U.S. Jewish Community Must Show Israel How to Deal With Sexual Abuse

As well as the wave of violence confronting Israel, the Jewish state faces another monstrous form of terror from within - one that we have been much too reluctant to confront.

Rabbi Moti Elon, who was accused of sexually assaulting two minors, outside of Jerusalem Magistrate Court, December 7, 2011.
Olivier Fitoussi

This is the story of Megan and unnamed others. It is neither a new story, nor is it one that speaks of these names alone. Yet it is a story that stresses the lengths to which Israel must go in order to confront the reality of sexual abuse.

It is time for us, as a humane, empathetic society, to learn from the American Jewish community how we should expose this affront to our humanity.

In 1994, a seven-year-old innocent girl named Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a predatory neighbor in suburban New Jersey. Unbeknown to Megan’s parents, the neighbor, who had been previously convicted of sexually assaulting minors, had lured Megan into his home. After rightfully sparking national outrage, the heartbreaking case inspired Megan’s Law and subsequent U.S. legislation, which created a national sex offender registry and community notification to end these tragic crimes.

We have no equivalent for Megan’s Law in Israel, though this is not because we have no Megans. Since 2009, the Israel Prison Service has reported that 1,300 individuals have been imprisoned for sexual abuse, with no information as to how many prior offenders have been released. Considering that the same report revealed that sixty percent of abusers had victimized children younger than thirteen, I most sincerely regret how irresponsible our society has been to tackle these injustices. We must first create the same kind of offenders’ registry.

As a citizen of the Jewish state, I have come to realise that the Jewish community operates under the illusion that the reality of sexual violence is a uniquely foreign one. Rape, abuse, and harassment are all evils that belong solely to the outside. Thus we see the shock, the resistance and the victim-shaming within our community that manifests itself when such cruelties come to light.

For a few months now, a tense security situation has threatened Israeli civilians with terror and panic. As a proud mother and Jew, it is a sad day when I must admit that, for years, we have masked another monstrous form of terror with our indifference. Regrettably, we must accept the call to battle the terror within.

In light of the American Jewish community’s campaign against sexual abuse, I hope to improve the Israeli response in the public sphere and beyond. In 2014, allegations surfaced that the longstanding rabbi of a prominent Washington, D.C. synagogue, Barry Freundel, had exploited his position to harass women seeking conversion under his auspices. Almost immediately, his community responded by ousting Freundel and the Rabbinical Council of America joined by instituting a new internal committee to review the conversion process.

More recently, I welcomed news from my dear friend Rabba Dr. Anat Sharbat that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a leading American  Orthodox synagogue, had established an ethics commission to anticipate and prevent abuse in the future.

With much admiration, I have begun to see the emergence of a similar model within the Israeli community. Given the complexities of living within tight-knit Israeli religious communities, it is crucial that victims have access to safe, in-house organizations that bring abusers to justice in a legal, culturally mindful fashion.

In promoting this developing campaign, I applaud Takana, a forum for male and female religious leaders to mobilize the community to act against flagrant abuse. Several years ago, Takana surged into the national spotlight when it exposed the abusive history of an influential Jerusalem rabbi, Moti Elon. It saw through the case until Elon’s conviction on one count of sexual assault of a minor in 2013, Takana was appalled by the light sentence administered, one that dismissed jail time in favor of community service and a negligible fine.

Along with the pain and trauma that still exist, I was horrified to learn that Israel has prolonged this disgrace on its own. Only weeks ago did I discover that Elon was featured at numerous events funded by the state. Sickened, I immediately demanded that Interior Minister Silvan Shalom divert government — public — funds from any event featuring Elon. This episode pinpoints how the Israeli response to abuse has been too little to prevent injustice in the future and too late for those irreparably harmed in the past.

As both a country and a community, we, as leaders of a state founded upon Jewish and humane values, must decide to represent the victims of the most chilling side of human nature. In America, I have seen the courage to call out evil as it is, and there is no reason Israel cannot do the same.

New Jersey to Jerusalem, from little Megan to Moti’s victims, I and those beside me must fight for those to be the last names we hear in this terrible tale.

Aliza Lavie is a member of Knesset for Yesh Atid and a Member of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.