Opinion #MeToo in Israel's ultra-Orthodox World
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
“The guy who attacked me sexually a number of times when I was 11 years old is a married ultra-Orthodox man. I was dressed with extreme modesty. After my bat mitzvah I visited them on Shabbat, and he asked his wife to go to bed and leave me with him. She shouted, ‘She’s a bat mitzvah! You can’t touch her anymore!’
“And why is it impossible to tell and to complain? Ninth-grade girls in a Bais Yaakov school can answer that. The homeroom teacher told them about a student who was attacked in the street and stayed home for a few days to recover. She went to visit her and told her, ‘It’s your fault!’ The student defended herself, after all she observes all the rules and wears very thick stockings. The teacher answered her, ‘Yes, but there’s something about you!’”
That’s what Racheli Bass, a married ultra-Orthodox woman and mother of three who provides emotional therapy and assistance to victims of sexual assault, writes me.
Not everyone is as courageous as Racheli, who agreed to reveal her horrible story. Women I turned to, who I knew had been attacked, said that it’s better to keep quiet, that they aren’t emotionally prepared for exposure. But here are a few real stories and statements – in some the identifying details have been changed at the request of the victims to preserve their safety and privacy – in response to an op-ed by Israel Cohen (“Learn from the ultra-Orthodox how to stop sexual harassment,” Haaretz.com, November 14) that denies the injustices, sexual attacks and harassment in Haredi society, and extols the policy of separation to prevent such behavior.
“I remember my male teacher welcoming me every morning with a blessing and placing his freezing hands inside my sweater and feeling me up, holding me close to him.” (Y., a male graduate of an ultra-Orthodox elementary school and yeshivas)
“I was sitting with an older Hasidic client, who had invited me to advise him about interior design for a new store. He examined me closely and began to ask questions, he misinterpreted my pleasantness: “Do you think I’m good-looking? Isn’t it true that you would like to be with me?” I smiled like an idiot and blushed. Needless to say I didn’t get the job and I didn’t bother to ask for explanations. When my husband tried to understand why, I explained to him that the price I suggested was too expensive for him.” (R., an architect)
“Yesterday I had a conversation with my little sister. She told me about the rape of a friend of hers. An ultra-Orthodox man dragged her behind a truck and raped her, and she didn’t dare to shout because she didn’t know exactly what was happening to her, what he was doing, and mainly she was afraid that if she shouted other people would come and ‘see her’ [body]. She didn’t know what to shout. How can a nave seminary girl know how to deal with something that has no name? My sister told me about other instances of harassment, men who exposed themselves in front of girls, who didn’t know what the men were doing and why, and what to do about it.” (Natalie Rosenblum)
“I experienced a sexual attack in the family, which continued for years due to the habit of silence and the fact that the family ignored clear signs. When I recently heard about other attacks by the same man, I turned to the police. Rabbis told the complainants to testify, but later changed their minds so that he wouldn’t sit in prison for too long. Complainants were harassed. I was compared to a Nazi and to ISIS, and part of the family is still not speaking to me. At the start of my career I was sexually attacked several times in ultra-Orthodox places of work. I fled at the last moment from an attack by the founder of large charitable organizations in Jerusalem, who after the fact said that it was my fault because I fixed up my hair before leaving work.” (Shifra from Bnei Brak, a seminary graduate)
In the Facebook group I run, “Haredi Feminism,” Cohen’s article aroused a storm. Here are some of the reactions: “There are many reasons why Haredi women didn’t participate in the #MeToo campaign. Not because of what Cohen writes and not because the separated society helps to prevent sexual harassment and assault. The article is infuriating mainly because the Haredi media don’t report on the campaign at all and don’t offer the platform that the secular media gave the complainants. If anything brings on the flood of the Haredi ‘#Me too,’ and it will be a flood of sewage, it will be articles like Cohen’s.” (A.R.)
“Forget the exclusion that Cohen whitewashes so much in the article. But where’s the component of the victims, mainly among yeshiva students, despite and maybe even because of the separation?” (Chavi Blustein, a counselor for brides and married life)
All these are a miniscule sampling of authentic voices from among the public. All these quotes weren’t brought out to prove how sick Haredi society is, since the international #MeToo campaign exposes a human sickness that crosses cultures, ideologies and classes. These stories and quotes are being made public so that Saraleh and Yehuda and Chaimkeh and Menucha and Itamar and Yisrael Meir and Shira and Bracha will feel that they’re not alone and they’re not to blame.
In recent years organizations have begun to work inside the Haredi community, bringing the voices of the male and female victims to public awareness, and they are doing important work. In the Haredi media (the digital media only) they have started to discuss the subject, but for the most part the thundering silence, the fear, the embarrassment and the guilt prevail and reverberate. This has to be lifted, and those who deny the pain and suffering of the victims have to be confronted.
The writer is the founder and co-executive director of the organization Nivharot (Chosen) – Haredi women for representation, equality and a voice.