In the run-up to the new academic year, I sat down to prepare a lesson on the factors strengthening, and weakening, interpersonal relationships in families in distress. As I was working, I saw a familiar face on my computer screen – Michal Sela. I wondered why one of my students was making headlines, until I saw the shocking explanation: “murder.”
It’s still hard for me to believe that Michal, who was an M.A. social-work student at Hebrew University just weeks ago, is no longer alive. She had impressed me with her ability to juggle work, intensive study and the transition to parenthood.
As a student, Michal was involved, opinionated and active. In my course she stood out for her commitment to work with at-risk youth. In a survey by her and classmates, Michal learned that certain behavior therapy effectively addresses suicidal feelings in adolescent girls who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
In their work, Michal and her classmates raised the need for access to treatment for this population group, and suggested the innovative idea of expanding access and making it more efficient via technology. Michal’s commitment to her work highlights the painful fact that her untimely death is a major loss not only for her family, including her baby daughter, but also for her clients and the social-work community.
There are many reasons for us to be particularly disturbed by Michal’s murder. One is that without any identifiable warning signs, a young, educated, productive woman was killed. Michal’s sister, Lily Ben-Ami, expressed it well: “If it happened to our family, it can happen anywhere.”
And yes, in Israel and abroad, the domestic violence is disturbing. Based on data from over 80 countries, the World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of the world’s women are victims of physical or sexual violence by their domestic partners, but under half of them seek help. About 38 percent of the women who are murdered around the world are killed by their partners.
We sometimes identify such domestic violence as belonging to certain segments of the population or social classes. There is in fact a link between violence by domestic partners and risk factors including financial problems, social norms and a history of abuse as a child. But Michal’s case and research show that violence by domestic partners occurs at every socioeconomic level.
A survey by Prof. Yoav Lavee and myself of 425 women, all them working on advanced degrees and either married or living at least a year with their partner, found that about 15 percent said they had been a victim of moderate to severe violence by their partner. This could be physical, sexual or emotional.
Michal’s murder is of course the most extreme expression of domestic violence, but remember that the scope of violence in a relationship, something supposed to provide our most secure setting, sometimes takes forms mistakenly considered “normative.” The most common forms of aggression in intimate relationships include scorn, criticism, accusations and threats – or resounding silence.
Over time, all of this threatens a decline in the quality of a couple’s relationship, and divorce. Disagreements that include aggressive speech can descend into domestic violence and over time portend physical and emotional difficulties that also affect the children.
During these Jewish Days of Awe, a period of forgiveness and self-examination, the cry arising from Michal’s murder resounds strongly. I hope the shock of this case will spur us as a society to act against violent behavior. The best way to do this is through programs on a national level, but optimal treatment must also include domestic-violence programs whose efficacy is based on empirical research.
On a more personal note, I would say that Michal’s case has strengthened my desire to persist in developing prevention programs by promoting healthy communications in families facing various kinds of distress. Each of us can help prevent the next incident by developing an awareness over how we communicate with one another and by improving communication on a public level.
We can also help eliminate the phenomenon by uncompromisingly denouncing oppressive and violent behavior in the family and by breaking down the barriers of silence and suppression. Finally, a sense of mutual obligation, support and protection at the national, community and personal levels will help the victims bring the problem out into the open, a problem that’s usually perceived as embarrassing and thus remains hidden in darkness.
Osnat Zamir teaches at Hebrew University’s school of social work and social welfare.
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