Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Jewish burqa that failed to cover up Ultra-Orthodox child and sex abuse

Ramat Beit Shemesh (which, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman tells me, translates as ‘House of the Rising Sun’,) is an oddly appropriate name for a troubled suburb of Jerusalem. Remember?

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

In the narrow lanes of Beit Shemesh, a suburb where cloistered ultra-Orthodox families vie for space with Israeli Arabs, there evolved a cult of radically modest Jewish women who insist on cloaking their faces and bodies under seven layers of fabric, refraining from speaking to any males who are not their husbands (including their own sons)and rarely leaving their homes.

It was odd how the Israeli press labeled the cult leader as "that Taleban woman" -- even though she was not remotely Islamic, but a member of the tribe. The group seemed like cranks and people preferred not to be associated with them. "The women of Israel are lessening in God's eyes because the Arabs are more modest in dress. If the Jews want to conquer the Arabs in this land they must enhance their modesty,” her followers had asserted.

Click here for the Times of London take on the cult.

So what does one call a “Jewish Burqa”?-- no, jokers, not a Berkowitz, but a “sai”. As the odd group gained momentum almost 100 of the female cultist's followers began dressing like ambient sacks. The lumpy ladies were dismissed as a quirky curiosity, until it became tragically apparent that Keren, their self-styled leader, had something more than her face to hide. The mother was arrested for neglecting and abusing her brood of a dozen children and even tolerating incest amongst the teenagers. Her own sister admitted her concern that this sibling was mad and needed help. But going to the authorities for help is viewed akin to treason; problems are expected to be dealt with inside the group. One doesn't air dirty laundry and taint the name of the religion. For G*d's sake shut up, is accepted practice.

(Finally this month Keren was charged with at least 25 counts of aggravated assault on six of her 12 children. The High Court ordered her to remain in custody, and overturned a lower court ruling which would have seen the woman placed under house arrest.)

But then an even more horrifying case, if possible, was unearthed inside the secretive world of Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox community. A mother of eight, following tips from the charismatic Rabbi Elior Chen, sought help for "correcting" her naughtiest pre-school age children, a few months after separating from her husband. The adults had attempted to purge demons from the boys with cigarette burns, hammer blows that broke bones, by locking them inside suitcases for days on end, then forcing the lads to eat feces and drink water from the toilet. The four-year-old ultimately was admitted to hospital in a coma, and his father sought permission to pray at his bedside in intensive care. Rabbi Chen fled to Canada when the case broke.
Tragic as they are, these haredi child abuse cases do shine a light into dark family corners and indicate what can happen inside a hermetic world, where youngsters are not taught words to describe abuse and outsiders rarely dare to interfere.

Israelity bites.

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