Abusive husbands don’t have to use their fists to frighten and control their wives. They may even send them flowers or love letters and apologize occasionally for their behavior – without actual physical violence – but still be guilty of chronic “hidden abuse.”
This type is widespread against women trapped in such marriages, especially among those in higher socioeconomic groups because the men know that if they beat their wives, they can be arrested, convicted and tossed into jail. They have the means to escape punishment and protect themselves.
Unfortunately, there are major differences between “hot” and “cold” violence, but the establishment – the police, social welfare authorities and the courts – don’t know how to differentiate between them.
This phenomenon has been investigated and its victims were treated by Esther Blumberg, now past her 70th birthday. She was raised in a haredi ( ultra-Orthodox) family and educated in a girls’-only Bais Yaakov school whose principal was a Gur Hassid; his deputy had a doctorate in mathematics.
A former biology teacher in a Jerusalem high school who insisted on going to Bar-Ilan University after barely earning her matriculation certificate, Blumberg has just completed a thought-provoking, shocking, troubling and pioneering Hebrew-language book on women trapped in hidden abuse.
The 263-page volume from Carmel Publishing in Jerusalem – the result of a decade of work – is titled Ne’elamut, Nashim Bemalkodet Ha’alimut Hasmuya (“Stifled - Women Trapped in Hidden Abuse”). She has already been approached about having it translated into English for a broader, international audience.
Prof. Elyakim Rubinstein, a retired justice and vice president of the Supreme Court, said that from the book he “learned about phenomena that perhaps I could describe intuitively but not in detail or intensity and professionalism. The last chapter contains a set of operative insights that should be taught.”
Dr. Hila Haelyon of BIU’s Gender Studies Department wrote: “A seminal book, one in a generation – a book that should be a must-have for every girl and woman. The texts are startling, [bewildering] and important.” Today, Blumberg is happily married – “I was very lucky, and I didn’t think at that age about such problems” – and the mother of three adult children.
“I went to the only Bais Yaakov school for girls that then prepared pupils for matriculation. It was a very low level, without math or physics,” she said in an interview.
“Only I and another girl went to university. The backgrounds of the girls were very mixed: Hassidim and Lithuanian Haredim. My mother was very religious but she didn’t cover her hair. Many parents were Holocaust survivors. Today, Bais Yaakov schools are very different and homogeneous, with women from the more-extreme Gur community working as teachers.”
Today, Blumberg is Modern Orthodox, but she still is in close contact with many haredi women who were Bais Yaakov classmates and says still feels a closeness to the haredi lifestyle. She met her husband, who was a Hebrew University student, and they moved to Jerusalem in 1971.
After the Jewish Quarter became homogeneously haredi – she prefers a mixed population – they settled down in the capital’s German Colony.
First encounter of the abuse phenomenon by respected husbands
She first encountered the phenomenon of abuse by respected husbands three decades ago when she stopped by uninvited at the home of Nehama, a childhood friend from the Gur community she had not seen for years, who had married a very capable Hassid and school principal 12 years before.
“When she heard me knock at the door, she froze and refused to let me in,” recalled Blumberg. “Her little daughter opened the door a crack and said: ‘Ima doesn’t feel well.’ Nehama was sitting on the balcony with her back facing me. I looked at her and will never forget that moment."
"Her face was swollen and battered. She looked like a steamroller had driven over her. She pointed to her husband in silence,” Blumberg recalled from when it occurred in 1983.
“A man doesn’t change from a prince to a frog in one day.” It is gradual. The signs begin slowly. He says nasty, denigrating things about his wife even without raising his voice, about being “lazy,” “fat,” a “bad housekeeper,” “a negligent mother.”
She cries and apologizes, but she wonders if she is really guilty even though it’s all a falsehood. The man may even be charming to her parents so that when she complains about him, they refuse to believe her.
He decides everything without consulting her – what to buy, how much to spend; often prevents her from meeting her own family and friends; and prevents her from working in her profession so she won’t have any income of her own and he can control the purse strings.
He constantly calls home to demand to know where she is. He is often obsessively jealous. The wife feels like a defendant in court facing a man with aggressive body language. The husband may force the wife to be intimate, even though he disgusts her; some religious men demand sex even when it is forbidden by Jewish law.
But at the same time, at work or in the synagogue, they are charming and highly praised by their bosses and fellow congregants. If a wife complains to the police, she is asked only if he beats her. She has no proof of passive violence.
BLUMBERG AND her husband went to the US where she earned a master’s degree in the health sciences and did research on physical violence against women.
When they returned to Israel, she wanted to investigate abuse that was not physically violent. She considered studying social work but went to the haredi Yanar Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family Counseling in Jerusalem instead and later even taught there. More recently, she started a doctorate at BIU in gender studies.
