The announcement of a police investigation has led to a gag order on the allegations of sexual abuse by Rabbi Motti Elon, a popular, charismatic leader of Israel’s modern Orthodox community. But that hasn’t stilled public discussion of the case and the issues surrounding it. It’s remained on Israel’s front pages and dominated the talk shows nonstop since the case went public February 16, topped only by the fallout from the Dubai assassination of a Hamas leader.
The abuse charges have touched off three separate discussions, all of them touching on painful issues. One is the continuing debate over homosexuality and homophobia, particularly within the Orthodox community. Elon has been an outspoken foe of homosexualilty, and the allegations that he himself was engaging in same sex contact have shaken the Orthodox community and strengthened the arguments of gay-rights activists against Orthodox opposition. Some critics in the Hebrew press and on radio are comparing tensions that surface within the Orthodox rabbinate to tensions in the Catholic priesthood, where bans on sexual activity are said by liberals to force legitimate needs underground.
Another debate concerns the scope of child abuse in Israel and the effectiveness—or ineffectiveness—of the country’s overtaxed child protection services. Radio talk shows have dealt at length with a reported crisis facing the welfare agencies. A study released on Friday, reported on Reshet Bet radio, indicated that as many as 15% of Israeli children face abuse, neglect or molestation, and that the percentages are highest within separatist communities such as Arabs and haredim. A child welfare service official said on Army Radio that the service had only 57 caseworkers nationwide to deal with an average of 1,500 complaints per month. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, appearing immediately after her, acknowledged that the service was overtaxed and said his ministry had received budget approval to hire 19 new caseworkers but was unable to get the funds released from the “bureaucracy,” as he put it, of the Finance Ministry.
A third debate, the most heated, is over the activity of the private Orthodox forum on rabbinic sex abuse, Takana, that forced Elon into retirement four years ago, and whether it constitutes a lynch party or an effective community monitor. The organization is said to have met with Attorney General Menachem Mazuz four years ago, when it was first formed, to seek approval for its plan to deal quietly with suspected abusers. It got his consent to act on its own without turning names—of victims or suspects—to the authorities.
The opposing arguments over the group’s tactics are identical to the ones voiced in Brooklyn three years ago when State Assemblyman Dov Hikind began a private probe into alleged rabbinic abuse.
Defenders of private action argue, as journalist-think tank scholar Yair Sheleg wrote in Haaretz this week, that abuse victims are unlikely to complain to the police because of the stigma attached, both to challenging rabbinic authority and to engaging even unwillingly in forbidden contact. Critics, including many secular liberals, make two opposing arguments: one, that the private forum amounts to a lynching party that punishes suspects without due process, and second, that private sanctions amount to protecting abusers from the criminal justice system.
Liberal activist and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg wrote this week in Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet web site that the Takana organization was the latest example of the “state within a state” being created by the increasingly separatist National Religious movement. He may have gotten that part wrong: He’s talking about the growing alienation of the settler movement from the state and its law enforcement arms, while the Takana leaders come mostly from the liberal wing of the National Religious community, exemplified by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a widely respected political and religious moderate and son-in-law of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. Lichtenstein seems at this point to be viewed within the separatist settler world with the same suspicion as the police; he was quoted this week saying that he was receiving death threats over his involvement in the Elon case.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).