Between the Lines: Breaking the haredi 'conspiracy of silence' on domestic abuse

Covering such extreme cases of domestic abuse always poses a series of challenges.

No local media coverage has been more compelling - and disturbing - the last few weeks than that dealing with the two horrendous cases of child abuse, one in Jerusalem and the other in Beit Shemesh, exposed as having in part been the result of a twisted religious fanaticism in the families involved. It is the latter fact that has made it unavoidable in reporting on these cases that the accused abusers belong to the haredi community (evident anyway from the appearance and behavior of the two accused mothers in the television footage of their arraignments). This has sparked complaints from that sector that mainstream media coverage of the crimes is being deliberately highlighted in such a way as to unfairly tarnish the entire community. Covering such extreme cases of domestic abuse always poses a series of challenges. To protect the privacy of the victims, the media is obligated (legally and morally) to tread carefully when it comes to identifying the individuals involved. The press must also walk a fine line between accurately reporting on the specific type of abuse involved, and indulging in sensationalist overkill of the specific details - a particular problem with the kind of truly gruesome acts involved in the Jerusalem incident. (I could have lived without the front-page photos in the tabloids this week of the various household items used to torture the children in that horrific home.) Then there's the issue of judging to what degree the background of the participants in the abuse - if they belong to a specific subculture - is relevant to the story. Sometimes it is unquestionably so. For example, "honor killings" of young women would make no sense to the media consumer unless presented in a specifically Arab, Beduin or Druse context. The same could be said of the many cases in recent years of spousal abuse in the Ethiopian immigrant community, which experts have asserted has been in large part due to the extreme cultural shock and displacement its members have undergone following their sudden immigration here. REGARDING THE two child abuse cases now making headlines, it has become clear that the bizarre religious beliefs of the cult-like groups to which the families belong is a direct factor in the criminal behavior of the parents and other individuals involved. Certainly any responsible reporting of this story has to delve into the circumstances behind the development and sick ideology of these sects. Some haredi commentators have argued that the media has not put enough stress on the fringe nature of these groups, or on the fact that most of their adherents were ba'alei tshuva (newly religious). They have also claimed, as in the past, that such abuse is no more common - or is even less so -- than among the secular public, yet the media never specifically talk of "secular families" when reporting on such cases. Those are legitimate points. But while it's certainly debatable to argue that mainstream haredi ideology is not in any way relevant when domestic abuse takes place in such households, certain sociological aspects of the community - in particular, its increasing poverty and the overcrowding in homes - could be said to be a contributing factor. But those are issues for another column. One aspect definitely relevant to media coverage, though, is the perceived reluctance within the haredi community to openly discuss and deal with these issues. As Tali Farkash, the Ynet columnist born and raised in the haredi community, wrote this week: "The famous conspiracy of silence among the haredi population, which the welfare services and police are dealing with, is a mark of disgrace to the entire sector. Wanting to maintain an image of morality at any cost, they fall into the hole dug by negative elements in the name of Torah, in the name of righteousness. An intensive brainwash has turned psychologists into 'religion's enemies,' social workers into those 'causing people to leave religion' and the police into the messenger of the foreign regime. In this glass house, monsters grow and thrive among us." Farkash also this week went on Channel 2's media review program Tik Tikshoret (Communications File) to specifically accuse the haredi media of failing to report or comment on such cases, thus reinforcing this "conspiracy of silence." This certainly seems to have been true of the Beit Shemesh case, which apparently went on for years until one of the family's neighbors alerted the authorities and later told a journalist he knew that in doing so he was going against the mores of the community. Farkash did acknowledge that there has been some progress in this matter in recent years, but not enough. It seems to me the haredim cannot have it both ways - arguing on one hand that behavior like this is exceptional in their environment, usually committed by someone not "really haredi," yet still showing reluctance to expose crimes being committed right in their own backyard in order to stop (or prevent) them. This is an issue on which the haredi media should be taking a lead among their public - as has been the case with the secular media - and not holding it back by reinforcing negative patterns of behavior. Perhaps I'm being a bit naïve about a press which still won't publish any images of women, no matter how modest - even children - but I hope this isn't entirely the case, especially in the future. One last point: Whenever such charges are made, haredi commentators are often too quick to shoot back that it's not only such abuse - or a media reluctance to deal with it when it involves certain individuals - that's not unique to their sector. Well, that's true to some degree. A notable example in Israeli secular society was the exploitative behavior of leftist icon Dahn Ben-Amotz, which was only revealed (by Amnon Danker) after his death. There have also been several cases involving among non-haredi and Orthodox religious figures in the US in recent years. I myself pleaded guilty in these very pages two years ago to having failed as an editor in not having more vigorously followed up on rumors that reached me about the sexual misbehavior of the now-disgraced "New Age rabbi" Mordechai Gafni. All that only argues for more coverage of these issues, both within and without the haredi community, as long as it is done in a responsible manner - one that avoids salacious scandal-mongering, properly respects the privacy of the victims, and puts such actions in the proper sociological context when necessary. The stories told these last few weeks out of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh have been truly stomach-turning. The proper response, though, is not to avert our eyes, but openly to address them in a manner that will only encourage those who learn about such incidents in the future to make sure the proper authorities are notified. ON ANOTHER very related matter: Just six weeks ago, I wrote a column summing up the media's role in the sex scandal of former president Moshe Katsav, "as it hopefully draws to a close." Oy vey iz mir - woe is me - or all of us, as is in the case here. Alas, I'm afraid the shower of sleaze this affair has already dredged up, every sordid detail reported in the press and broadcast on the evening news, will soon turn into a deluge. This will surely be so if this case goes to trial, and Katsav's alleged victims testify in court expounding on some of the accusations against him already aired by the media. That's at least one reason to regret that the ex-president decided this week to turn down the plea bargain deal offered him by the State Attorney's Office. So be it. But perhaps, because I now have two daughters old enough to want to watch the evening news - though not to understand everything on it - I hope the anchors will at least do us the courtesy of giving us the obligatory: "Some of the details in the following story may not be appropriate for children," before they start providing us with X-rated accounts of what allegedly went on in Katsav's offices in the Tourism Ministry and Beit Hanassi.