The courage to leave

The ‘first couple’ toured the WIZO shelter for battered women, learning that abuse crosses socioeconomic and ethnic barriers.

Reuven and Nechama Rivlin with children at the WIZO shelter. (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Reuven and Nechama Rivlin with children at the WIZO shelter.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Suffering and tragedy often bring together people of different faiths, backgrounds and status who under ordinary circumstances might never meet – let alone share the same roof.
The common denominator among one such group came to light very strongly this past Monday, when President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, visited Jerusalem’s WIZO shelter for battered women on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25).
According to Rivlin, it was Nechama’s idea to identify with battered women, given that her husband has consistently spoken out against violence in Israeli society. She didn’t say much during the visit, other than what a privilege it was to meet women who had the courage to reclaim their freedom, but both she and the president listened intently to two of the women currently living in the shelter.
Media representatives were warned not to photograph, record or write anything that might identify the two women or any of the other women at the shelter at the time.
None of the women who live in the shelter are Jerusalemites. A concerted effort is made to ensure women sent to any of Israel’s 14 centers for battered women – two of which are run by WIZO – are sent to shelters far from their homes.
At any given time, in any of these shelters, there will be women with high academic qualifications sitting side by side with those who are illiterate; women from society’s upper echelons sharing a sofa with those from the lowest socioeconomic strata; women both religious and secular; Jewish, Christian and Muslim; the very young and those of an advanced age. Violence, like terror, does not discriminate.
The Rivlins toured the section of the compound that shelters the battered women and their children, and interacted with the youngsters – something they love to do, which comes to them spontaneously. They also visited the center for the prevention of violence, in which violent men are taught to control their impulses and behave in a rational manner.
Counselors working with these men told the Rivlins it is very difficult for a man to admit he is violent. He is constantly in denial and finding excuses, saying he was provoked into doing something out of character for him. While it is really tough for him to recognize he has a problem, once he does admit it to himself and others, there is a good chance he can be rehabilitated.
Meeting with World WIZO and Israel WIZO executive members, and ex-officio and high-level representatives of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, the Rivlins heard about the 24/7 hotline maintained by WIZO for women who believe themselves to be in danger; and the inability to take in women with children, especially boys over the age of 14, as it is not the environment for a teenager and it is wrong for boys that age to sleep in the same room as their mothers. They also learned about other factors leading to violence, and conditions that often prevent women from reporting violence.
In the Arab and Beduin communities, for instance, culture and language are different, and the whole concept of reporting one’s husband to the authorities is tantamount to casting a blot on family honor. In other communities, women are often afraid that they won’t be believed, their husbands will take revenge or they will lose whatever security they have.
Two of the women in the shelter told their stories to the Rivlins. While both women were articulate, they were very different from each other, but had undergone very similar traumatic experiences.
Neither had wanted to come to a shelter, envisioning it as something primitive, dark and dirty, rather than what it really is. Both were very talkative.
One woman, who is neither Israeli nor Jewish but speaks fluent Hebrew, was exceedingly polite, determined to tell her story yet holding back at certain levels, even though Rivlin questioned her intently. The other was older, Israeli, far more intense and spoke in a manner that was more familiar than respectful. Both of their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Miriam was married to an Israeli for eight years, six of which were spent in Israel; she has three children aged six, four and one.
When she and her husband were still living abroad, he tried to turn her against her family and isolate her from them. After they came to Israel, they moved into a nice house – which, as far as Miriam was concerned, became a prison. Her husband didn’t let her go to work, didn’t let her go out at all, yet kept telling her she was free to leave.
Her life became one of fear and terror; she never knew what he was going to do next, and cringed whenever he came through the door. None of his friends suspected the dark side of his nature, and Miriam didn’t dare tell them. “Who would believe me? They would tell me that I have a nice house and beautiful children and don’t need to work. How could I tell them my secret, about what goes on inside our four walls?” Eventually, she summoned the courage to turn to a social worker, who told her she must get out. She had been subjected to emotional, physical, sexual and economic violence; there was no reason left to stay.
