male murderers who got a plea bargain, including the murderer of Tehila Nagar [in 2016]. But none of the women received the same offer. Why?

We both know the answer. How depressing.

For sure. They tell me all the time, “Nothing has changed, never mind MeToo or whatever.” I just talked to a woman who wrote to me on Facebook. Her life and her children’s lives are under threat, she too obtained a restraining order [to keep her spouse away] and tells me the order isn’t being enforced. She’s so afraid, but she’s not being taken seriously – exactly what happened to Simona and Dalal 20 years ago. The authorities haven’t learned how to respond properly and effectively.

What could have been done? What response would you expect from the state?

For example, to attach to the restraining order – which is just a piece of paper – an electronic handcuff, so the abusive man can be kept under surveillance. For example, to stipulate that a person convicted of violence must undergo therapy and rehabilitation within a proper, suitable framework, instead of just doing community service work or spending a few months in prison. A whole plan for this exists, which was submitted in 2014 and approved in 2017. It’s supposed to provide for such responses, but for budgetary reasons, it won’t be implemented until 2024.

What will happen until then? There are about 20 shelters for battered women in Israel. The shelters are full, with long waiting lists, certainly now during the coronavirus pandemic. In contrast, there are about five hostels for violent men – they are not full at all. Why? There are all kinds of reasons, including a theory that the courts and the police don’t even know these hostels exist. Many times in my lectures I’m told that it sounds like I am recommending that women should not go to the police and should not file complaints. My experience during my work with women suffering from intimate partner violence is that, unfortunately, going to the police hardly helps. Usually the very opposite. When one’s partner finds out [that the woman went to the police], his violent behavior only escalates, and the women pay the price.

What do you recommend that they do?

I recommend the private NGOs. They provide a response for women who want to extricate themselves from that situation, and also far better tools than the authorities have.

In the end, almost all of these women were released. One stayed behind. Let’s talk about Erica Frishkin. She’s still in prison. Her request to the president for amnesty was rejected, last summer.

Erica suffered from prolonged intimate partner violence. She brought about his death [in 2003], after the state abandoned her: She had filed 12 complaints with the police. She applied to the social welfare authorities dozens of times. She even resided in a shelter for abused women three times. She fled from him time after time, and he succeeded in bringing her back home every time.

Erica has already served 18 of the 30 years to which she was convicted, but unfortunately, President [Reuven] Rivlin, who is trying to create the impression that he is sympathetic to women and is against violence in the family, decided to turn down her amnesty request. He invited her to submit another request in half a year, which gives her a type of hope, because in principle a rejected request rules out the submission of a new one. His argument was that she hadn’t undergone sufficient rehabilitation, that he wants to see that she’s working hard and progressing. I don’t know whom he consulted with, but it’s totally absurd, because due to the coronavirus, the therapeutic and rehabilitative activity in prison has been suspended, so Erica has no way to prove herself as she was asked to.

Erica paid her debt to society. In light of her difficult life story, and the awful circumstances she endured, 18 years in prison is more than enough. We will continue to stand by her and struggle for her. We won’t give up.

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