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Motti Elon, at Center of Sexual Abuse Scandal, Returns to Teaching

The Rabbi Motti Elon story was back in the news this week. It seems that despite all the hubbub over the investigation into his alleged sexual abuse of students, and despite his agreement not to continue teaching, Elon has been giving classes, some of which are even being posted on the Internet by his fans.

According to Yehudit Shilat, the head of Takana, the organization established in 2003 to grapple with the issue of sexual abuse by rabbis in the religious Zionist community in Israel, Elon is “the only person who failed to comply with an agreement with Takana.” Shilat has said that Elon had admitted to the Takana forum that he was guilty of the acts he was accused of, and as such signed an agreement to leave Jerusalem for a few years and to discontinue teaching, but to the organization’s chagrin ignored this agreement.

Meanwhile, despite this setback, elsewhere the Elon story has been making waves. Last week, a correction to the sexual harassment law submitted by Kolech passed unanimously in the Status of Women Knesset committee, and is now going to its first reading in the Knesset.

The correction defines relationships between teachers and students, or rabbis and disciples, as power relationships that can become sites for sexual abuse, relationships that were omitted from the original sexual harassment law. This omission was part of the problem in prosecuting Elon.

Rikki Shapira, a lawyer who helped draft the correction on behalf of Kolech, explained the significance of this law. “According to the proposal, any kind of spiritual or religious mentoring is considered a power relationship, like that of an employer and an employee or a therapist and patient,” she wrote. “In all these relationships, the victim should not be put in position where s/he has to refuse a sexual request. By the very fact that such a request repeats itself, it is harassment, based on the assumption that someone propositioned by a rabbi will have a very difficult time refusing…. This new law will make it easier for victims to come forward.”

This is a welcome step made by Kolech, which has been a strong and unwavering voice on behalf of the victims. Takana, on the other hand, which met this week at the Israel Democracy Institute to discuss recent events, has emerged in a less positive light. After all, if Elon in fact admitted to criminal acts in front of a group of people, shouldn’t he then be prosecuted? On the other hand, if, despite these admissions, the police are unable to prosecute, as in fact happened, for lack of sufficient evidence or because victims do not want to come forward, then what use is Takana? They have no actual power, as evidenced by their lack of impact on the police coupled by Elon’s ability to do what he wants. Yet they are busy as judge and jury, acting as if they are more skilled at dealing with sexual abuse than the entire legal system.

“The system is not capable of handling all the needs of all the community,” Shilat was quoted as saying to Ynet this week. So effectively, Takana’s very existence is based on a separatist view of religious Zionism, a view that sees “the community” as having its own needs that are separate from the entire police, social service and judicial systems. This is a very big deal — because while the Haredi community’s known separatism does enormous economic and social damage to the fabric of Israeli society, it now seems that this dubious fashion of separatism has spread to religious Zionism as well. This can only be bad news. Certainly the system has its flaws, but the only way to protect citizens is by working on fixing these flaws, not by creating a self-appointed darkened-cellar form of justice.

So the long-term impacts of the Elon affair may yet be a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is more awareness of the problem of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, and this, along with changes in the law, will perhaps encourage more victims to come forward. On the other hand, while Kolech is admirably working to change laws, Takana is undermining the entire Israeli judicial system. If the religious Zionist leadership continues to encourage such arrogant, paranoid sectoriality, it makes me worry the future of Israeli society.


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