This Rape Victim's Case Mustn't Be Buried With Him

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Mourners at Yonatan Heilo's funeral in Netanya, December 1, 2020.
Mourners at Yonatan Heilo's funeral in Netanya, December 1, 2020.
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

The sea returned the body of Yonatan Heilo to the shore in Netanya. The collective requests for forgiveness were launched into the air when his tragic death became known, which merged with the rift over what was, wasn’t and will never be again.

A soft beam of light, too soft, was shined at the stations of his life and exposed how a person tumbles onto a blocked path in search of a way out he can’t find. Every chapter in Heilo’s life, someone who immigrated to Israel with his family from Ethiopia when he was 6, could radiate socio-systemic darkness that wound a noose around his neck – without entitling him to a chance for life.

Society’s indictment that must be filed upon his death against the authorities is long and tormenting. It reserves a place of honor for the justice system, which is still blind to the victims of sexual assault and requires profound reform on this matter. A key section in the indictment belongs to the prisons and the little chance for rehabilitation of prisoners serving long sentences and trying to integrate back into society.

So many times I see homeless people at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station who after a long prison term are released onto the streets without any choice. Moreover, the rate of recidivism in Israel, repeat offenders, ranges between 41.3 and 62 percent, and it turns out that a large percentage of crimes in general are committed by former inmates.

Behind the numbers are also ex-cons who crumble and hope to return to prison. This isn’t out of a notion that prison is their home, it’s out of despair, the shattering consequences of the long prison terms on their souls, the severe loneliness and closed doors they meet when they get out.

Yonatan Heilo, center, upon his release from prison on July 23, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

The issue of rehabilitation in prison also needs to be brought up for discussion: Are Israel’s prisons following a treatment and rehabilitation policy or a punishment and security policy? What rehabilitation plans are provided in prison, and why has the number of prisoners undergoing treatment fallen?

The 2014 state comptroller’s report notes the high rate of prisoners needing care who are released without appropriate treatment programs outside. And the most important thing: We must critically examine the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, which today is providing professional services to only around 1,000 prisoners of the 7,500 released every year.

Heilo’s death must put on the agenda the people suffering from “dual pathology” – drug or alcohol abuse accompanied by mental illness. Israel is still unprepared to treat these cases, which are increasing and have led to the deaths of many homeless people, who remain invisible to an indifferent society.

Heilo was never freed from the internal prison where he was trapped. In the first support group of its kind for male victims of sexual assault – which I wrote about in Haaretz in 2016 and Heilo participated in – the group leader mentioned him while obscuring his details to protect Heilo’s privacy: “One of the prisoners came up to me and said, ‘listen, if I’d known about you 30 years ago I wouldn’t be here now.’ This was someone serving time for murdering his assailant.”

This painful statement by Heilo is the story of his life. According to the prison service, about 80 to 90 percent of inmates addicted to drugs were victims of sexual assault in their youth. Society’s heavy silence surrounds men who were the victims of such an attack. Yonatan Heilo’s case mustn’t be allowed to be buried along with him.

All the stations he passed through without any real help must undergo deep change. We can hope that the awakening of the debate, the treatment and our addressing of the plight of male victims of sexual assault will be the remedy. In memory of Yotanan.

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