Why the Orthodox rabbinate protects sex abusers — and the occupation

A few years ago, Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice – an advocacy group for Jewish survivors of sexual abuse – opined in the New York Post that “the strictly Orthodox rabbinic leadership’s conduct” in sex abuse cases had descended “to levels so deplorable that they begin to tarnish the credibility and reputations of the communities they’re employed to serve.”

Hirsch was promptly branded an anti-Semite by an official spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, one of the country’s most prominent Orthodox rabbinic organizations.

Dreadful, yes?

But other sorts of truth-tellers have also suffered the rabbinic third degree. Last June, the Orthodox Union — by its own description “the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization” — slapped the “anti-Semite” label on everyone (Jews included) who dares to campaign peacefully for the human rights of Palestinians under Israeli rule. According to the OU, protesting the occupation of Palestinian land is anti-Semitic “at its core.” Agudath Israel chimed in with the same accusation a few months later.

I wish — really, I do — that I could feel shocked at this pair of silly slanders. After all, neither can be squared with the stated policies of the Orthodox institutions responsible for them. Both Agudath Israel and the OU are on record in support of the prosecution of Orthodox Jews who have committed sex abuse. And any student of Zionism knows that the traditional Orthodox rabbinate has been cool (to put it mildly) to the secular nationalism that is the central formative principle of the State of Israel.

But truth is truth, and I must confess I’m really not surprised at all. In fact, I see the rabbinate’s twin smears — against those who expose sex abuse by Orthodox Jews, and against people who protest the victimization of non-Jews by the “Jewish state” — as natural correlatives.

An Orthodox Jew myself, I’ve spent years campaigning against cover-ups of sex abuse in my religious community; I’ve also written a good deal about Israel’s abuse of Palestinians. And for both initiatives, I’ve been labeled a traitor.

In April 2012, the Orthodox publisher of Ami Magazine named me a “longtime agitator against the Orthodox community” for taking legal action to expose the protectors of Avrohom Mondrowitz, an indicted serial child molester whose escape from Brooklyn to Israel was abetted by Orthodox rabbis.

And earlier this year I was called “disgusting,” a “faux Jew,” and an Arab propagandist by Orthodox Jews who were incensed at my criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

I don’t mention these condemnations to curry sympathy, but to make a point. Anyone regularly subjected to such execration is likely to notice patterns among the attacks. And what I’ve noticed is that the attacks have been prompted by challenges to power — for in practice, if not in theory, Orthodox Jewish culture is largely about who wields power within the community: who makes the decisions and who must obey them, who may speak and who must remain silent.

Naomi Chazan, in a blog article recently published by the Times of Israel, correctly pointed to such power-centered religious ideology as the main reason the alleged sex abuse victims of the Orthodox General Ofek Buchris have borne the brunt of public opprobrium since coming forward — even after the general reportedly agreed to plead guilty to “inappropriate behavior”:

“The perpetuation of women’s unequal status [among Orthodox Jews]…adds large doses of self-righteousness if not hypocrisy to the assertion of ownership.

“From here, it is but a very short step to sexual abuse, especially when these acts are shrouded in a code of secrecy under the guise of modesty. Indeed, it is not easy to prevent insecure men steeped in public power from taking advantage of their positions against women at home and in the workplace.”

Chazan was writing about the abuse of adult women, but her analysis serves just as well for children who accuse rabbis, or other powerful Orthodox men, of abusive acts. “The kid was bragging on and on,” recalled one of the rabbinic judges who “cleared” Rabbi Solomon Hafner of sexually abusing a young pupil. (The alleged victim’s testimony so annoyed the panel of rabbis that they later cast aspersions on his mental health.) “’I want to talk more, I have more to say, I want to talk.’…[the boy was] just eating the attention with such appetite.” That the child’s story was supported by a child abuse expert, an experienced Brooklyn detective and an Orthodox social worker didn’t matter to his Orthodox judges; since he was accusing a rabbi, the boy’s every word was questionable, and his desire to be heard only marked him as a narcissist.

If a Jewish sex abuse victim’s refusal to keep silent disturbs the hierarchies of traditional religious society, so does any reference to the abuse of non-Jews by Jews, who — as talmudic dictum makes clear, and as Orthodox rabbis continue to teach — enjoy an intrinsically superior status.

How else explain the Orthodox rabbinate’s stubborn silence in the face of well-documented Israeli crimes against non-Jews? When the children’s-rights group Military Court Watch recently reported “ill-treatment” of Palestinian children jailed in the occupied territories, calling such abuse “widespread, systematic and institutionalized,” Orthodox leadership characteristically ignored the story. And that’s not the worst of it: the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Avi Berman, along with other Orthodox clergymen, actually blessed Israeli soldiers who were killing civilians in Gaza (including over 300 children) during Israel’s murderous Operation Cast Lead.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue has just issued a passionate denunciation of the Syrian government’s indiscriminate violence in eastern Aleppo. I share his outrage. But I heard not a whisper from the rabbinate when Israeli soldiers of the Netzach Yehuda Battalion, composed primarily of Orthodox Jews, were caught on video savagely beating an unarmed and unresisting Palestinian. In fact, when members of the same “religious” battalion circulated an on-line video showing one of their number apparently pumping a bullet into an unarmed youth – followed by cheers from other soldiers – an Orthodox-run news site promptly celebrated the shooting as proof that Orthodox Jews can make good soldiers. Can Orthodox leadership ignore such offenses and still expect to be taken seriously when condemning Bashar al-Assad?

It has been two years since I published my book-length analysis of sex abuse cover-ups among Orthodox Jews. When that book first appeared, sympathetic interviewers asked me what Orthodox society might do to better protect abuse victims from the kind of indifference — or retaliation — that so many had suffered for seeking justice against their assailants.

My basic answer remains simple. You cannot be partly against abuse. You cannot say you oppose violence against children, or other vulnerable people, and then sanction it whenever criticism might interfere with the prejudices of your religious ideology. If you do, you are part of the problem — like it or not, you are among those who, by favoring hierarchies of power over justice, ensure that victims who speak out will be punished more consistently than their abusers.

That’s why, as long as proponents of Palestinian rights are called “anti-Semites,” I know that victims of abuse — whether by a rabbi or a religious Israeli general — can expect to be equally vilified in Orthodox circles.

Only when we completely shed the idea that some people deserve greater privileges than other people will Orthodox Jews be able, at long last, to confront our lamentable record in sex abuse cases. Only then will compassion, not the jealous control of power, direct the Orthodox community’s response to human suffering, wherever it exists and whoever inflicts it.

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