Miriam had never been in a women’s shelter; in her mind’s eye, she saw it as small and dingy, with soiled mattresses on the floor. How could she take her children from their beautiful home to such a place? Finally, she had no option but to leave – and discovered that the reality of the shelter environment was not at all what she had imagined.
However, in leaving her husband, Miriam put her status in jeopardy. Non-Jewish wives of Israelis receive permanent residence status, but this is often taken away if they get divorced or their husband dies.
Miriam is currently in limbo, a factor that moved Rivlin to say he will look into the matter because all her children are Israeli; he thinks it is inhuman to separate a loving mother from her children. The president has no power to change the law, but he does have influence among people who do have that power.
Just as a matter of interest, children who come with their mothers to the shelters are not really separated from their fathers. Both WIZO and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry encourage children to telephone their fathers and have supervised meetings with them. Unless the father is very dangerously violent, there is no desire to drive a wedge between father and child.
Sarah was a successful career woman, independent and financially comfortable, having done well for herself in Israel and overseas.
At age 39, she decided to find a husband and raise a family. The man she married was both charismatic and charming – yet she soon discovered the charm was a façade.
Something didn’t seem quite right in the first year of marriage; her husband made vicious verbal threats against members of his own family. This should have sounded a warning bell for Sarah, but she didn’t really know what marriage was about. She asked her relatives if it should be this way, then attributed it to adjustment problems. Having been on her own for a long time, she was just learning to share her life with another person.
After the first year, her husband’s anger turned against her. He told her she was stupid and demanded she stop wearing jewelry, though she had always worn it and felt naked without it.
In seven years of marriage, Sarah’s husband chipped away at her self-esteem until she lost her identity. There was no physical violence, she said, “but the psychological violence is worse, because it changes who you are.” She had been a strong personality, but the insults and humiliation wore her down – until she was a shadow of her former self.
With all he was doing to her, Sarah didn’t see herself as a victim, but she also didn’t want to stay with him. She wanted to leave after the birth of her first child, but was persuaded to seek marriage counseling and try to reconcile. She stayed. Another child was born, and when she wanted to leave again, he filed a false criminal suit against her. The file was eventually closed and no charges were brought, because there were none to bring.
Sarah’s husband then began threatening her with physical harm, though he didn’t follow through on the threats. Still, it was frightening, and when he threatened to tie her up, she went to the police – who didn’t do a thing, on the grounds he hadn’t actually threatened to kill her. When she told a social worker about this, she found herself in the WIZO shelter a week later.
Sarah’s concept of a shelter was similar to that of Miriam, but she’s been there for eight months now – something her relatives cannot comprehend. They don’t understand how she needed to build up her self-confidence again and stop being afraid.
“I never realized until I came here that I was a victim,” she said, recalling how her husband had put up hidden cameras all over the house to spy on her.
Sarah’s husband is charming in front of the social workers and treats the children with great affection, but when the social workers are out of earshot, he tries to brainwash them. Each child has told her separately that his father had instructed him to cut the chains. When she asked what chains, the reply was the prison chains. It turned out he’d been telling the children that the place they were staying with their mother was a prison.
Lamenting the fact that violence in Israel has so great an impact on people’s lives, Rivlin said he understood the problems confronting the women. He wanted to further investigate Miriam’s case and that of other women like her. He was bothered by the serious possibility she could be expelled or deported and denied her children, because they are Israeli citizens and she is not.
Both Rivlin and his wife paid tribute to all the women in the shelter, calling them true heroines for having the courage to report the violence and begin their lives afresh, thereby setting an example for other women.
On a final note, a social worker told In Jerusalem a story: In one of the shelters, there had been two women who came at different times – but each had been married to the same violent man. After ruining his first marriage, he kept going and ruined his second. •