Head to Head / Cult Expert Gabi Zohar, What Causes a Person to Become the Leader of Such a Group?

Dr. Gabi Zohar is a clinical social worker at the center, an expert on cults and author of a book on the subject, 'Happiness Knows No Bounds.'

An indictment filed yesterday in the Jerusalem District Court charges three men with the heinous abuse of six women and their children, including beatings and rape.

The Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox cult to which they belonged was exposed when one of the women managed to escape and turned for help to the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults, exactly as in a previous case involving cult leader Goel Ratzon.

Gabi Zohar
Merav Michaeli

Dr. Gabi Zohar is a clinical social worker at the center, an expert on cults and author of a book on the subject, "Happiness Knows No Bounds."

What emotional need causes a person to become a guru? Why does he do it? What does he want?

I divide gurus into three groups. The first consists of people who actually believe they are meant to improve the world. They [believe they] are enlightened or they have undergone a deep psychological process that leads them to believe they must mend the world, and for this they must be surrounded by people. The second kind, gurus from the world of mysticism - astrology, numerology, clairvoyance and so on - see the establishment of a cult as the fulfillment of their profession, and the third kind are people with a strong narcissistic element in their personality that causes them to want power and control over others.

Aren't all three kinds of gurus narcissistic?

I repeat at every opportunity that all the people in positions of leadership in cults have very profound elements of narcissism in their personalities.

What is the significance of this element?

It means there is an unchecked and unfulfilled need for love, affection, power and control over others.

And this need can never be satisfied? It will always feel like a lack and the need for more?

Yes. There's no doubt that in the short history of modern cults, let's say over the last 40 years, we see that those who lead cults are religious professionals - priests, rabbis or pseudo-rabbis, mystics and marginal types. There is no doubt that a person who declares himself to be the messiah - I call this a messianic disorder - also has some kind of psychotic disorder. We are familiar with more than a few instances of cult leaders who have been diagnosed with psychotic elements in their personalities; it's as if they create a sort of recovery or enable their own empowerment by establishing cults.

They seem to be mostly men. Is this true?

As for men who establish a group of women for themselves, there is no doubt that this is part of the disturbance I just described, although from a statistical point of view, at least historically in Israel, and I am familiar with the phenomenon from its earliest days, the leadership is divided 50-50 among men and women.

Do men's and women's cults look the same? Is there as much physical and sexual abuse in cults with women leaders?

I would like to point out here that I have not found any child abuse or sexual abuse in cults led by women. I have seen enslavement.

And why do women and men go to these gurus, to cults?

The overwhelming majority of people in cults are people who have experienced a trauma or are in the middle of one. Second, they are in situations where they must make decisions about their lives and are unable to, and so they find cults that will make the decisions for them. They are people in post-trauma situations. It might be due to divorce, failure at work and so on and, of course, rape or a rape that occurred in childhood. People who find their way into communes no longer have to feel alone in the world; the sense of isolation is one of the leading reasons for people to join cults.

Is each and everyone of us vulnerable to this? Could you and I find ourselves in a cult?

Yes, definitely. Because each one of us is likely to find ourselves isolated, alienated, in difficult and traumatic situations, and if a solution is not found for these crises, we are then likely to find ourselves seeking answers in exactly the same places. This is what happened to the wives of Goel Ratzon, and of Daniel Ambash. Exactly because of this type of situation.

What can be done to prevent the establishment of cults?

The subject must be brought into the educational system; we must speak to children about their feelings of loneliness, of alienation, about the search for meaning. That is, not to warn them about cults, but to give them tools to cope with themselves and their feelings, mainly the difficult ones.

Give the message to [Education Minister] Gideon Saar. This is exactly what must be done. Secondly, the entire area of parent-child relationships needs to undergo a broad revision. Everything I've been dealing with in recent years - addiction, cults, drugs - it's all there, in parent-child relationships. It's the critical area for joining cults. And the third point is legislation and law enforcement. First, a law must finally be enacted defining what a cult is. The definition in the last, excellent Welfare Department report is insufficient. There must be a clear legal definition saying what a cult is. And the system must enter and examine what goes on in these groups - and not wait until someone gathers courage, as happened in the cases of Goel Ratzon and Daniel Ambash, and turns to the police or welfare or to us and complains.

Everything you've said about these crises and the need for someone to make our decisions - how does this endure when people are beaten and raped and forced to eat feces?

My answer is this: brainwashing. I see these women first of all as victims who simply happened to be in a place where brainwashing occurred. People in this situation, their power to resist is small, their willpower is damaged, the autonomic personality is damaged, like that of prisoners of war, and then you can do with them whatever you want. I know of at least one more cult in Tel Aviv, also a polygamous situation, and no one has dealt with the man yet.

Why don't you make a complaint?

It doesn't count if I complain; the police say they live as a group and nothing can be done. This is exactly what we need a law for. If there were a law, I could come to the police and tell them illegal acts were taking place, like that of a terror cell. It's exactly the same.