Bloody murder is not ‘normative’

32-year-old Michal Sela's killing is a perfect example of pundits and the public trying to make sense of it by adopting a socio-political stance before the ink of the printing presses are dry.

Michal Sela, who was stabbed to death in October 2019. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michal Sela, who was stabbed to death in October 2019.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With new details emerging about the recent murder of 32-year-old social worker Michal Sela at the hands of her husband, Eliran Malul, many initial judgments about the case require reevaluating.
As frequently happens when faced with unfathomable evil in Israeli society, pundits and the public try to make sense of it by adopting a socio-political stance well before both the blood of the victim and ink of the printing presses are dry. Sela’s killing is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Her story, or at least what we know of it so far, is one that lends itself to individual and collective speculation for seemingly contradictory reasons.
On the one hand, the young wife and mother – whose social media photos and posts show a beautiful and vibrant woman beaming with gratitude for her blessings – could be any one of us. Or any of our married daughters. We therefore identify with, if not partly envy, her life.
On the other, her tragic end is incomprehensible. Beyond the pale. The stuff that crime novels and movies are made of. After all, Sela was stabbed multiple times and left to bleed to death in her home by the father of the ostensibly happy couple’s eight-month-old baby girl. An infant not yet weaned from breast milk, who witnessed her daddy slash her mommy with a butcher knife and then turn the weapon on himself.
That’s not all.
MALUL THEN then scooped up the half-naked baby, clad in nothing but a blood-soaked T-shirt, and left the premises. He banged on the door of a neighbor he did not know (he and Sela were relatively new to the Jerusalem suburb of Motza), and asked for help. Handing the traumatized child over to the stranger, he said that he needed a glass of water. Before collapsing, he claimed that he and his wife had tried to commit suicide together.
The neighbor, who called an ambulance, recounted cleaning and feeding the hungry baby and creating a makeshift diaper until paramedics and family arrived.
Though it became clear virtually from the outset that Malul was lying about the so-called double suicide – since Sela’s wounds were far too extensive to have been self-inflicted – the question on everyone’s mind in the immediate aftermath of that fateful Thursday night two weeks ago was: how could such a thing happen in a “normative” family?
What caused a supposedly well-liked man – who met his wife when they both worked at an institution in Jerusalem devoted to helping youth at risk – to suddenly snap? Was he on medication? Did he take recreational drugs? Did he have a psychotic episode?
As The Jerusalem Post editorialized on October 7, the shock and countrywide attention that Sela’s murder generated was “not because it was the first case of a husband killing a wife or a male family member killing another member – hardly. Sela’s death... will bring the number to 12 of women killed in Israel this year by a person known to them. Last year, 25 women in Israel were murdered in domestic violence-related incidents.
“What made Sela’s death stand out,” according to the editorial, “was the fact that she and her husband weren’t immigrants, minorities or from a lower socio-economic level, but seemingly a normative couple without any indication of domestic strife.”
Indeed, Sela became a ready symbol for women’s groups: a paragon of victimhood cloaked in a veil of unfortunate societal assumptions about the nature and extent of domestic violence.
In interviews on TV and in several newspapers, one of Sela’s devastated and heartbroken sisters – social activist Lili Ben-Ami – said through her tears, “If this happened to us, it could happen to any family.”
She then lashed out at the government, weeping that her sister’s murder could have been prevented if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had kept his promise last year to fast-track a bill to combat violence against women, a crime he likened to “terrorism in every respect.”
So far, this bill has not been passed – and according to a report released earlier this month by Israel’s Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, there has been a steep increase in calls to its domestic violence hotline since its establishment in 2014. Last year, the report said, thousands of abused women were helped in the 113 ministry-operated centers around the country, and 95 abusive men were placed in rehabilitation programs.
At the end of 2018, the government increased its budget for the cause to NIS 50 million.
In other words, the government not only takes domestic violence seriously, but has been working on and will continue to allocate money to the campaign to minimize if not eradicate it.
IT IS WRONG to judge anyone in the throes of grief, which is why Ben-Ami’s tongue-lashing at the powers-that-be deserves understanding and sympathy. But it shouldn’t be viewed as policy gospel.
The sad fact is that domestic violence – other than “honor killings” in states that sanction them for religious or other reasons – is far more complex than the periodic mass protests against it suggest. This is true especially in cases like Sela’s, which involve “normative,” middle-class, educated and gainfully employed wives with loving and supportive extended families.
This seeming contradiction in terms is more logical than it sounds. In her 2009 book, Crazy Love, as well as in TED talks and other motivational speeches, domestic abuse survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner describes how she got entangled with and married a man who beat her, and why she remained in the relationship for so long. She is but one of many attractive and successful women with post-graduate degrees and blossoming careers who have come forward to tell their tales. Common to each is her original basking in her man’s devotion; empathy for his past or present woes; believing in his remorse and ability to change; keeping the abuse a secret from friends and family (from whom he tries to keep her isolated); and a whole lot of shame for knowing better and doing nothing. Until they do. Or die.
SELA FITS THE above profile perfectly.
Though we can’t be sure what was going on in her heart, soul and mind, there are clues about what she was suffering behind closed doors. By now we know, as well, that Malul is or was anything but “normative.”
Former girlfriends reportedly told investigators that he behaved violently toward them. Retrieved text messages reveal what police are calling “obsessive jealousy” on Malul’s part, and a clear attempt to minimize Sela’s contact not only with men, but with female friends and family members. Sela reportedly told some acquaintances that she was having marital trouble.
In addition, when Malul gained consciousness at the hospital following the murder, he refused to cooperate with interrogators. His lawyer claimed that he was too heavily medicated to give any valid statement. But even after he was well enough to be transferred to a jail cell, he continued to remain silent. In another twist, he was returned to the hospital on Wednesday, after complaining of pain.
Not once has “Mr. Normative” inquired about his baby daughter. His lack of interest in her fate is contrasted by the dozens of nursing mothers who donated breast milk for the infant’s care – and whole communities have rallied around Sela’s parents and siblings.
Sela’s sister recalled a family holiday gathering mere days before the murder, during which her brother-in-law – both of whose parents are dead – argued that the “suffering of the attacker [in a violent crime] is greater than that of the victim.”
In retrospect, this remark is far more chilling than it was at the time he uttered it. Such is the way of hindsight, which is key here.
How many of us would seize on some comment at the dinner table as a sign that our daughter or sister was in mortal peril from the person sitting across from us? How many would assume that a friend confiding in us about “marital troubles” was in need of physical rescue?
The point is that Sela – a professional dealing daily with children from dysfunctional and violent homes – did not complain to her closest confidantes, let alone the authorities, about her abuse. Perhaps she fell for Malul in the first place because she saw him as a lost puppy in need of her nurturing. Maybe she was killed for expressing the desire to get a divorce, or simply because there were dirty dishes in the sink.
The saga has yet to unfold in full, and is likely to never provide “normative” answers. But the assertions that such a bloody murder “could happen to anyone” and “could have been prevented through government programs” are false.
The brutal killing of a spouse rarely, if ever, pops out of the blue. Malul was already abusive, and Sela was privy to all aid available to battered women. It is this that makes her unspeakable fate – and her husband’s demonic deed – most worthy of note and mourning.