Avital’s tragedy – and triumph

Tamar Ben David (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tamar Ben David
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ON THURSDAY evening, September 4, 2014, Avital Rokach was preparing to go to a concert of Israel's legendary singer, Shlomo Artzi. At around 5 p.m., her husband, from whom she had long been separated, hid in ambush in the hallway of her small apartment building. When Avital left her apartment, Shmuel attacked her and stabbed her to death. Her pleas to him to stop went unheeded. Avital left behind two boys and her youngest daughter, Tamar Ben David.
Tamar was raised in a traditional lower-class family in Jerusalem. The economic situation in the family was always difficult, but even though she recalls there was even a time that they had no refrigerator, Tamar never felt she lacked because of the love and protection she received from her mother.
Tamar is not just a statistic or a name in a newspaper to me. We are in the same class at Shalem College in Jerusalem. We disagree on just about everything. She is an anti-Zionist, radical feminist activist who considers herself an anarchist. I am a Zionist Israeli who was raised in a settlement in Judea.
Despite our differences, we became good friends. Even without the horrific murder of her mother by her father (whom she refuses to acknowledge as her father), Tamar has more “skeletons” in her closet than most human beings collect in their lifetime. She has “come out of the closet” twice, once declaring she is bisexual and a second time identifying herself as a woman, despite being born biologically a male. She is one of the leading LGBTQ activists in Jerusalem and fights against male controlled institutions that she believes abuse their power by dominating the weaker elements in society.
As trust grew between us, I asked if she would be willing to be interviewed and share her story. She agreed, but requested that her mother, her hero, be the subject of the story rather than her. She also suggested the interview be conducted “somewhere you've never been before.”
So there we were, Tamar and I, in a small vegan bar in downtown Jerusalem, full of political/ideological stickers against the occupation and for animal rights. I felt out of place. That is another gap between us – her safe zone is for me a discomfort zone.
Tamar filled me in on her family history. Avital was only 14 when she met her husband. They married at a young age. Avital quickly lost her innocence as Shmuel beat her. His violence was aimed at the children as well. Tamar recalls how Shmuel dislocated her jaw when she was in the ninth grade. “But you know what was worst, Matan? It was the emotional violence. His endless manipulations, the way he humiliated my mother, beat her and then told her he couldn't live without her.”
Needless to say, this horrible man was not accepting of Tamar's way of life and would humiliate her about her identity. I asked if she thought her father's character was one of the things that made her feel distanced from men and eventually become queer. “I don't think that is the direct reason,” she responded. ”My life and the decisions I made reflect the accumulation of many of the things I experienced over the years. But my father's image definitely stands as a beacon to the reason I do not trust men.”
Dozens of women are murdered annually in Israel, right under the eyes of the institutions whose mandate it is to protect them. Throughout the interview I wondered, could this murder have been avoided? How does a woman in the 21st century, in the capital of the Jewish state, find herself beaten, humiliated, threatened and isolated with no one to aid her? This murder could have been stopped.
Our institutions are not protecting these women from their partners.
Avital struggled as best she could. For years she begged the rabbinical court in Jerusalem to allow her to leave her husband, but he refused her a get.
More hearings were scheduled as more time elapsed. Though she left her husband, Avital was not free. She was held captive to halachic procedures with no sympathy toward her whatsoever.
I asked her, “What about the judges and police?” Tamar laughed sarcastically: “He [Shmuel] was arrested a couple of times, but released after questioning, despite his record of years of violence and divorce refusal.” The judges were merciful to the violent man, but Avital was left to stand alone.
Throughout the interview, Tamar elaborated on her mother's special character and her love of animals, a trait Tamar also has. Avital was a strong woman who did everything in her power to become a free woman. Ironically, Shmuel was scheduled a few days after the murder to be brought in handcuffs to give Avital the get she yearned for, to enable her to go on with her life. Instead, on that Thursday night, as Tamar was riding home on a bus from her community service, she received a call that could have been avoided: “Your mother was murdered.”
Shmuel was arrested soon after, his hands stained with the blood of Tamar's mother. He continues to psychologically manipulate the court system and his family, dragging out the procedures. He is charged with first-degree murder.
I sat shaking in that Jerusalem coffee shop. On the one hand, I admired Tamar's ability to tell her story, but on the other, I was sad about the society in which I live. I asked Tamar if she has lost hope in humanity. In her mind, she separates hope and optimism. She is not an optimist. It is so easy for human beings to turn evil, to arouse the animal instincts that reside in us all. But there is hope. And there is a struggle, to fix what is wrong in society. “I know my mother would be proud of me that I care about this world, this world that was so evil to her.”
We ended the interview; Jerusalem was already dark and rainy, matching the tragedy I had just heard. But these words were written in Jerusalem daylight. I hope that Avital's story serves as a reminder: Though we may not necessarily fix the rage of a violent man, we can fix the lapses in our social system. The police force must have more tools to protect these women. And there must be checks and balances from our courts over the rabbinical system. Avital and Tamar's struggle should be all of ours.
The writer is cofounder of Speakup, a public speaking and political consulting firm.