Israel - Among Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews, the Haredim, social workers are often called “child-snatchers” and the police “Cossacks,” harking back to the 19th century pogroms against Jews in Russia. These cloistered communities, in which women are expected to raise and financially support their large families while their husbands spend their days stooped over the Torah, make up 10% of Israel’s population and a third of Jerusalem’s, and consider themselves defenders of a core morality in Jewish society. But that moral authority has come under scrutiny since evidence began to emerge in March of incest, rape and child abuse in four different ultra-orthodox enclaves around the country.
Over the last few weeks the Cossacks have arrived wearing the uniform of the Israeli national police force. In a series of raids following tip-offs from victims’ relatives, neighbors and hospital workers, the police have arrested ultra-orthodox wives, husbands and yeshiva students.
Community elders were at first appalled. Now they are grateful for the intervention. “The Haredim are shocked by these cases,” says Noach Korman, a Haredi attorney in the rabbinical court that adjudicates family and religious law, and the director of a shelter for battered wives. “At first they said, ‘These people are crazy, they don’t belong to us.’ But now I hear Haredi voices saying: ‘We should examine ourselves and not close our eyes to why these things are happening.’ “Says Naomi Ragen, an orthodox woman who is an author and advocate for gender equality: “These shocking things had to come out. There was no more room left under the carpet.”
predators operate with ease among the ultra-orthodox communities because female victims often keep quiet, knowing that to speak out will damage their prospects of finding a husband. “The families all want their girls to have a AAA marriage to a religious scholar from a good family, and nobody’s going to marry a girl who gets raped,” says Ragen. In Bnei Brak, a predominately Haredi city near Tel Aviv, social worker Doron Agasi says one young Haredi man told him that he had molested more than a hundred girls. Agasi, director of the Shlom Banaich Fellowship, the only organization in Israel that treats pedophiles and their victims, convinced the young man to confess to the police. But, says Agasi, the authorities refused to bring charges because none of the parents of the alleged victims had filed complaints. Agasi says the rapist is now roaming free.
The majority of ultra-orthodox families are orderly and loving, but for some mothers, the stress of raising an average of seven to eight children while holding down a job is too much to handle. Haredi men place a higher value on spiritual learning than on money or possessions; devout husbands, who wear black hats and long-tailed coats modeled on those of 18th century Polish noblemen, are expected only to study. And when they are abusive, their wives often cover up to preserve the family’s honor. Says Ragen: “You hear the Haredi women say: ‘I took the stain on me so that my husband could be as white as snow.’ ”
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