The harrowing details of the allegations of rape and sexual abuse against Zaka founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav have made for horrifying reading in recent days.
In a lengthy investigative piece in the Haaretz daily, the testimony of six alleged victims detailed abuse conducted by Meshi-Zahav going back decades, starting in the 1980s.
About 10 others have come forward and spoken to other media outlets since the article was published last week, and it is believed that the number of total victims could be many times greater.
With such a large number of apparent victims and with Meshi-Zahav allegedly committing his sexual crimes over such a long period of time, the question is being asked how his activities did not come to light sooner.
Several reports have noted that so-called “Modesty Police” organizations in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where Meshi-Zahav lived and operated were aware of the abuses he was committing but did not do enough to stop him and failed to report him to the police.
And the police reportedly conducted a secret investigation back in 2013 but were unable to make progress, in part because none of his victims had been willing to testify.
After decades of allegedly raping and sexually abusing men, women, boys and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community, Meshi-Zahav’s past is finally catching up with him.
Shana Aaronson, director of Magen for Jewish Communities, which assists sexual abuse victims in Israel and the Diaspora and assisted Haaretz with its investigation, says that victims of sexual abuse across all sectors of society are often very reluctant to come forward and inform the authorities of what happened for several reasons.
Victims can feel that they will not be believed, that their family will be angry with them, that they might be the only person their attacker is abusing, or because they are simply shamed by what had happened, Aaronson said.
In cases where the abuser is an influential individual or in a position of power or authority, concerns that the claims will not be believed or even of reprisals and revenge by the attacker can be further reasons not to come forward.
Aaronson cites cases such as that of convicted serial rapist Larry Nassar, who worked as a USA Gymnastics national team doctor and who is believed to have sexually assaulted at least 265 girls and women.
Allegations against Nassar surfaced in the 1990s but it was not until 2016 that public accusations were made against him.
On average, victims of sexual abuse will wait ten years before reporting their abuse Aaronson said.
She notes that even though this phenomenon is widespread across many sectors of society, there are other factors in the ultra-Orthodox community which can exacerbate it.
The highly conservative nature of the community in general and the great reluctance to talk about any aspect of sex, sexuality, or even the human body, engenders a greater sense of shame about all such matters, all the more so when it comes to sexual abuse.
Ultra-Orthodox society also places a heavy focus on the importance of “marrying well,” and even the smallest infractions of religious norms can harm someone’s marriage opportunities.
Being the victim of sexual abuse could certainly have a negative impact on someone’s marriage options, and Aaronson says this could be an additional reason for someone not to step forward.
In addition, there is a strong focus on the importance of virginity, which victims would obviously compromise if they publicly acknowledge having been raped or abused.
Manny Waks, CEO of the VoiCSA organization combating child sex abuse, notes that not only do these characteristics of ultra-Orthodox society make reporting such incidents more difficult, but some of them even make it easier for sexual predators to operate.
“Sexual activity is a completely private matter. Discussion of sex, including sexual abuse and the privacy of the body, is ignored in every way possible,” explained Waks.
This effectively turns ultra-Orthodox society into a target-rich environment because many young people are unaware that the sexual abuse they are experiencing is even wrong or forbidden.
In some ultra-Orthodox communities, children and teenagers are often not able to even describe their different body parts and therefore lack the language to describe their abuse.
Indeed, some of the testimony that has surfaced about Meshi-Zahav corroborates this problem.
One alleged victim cited in the Haaretz article as Aleph said he was 14 when Meshi-Zahav started abusing him, and said he had no idea “how children are brought into the world.”
Said Aleph: “As a young child with sexual curiosity, I did not understand that I was being sexually abused.”
“Many victims do not have the language to express what’s happening to them,” says Aaronson.
“Their gut feeling is that what’s happening is something bad but they have so little awareness that they can’t even tell someone if they wanted to.”
Aaronson said that children, in particular, are “unbelievably vulnerable to the manipulation of an abuser.” If an abuser says, for example, that something is normal for friends to do together, a child will easily believe them.
“Ayin,” another of the alleged victims cited in the Haaretz investigation, said that he was just five years old when he says Meshi-Zahav began to abuse him – abuse which carried on for two years.
“I didn’t realize that this was something forbidden and I didn’t try and stop it or move him off of me. For years, I didn’t even ascribe this any importance,” he said.
Efforts by Magen and other organizations have been afoot for several years now to change the culture in ultra-Orthodox society regarding how to deal with and educate about sexual abuse.
These efforts will be critical for addressing and exposing the appalling abuse that can take place when predators operate in such environments.