Lawmakers on Wednesday called for the creation of legislation that will criminalize cult activities and allow prosecutors to bring cult leaders to justice.

According to information shared at a special hearing of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, headed by Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, cults are not illegal and there are no laws allowing authorities to arrest or prosecute cult leaders. In two recent cases, authorities managed to break up cults and arrest their leaders only after receiving reports of sexual assault and child abuse.

According to a special report compiled last year by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, there are roughly 80 groups actively operating in Israel that could be clearly defined as a cult. In addition, the report suggests that thousands of individuals have chosen to adopt the beliefs of a particular group and live their lives according to principles dictated by a single leader or guru.

The report also found that in many cases, cult members are brainwashed into cutting off all ties with their parents, siblings and even their children, and instead are encouraged to build up their connections with other members in the cult.

“How can it be that there are hundreds of women who report being victims of cults but in the government shelters there is only one woman receiving help?” asked Hotovely during the hearing, which included representatives from the Justice and Welfare and Social Services ministries, as well as legal and other experts on the subject of cults.

Hotovely said that based on the information she had received, “there is a strong need for legislation that will stop the phenomenon and bring cult leaders to justice.”

“Religious freedom should be protected up until it become criminal,” said Kadima MK Shlomo Molla at the meeting. “I call on the Justice Ministry to create an interministerial committee that will formulate legislation to determine when cult activities become criminal.”

Molla’s calls were supported by representatives of the State Attorney’s Office, who also called for a legal solution that would allow them to prosecute cult leaders for related criminal activities.

“The greatest problem in addressing cults is identifying them because of all the secrecy in their activities,” said the state attorney. “Any legal solution must address how authorities identify these cults.”

Over the past two years, two large cults have been ousted. The first was a Tel Aviv group headed by Goal Ratzon, a guru who had some 20 wives and 40 children living according to guidelines that he had laid out for them. The other group was based in Jerusalem and Tiberias and included six women and multiple children that believed in the communal living dictated by a 55-year-old man that followed the Breslav hassidic movement.

Due to the lack of appropriate laws, however, those cult leaders could not be indicted on charges of leading a brainwashing sect but were eventually arrested on other charges such as child sex abuse and rape.

The victims of these two cults did receive free legal advice from the Justice Ministry and all the wives and children linked to Ratzon were housed in government-run shelters for two years. They continue to receive support from legal and welfare services.

Ever since Ratzon’s case was made public in January 2010, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry has been calling on the government to create legislation to outlaw all cult-like groups.

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