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End Israel’s Private Tribunals for Sex Abuse Cases

Graphic sexual details from the complaints against Rabbi Mordechai “Motti” Elon were published this week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The accounts were based on previously unreleased documentation from meetings of the religious Zionist forum Takana, a task force charged with confronting sexual violence in the religious community. Takana decided to release the documents this week, for reasons that remain unclear, and Yediot is gradually publishing the remaining victim testimony, with more details promised in this weekend’s edition.

There seem to be several motives for releasing the details. One is an issue of validation of claims. Because Elon is such a popular, public figure, many of his former students and colleagues have rallied around him and declared their belief in his innocence. This, coupled with the fact that the police initially dropped the investigation — until more victims came forward, prompting law enforcement to recommend indictment — means that public opinion vis à vis the whole affair has waffled. By releasing details, Takana is hoping to squash doubt and let the public know that the complaints are real.

Second is an issue of validation of Takana. The entire function of Takana, while noble in its intent, has been thrust into a dubious light. The group has been given no authority by any governmental group; the methods for choosing members is foggy and perhaps communally incestuous, and the group does not seem to have any particular tools or professional qualifications for acting as judge and jury. The functions they have given themselves are so vast — collecting testimony, investigating complaints, supporting victims, recommending legal action — and are usually given over to quite a broad range of professionals. There are no detectives on the board, just some rabbis, several community activists, an occasional psychologist and perhaps a few lawyers. The notion that this group is capable of handling the task that they set up for themselves is astounding. By releasing the testimony, perhaps they are trying to show the world that they did a good job, and that they actually knew what they were doing.

I’m not sure that this had the intended effect. Frankly, reading a young man’s description of French kisses, manual genital stimulation and other indecent acts between rabbi and student, prefaced with the statement, “I’m so embarrassed to even be talking about this,” makes me feel embarrassed for the boy whose story is now front page news. What’s for certain is that law enforcement should have dealt with this to begin with, not some self-appointed committee of inquiry.

Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who was originally a member of Takana but has since distanced himself from the body, wrote a long letter this week to his students analyzing the events and answering their questions. In it he says that he believes publication was a mistake that caused tremendous damage to the religious community and to Takana. He also says that he feels that he owes an apology to the community for dragging them through all this, and that he hopes to not be involved with anything having to do with forums like this ever again.

So despite the troubling slide into voyeurism that all this evokes, I decided to write this because there are several major lessons here for the religious community. One is that the insularity that led to the formation of Takana is a destructive force for the community. Religious Zionism was premised on collaboration with secular Israeli society, not isolation from it. The separatist values adopted from Haredi life that are slipping into Modern Orthodoxy world-wide are troubling and damaging in ways that we are only starting to understand.

Second, the most important consideration in dealing with sexual violence must always be the victims. Takana, because so many of its members are friends and colleagues with Elon, has been incapable of separating itself from sympathy with the accused. That makes it completely ineffective. The only consideration in the face of accusations of sexual violence — especially against minors — should be the needs of the victims.

Third, when it comes to issues of sexual violence, the religious community should not be secretive and fearful, with private self-appointed tribunals. The issue should be dealt with openly and courageously.

If Takana wants to do something useful, it can run education and prevention campaigns for teaching sexual health, for recognizing abuse, and for developing courage in the face of an attack — and leave issues of law and order to the state. The community needs to be thinking first and foremost about the physical and emotional safety of youth and building a healthy society.

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