When it comes to handling issues of sexual violence in the Jewish state, experts say Israel is taking positive steps – but there is a long way to go
By Maayan Hoffman
There are numerous Jewish laws forbidding situations where a man and a woman and/or an adult and children – when it is not a parent and child – would be alone together. There are also laws forbidding touch of any kind between an unmarried man and woman or man and girl/woman and boy.
Therefore, it seems natural that in Israel – the Jewish state in which Jewish people govern themselves at least partially by Torah law – that there would be less challenges when it comes to sexual violence. However, while positive steps are being taken, according to Manny Waks, CEO of Kol V’Oz, which addresses issues of child sexual abuse, in Israel, “there is still a significant way to go.”
“The situation in Israel is far worse than the situation in the Diaspora Jewish community – Israel is a lot more behind,” Waks told eJewish Philanthropy.
For example, he cited a situation in 2017 whereby Health Minister Yaakov Litzman paid a visit to a convicted sex offender, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a leader of the Breslov Hasidic community who had headed the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Berland was sentenced to 18 months in prison in July 2016 for a string of sexual offences, including several counts of sexual misconduct and assault. Berland was released early from prison amid health problems.
Coming under criticism for the visit, Litzman explained the meeting as being part and parcel of his general visits to the sick and sought to justify his visit, claiming that he was meeting Berland just like he would any other sick person.
Likewise, Rabbi Moti Elon, who was convicted of indecent assault by force against a minor in 2013, opened a new yeshiva in central Jerusalem in June 2017. Several top religious leaders attended an opening ceremony in Elon’s honor.
“What those actions ultimately do is provide a massive insecurity to the people who have been sexually abused in those communities,” Waks said.
Further, Waks said one of the biggest challenges Israel faces is Jewish perpetrators using their right of return to come to Israel and evade Justice.
“With the right of return, anyone who is Jewish and would like to make Aliyah can. Unfortunately, while in principle this is a worthwhile endeavor for historical and other reasons, it gets misused by criminals, including many perpetrators and alleged perpetrators, who use Israel as a place of refuge and evade justice in their communities,” Waks said. “These people have a criminal past and they are able to remain here and offend with impunity.”
He said Israel is not just another country, but the Jewish homeland, and so its standards should be higher. He does believe the state – and its various Jewish sectors – are working to improve.
“In the last few years I have seen significant positive development” in terms of addressing issues of sexual violence against children and adults, Waks said.
Waks said he has also seen more victims come forward to talk about the injustices done to them.
“What I see as a trend, especially within the more Orthodox community, where individuals have spoken out about their personal experiences, and in some cases brought together a community within those communities who speak about these issues,” he said. “Organizations and individuals are taking on this issue, but we are far from where they need to be.”
Waks said many organizations and Jewish leaders in Israel are willing to issue “generic, broad statements claiming to be against sexual assault. But sadly, we have seen that they are lacking the commitment to do the right thing” when faced with a perpetrator within their own space – for political or personal reasons, or even for lack of understanding.
He noted that the ultra-Orthodox community tends to be more vulnerable to child sex abuse due to its larger families, and lack of secular education or sometimes any education around the body and sex.
Waks recommends sexual violence education be focused on three target audiences: parents, educators/staff and children. And he said there should likewise be three components to any sexual violence protocol or program: prevention, intervention and victim support.
He believes social media has been the primary and most effective tool for bringing the first stages of change in Israel.
“Social media has empowered many victims and advocates to share their own personal stories,” Waks said.
Not Just a Women’s Issue
The Facebook page was launched in 2013 and One of One became a legal NGO in 2014. The organization serves as an ideological-political-feminist platform for sharing and disseminating evidence of verbal harassment, sexual assault, indecent assault and rape, recognizing that harassment and assaults occur to every woman because she is a woman.
“One of One provided a space for people to give evidence of cases of harassment and sexual assault they have experienced,” Yael Sherer, deputy chairwoman and board member of One of One told eJP. “I am a great advocate of talking to – and not talking about – victims. In Israel, we see a lot of conversation is people talking about victims and not with them.”
Sherer herself is a survivor. She endured severe sexual abuse at the hands of her father. In her documentary film, “Dirty Laundry,” she openly calls him to account with an unflinching gaze straight into the camera.
Like Waks, Sherer said she sees Israel moving in the right direction in terms of how the country addresses issues of sexual violence. She even maintains that Israel’s #MeToo era started in 2013 and that there have been continual positive steps since then. She said America’s recent #MeToo gave these issues a second spotlight in Israel.
She also said that Israel is ahead of America on certain aspects of the sexual violence conversation – mainly involving men who have been assaulted as well. She said in the past that men would rarely talk about experiencing sexual violence out of shame.
In Israel, men are starting to speak out.
“I think Israel is ahead of the States in getting men involved in these issues,” said Sherer. “Sexual assault against men in on the rise. We always understood that men don’t report it. We see that is starting to change. Men are talking about it for the first time.”
In this case, too, social media has been a leading force for change.
“Now, with social media, it doesn’t matter if you are in Tel Aviv, the Negev or the Galilee, people can talk about and share stories from everywhere,” Sherer said. “I am an optimist and I hope for and see a safer world for our children.”