Sexual abuse occurs in every sector of society; it is not a problem belonging to any one community.This is becoming increasingly obvious with the high-profile cases in Israel which include actor Moshe Ivgy, who was recently convicted of sexual misconduct with young, aspiring actresses; the conviction of former president Moshe Katsav; the conviction of Motti Elon, who was well known in the national religious yeshiva world; and the deportation to Australia of former haredi school principal Malka Leifer for alleged abuse.
The allegations published last week in Haaretz against ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who was meant to receive the Israel Prize this Independence Day in Jerusalem, is the latest in a string of similar cases.
It must be stressed that Meshi-Zahav, like any other citizen, is innocent until proven guilty but his case puts the spotlight on a phenomenon. Sexual abuse by people in positions of power and authority, often much older, is abhorrent wherever it is found. The problems, however, are compounded in both haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and extremely conservative Arab communities.
One of the biggest problems is that, without having been taught the correct terms for body parts and with no awareness of sexuality, it can be years before victims have the words to file a complaint – or even be fully aware that what happened to them was a form of abuse.
In addition, there is a terrible fear of the stigma attached. Oftentimes, victims do not see themselves as victims but somehow as partners in the crimes and sins committed against them. It should be noted that in the case of male victims, the problems are often magnified by the fear of the double stigma.
In haredi circles, there is also often a concern that if it becomes known that someone was a victim of sexual abuse, it will ruin their family’s good name and its standing within the community.
In Arab communities, the victim might also be threatened for having brought dishonor to the family and potentially become a victim of an “honor killing.”
There is also a tendency within the haredi world to try to do everything not to wash dirty laundry in public, and in some communities a determination not to cooperate with state authorities such as the police and courts. Hence, instead of police investigations and criminal proceedings, matters are sometimes “solved” internally, through rabbinical courts.
This can result in known perpetrators being moved from one city or country to another with no supervision or warning in an effort to hush incidents. Of course, instead of solving the problem and providing justice, this actually facilitates further attacks. Leifer is not the only alleged sex offender who moved to Israel to seek refuge when allegations of sexual abuse were uncovered in their hometowns.
Elon, who was convicted of indecent assault in 2013, continued to serve the public, going as far as opening a new yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2017. Finally, just this month, he relinquished his rabbinical certificate, officially barring himself from any formal Jewish leadership role.
Those who deal with the victims (and perpetrators) need to be certified therapists and not rabbis with no formal training in the field who can actually exacerbate the psychological repercussions. There is not enough awareness that incidents of sexual abuse in childhood do not end there, but haunt the victims for the rest of their lives.
There needs to be more help for the victims and for organizations which support and accompany them through the difficult process of filing a police complaint and going to court; the courts must take cases seriously and hand out significant sentences that can act as a deterrent. There should be more education within all communities, from a young age, regarding what is appropriate behavior and what is not, to help prevent children falling prey to such abuse.
Perhaps, most importantly, the people who come forward after the publications of allegations and say “we knew all along,” should do some serious soul-searching. If you know about a crime and do not act, that cannot be tolerated.
People need to speak out; there is no excuse to remain silent. It is the victims who need protection, not their abusers.