“One can be very religious but not manipulative; a man must have a conscience and feel empathy. Such a personality makes hidden abuse of their wives very rare. But passive abuse that is not violent can and does occur in any community – Jewish, Arab, Christian, in Tel Aviv, kibbutzim, Mea She’arim or Nazareth.”
“One can be very religious but not manipulative; a man must have a conscience and feel empathy. Such a personality makes hidden abuse of their wives very rare. But passive abuse that is not violent can and does occur in any community – Jewish, Arab, Christian, in Tel Aviv, kibbutzim, Mea She’arim or Nazareth.”Esther Blumberg
She began to work with women suffering from hidden abuse at the Beit Elisheva branch in Jerusalem of the nonprofit Naamat, which runs daycare centers, and she also counsels women in trouble.
Since then, she has become an “address” for them. They call her even after midnight, and if she isn’t asleep, she answers. Becoming known by word of mouth, she constantly gets new of cases of women pleading for help, and her book describes scores of them among the many hundreds he has helped.
Violence against women
When a bullied woman finally announces she wants a divorce, the husband usually becomes more threatening and aggressive; sometimes he promises to improve, but he almost never does, said Blumberg. Most women aren’t granted a divorce and are fearful that their children will be taken away from them or that they will have no financial support.
When violence against women is discussed in government offices and the media, “they almost never talk about upper- or even middle-class women, just about women from lower socioeconomic groups where the husband is not physically violent and thus his objectionable behavior is difficult to prove,” she notes.
When well-dressed, -educated women are sent to a shelter for victims of domestic violence, the administrators tell Blumberg that they “just won’t fit in” with the women who are there, and there are no shelters in Israel for such victims.
Although hidden violence is “not more common” among Haredim, a major reason for problems is that after parents consult rabbis and yeshiva heads about potential husbands, many couples meet only a few times – or only once or twice – before they decide to marry.
“I work with mothers, and they say they ask the yeshiva head where the young man studies, whether he excels in Torah learning and if the family has money to support them.”
But this doesn’t weed out those who are control freaks and the manipulative men who lack a conscience and empathy. They may be lone wolves and like to be admired.
“One must ask those who lived with them in the same dorm room. Secular or Modern Orthodox families should ask those in the IDF who worked under them about the prospective groom. The other things are not really important,” said Blumberg. “From birth, one must raise children, by their own example, to develop empathy and a conscience.”
After more than 200 pages of horrific cases of suffering women, one finally gets to the final chapter of warning signs and how to “smell out” men with a manipulative, unconscionable tendency. Blumberg has gone to girls’ schools to give lectures on how to avoid such men. “Perhaps one day there will be a blood [type] or brain to identify problematic personalities.”
A personality that hasn’t developed a conscience and lacks empathy is cold and manipulative. According to Sigmund Freud, conscience develops up to the age of three. Other psychiatrists say it is by seven or eight, while still others suggest that teenagers can work on developing empathy and conscience. But if these didn’t develop, the person can’t change.”
Men who are physically violent and undergo rehabilitation can be taught to stop, just as a murder due to “family honor” among some Muslim communities can be eradicated from the culture with education, said Blumberg, “but there is little hope of changing those who have no conscience and are manipulative – even if they never hit their wives,” she added.
“The language is different for secular, Modern Orthodox and haredi women, but when peeled back, the stories are the same. I ask just a few questions and already know the direction and type of behavior.
Last week, a woman called, saying she was fearful because her husband threatened to murder her if she applied for divorce. He issued his threat on Shabbat so she couldn’t record his voice.”
Amazingly, most women suffering from passive violence are “very good looking, well dressed, even beautiful – sought by the husband so they can boast about them to others. Almost all the women are innocent and pure inside, so they can be manipulated. They don’t suspect any wrongdoing and don’t like to complain or accuse,” said Blumberg.
She said she can’t say what percentage of men have the profile of using passive violence against their wives, “but there wasn’t a week in 25 years that I didn’t get a call for help from victims. I have a 20-year-old granddaughter who is finishing her IDF service and another who is 18.
One had a boyfriend who constantly complained about her wanting to meet her girlfriends. That doesn’t mean that he has a problem but she must be on the lookout for more signs. If there are more, she should drop him. There are young guys who present themselves as wonderful, but they wear a mask.”
Asked if there are young women who are also manipulative and use passive violence against men, Blumberg answered: “Yes, there are some girls who are problematic, but very few women have such a negative personality as the men."
There are conditions more characteristic of one gender, like baldness in men and breast cancer in women. There are women who abuse and try to isolate their husbands from friends, but their violence is usually demonstrated outside and not within the family.
Her final message to girls, young women looking for a husband and their parents is to be alert and not to dismiss warning signs in behavior before making a commitment.
November 25 is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.