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."
Sex 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.
Convincing the Haredi to work with police and social workers has been a struggle, says Miki Miller, a social worker in the newly built Haredi town of Kiryat Sefer near Jerusalem. "The Haredi believe that a closed society is a pure society," she says. But a closed society can hide a multitude of sins. A senior police officer in Jerusalem acknowledges that the instincts of the Haredi community to cover up such crimes undermines the authorities' ability to investigate and prosecute offenders: "We're aware of this phenomenon of sex abuse among Haredis, but an extremely low number of these cases are ever reported."
The first port of call for Haredi families faced with violence or sex crimes is often their rabbi. But religious leaders themselves have not been immune from accusations of abuse. On April 6, a Jerusalem court indicted a Haredi mother of eight for child abuse in light of evidence that she broke her two toddlers' bones with hammers, forced the children to eat feces, and locked them inside a suitcase for hours. The alleged abuses came to light only after her three-year-old son was taken to hospital in a coma with brain damage. The woman claimed she was driving "devils" from her children following instructions from her religious counselor Elior Chen, who has since fled to Canada. Israeli police are seeking his extradition.
In Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem, another case of abuse centered on a self-styled female "rabbi" who hid her face entirely behind a black veil. Her religious modesty attracted dozens of Haredi female disciples over several years, but her own sister was frantically seeking police intervention to stop the woman from thrashing her children with a rolling pin. Neighbors say she allegedly left her kids tied for hours to a garden tree. After her arrest, one of her children, now an adult, told police that his mother had encouraged incest among her offspring when they were younger.
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.' "
Social workers at Jerusalem's shelter for battered Haredi women say that family violence often erupts during the ritual Shabbat dinner, when all children are gathered — tempers flare over mundane arguments and the husband strikes his wife. A wife may endure such treatment for years. But the number of women who call a 24-hour hotline for battered Haredi women has jumped from 477 calls in 2004 to 1,402 last year. Social workers attribute the increase to a new generation of rabbis urging women to speak out against domestic violence.
Yet many Jewish feminists say that women are more repressed than ever inside Israel's Haredi community. Anat Zuria, a respected filmmaker who focuses on the Haredim, says that many Haredi now believe that, according to Biblical prophecy, Judgment Day is fast approaching. "The Haredi are becoming more Messianic, and they believe the Messiah will only come if there's purity and modesty among women," she says. To that end, boys and girls are segregated early on. "Everything about sexuality is unmentionable," says Zuria. "There's no Internet, no TV, no books, but you can't kill off the erotic impulse." Author Ragen concurs: "All of these taboos don't necessarily make them saints. Sometimes they become perverts."
That realization is sinking in with some socially conscious rabbis. In Febuary, Rabbi Meir Kessler from Kiryat Sefer called two late-night meetings in which 3,000 parents were urged to warn their children that even men in beards and hats are capable of evil. The rabbi's candid sermon has stirred debate among the shuttered Haredim. One stunned participant told reporters that "not since Moses" had a rabbi spoken publicly on such forbidden sexual topics. The spate of abuse cases prompted Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yona Metzger, to call on his fellow religious leaders "to vomit these parents and rabbis out of the camp and do everything in our power to save the souls of these young children."
More openness is the only way to catch offenders and root out the culture that permits them to operate. Teachers in some Haredi primary schools and yeshivas are now taught how to recognize such telltale sights of abuse as sudden moodiness or aggression, injuries or indecent behavior towards other students. In early spring, a teacher in the southern town of Nativot caught one child sexually accosting another. Social workers investigated and found that the boy's mother said she had sex with her child as a way to "punish" her husband for having left her.
It's hard to find positives in such stories. Yet it is better that they come to light than that they remain the dark secret of the Haredi. In Bnei Brak, police say one rapist in ultra-orthodox garb is stalking preteen girls, cornering them in dark hallways or in parks. It took weeks before religious elders alerted the police to the sexual predator, who has yet to be caught. But authorities say it is a sign of changing times that the Haredi children, and their parents, did not endure these crimes in silence.