Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews confront #MeToo claims

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  • Chaim Walder
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After Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was shaken by sexual abuse allegations against several of its leading figures, a call has begun to reverberate throughout the deeply devout and introverted society.

"Lo Tishtok" -- Hebrew for "You will not be silent" -- is a phrase gaining momentum among ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, who are being forced to reckon with claims of serious crimes, including sexual abuse of children, against several of their cultural icons.

In December, prominent children's author and rabbi Chaim Walder committed suicide after the Haaretz newspaper published a story accusing him of sexually assaulting nearly two dozen people, including children -- allegations he had denied.

Haaretz had in March reported that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of the Zaka emergency response organisation and winner of the Israel Prize -- the country's hightest public honour -- had sexually assaulted boys, girls and women.

Meshi-Zahav, who denounced the claims as "lies", also tried to hang himself in April before new allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced on N12 Channel.

An Israeli police spokesperson told AFP that there was an open investigation into the allegations against Meshi-Zahav, but police offered no comment on the status of a criminal probe against Walder at the time of his death.

Avigayil Heilbronn, who founded the "Lo Tishtok" organisation that aims to support haredi sexual abuse victims, said the ultra-Orthodox community has been rattled.

The allegations against Walder marked an "extraordinary blow", said the 33-year-old divorced mother of two, who describes herself as modern Orthodox.

If a "cultural icon" like Walder can be a predator, haredim have been forced to consider if they can "trust anyone", Heilbronn told AFP.

- 'I was a child' -

The ultra-Orthodox community makes up roughly 12 percent of Israel's 9.3 million population.

Haredim are not a homogeneous group, but each professes to live in strict accordance with Jewish law, often creating tension with mainstream Israeli society.

The most recent misconduct revelations emerged this month, when the Yediot Ahronot newspaper published claims a prominent ultra-Orthodox radio host had assaulted three women, including a minor.

Adiel Bar Shaul, a 43-year-old ultra-Orthodox from the mainly haredi city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, recounted his experience of being abused as a child shortly after that report came out.

Shaul said he was raped several times when he was 10 by a close family acquaintance, who was also ultra-Orthodox.

The first rape happened when Shaul's family hosted his attacker on Shabbat, a sacred period of rest and worship for haredim, he told AFP.

"He started giving me stickers. Then, in exchange for them, to put my hand on his pants," said Shaul, who kept silent for most of his life before going public years ago.

"I was a child. I did not understand... I was alone, I was extremely ashamed and I felt guilty," said Shaul, who now works with sexual assault victims.

- 500 calls a month -

Josiane Paris, a volunteer at Jerusalem's Tahel Crisis Center, which supports children and women in religious Jewish communities, said victims often stay silent.

"They are afraid of what people and neighbours at the school or synagogue will say," she told AFP.

When the centre opened its crisis line three decades ago to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, calls were relatively infrequent.

"Today we receive about 500 calls a month," said Paris -- evidence the #MeToo movement was impacting Israel's religious communities.

Volunteer Myriam Merzbach said some women who call simply "remain silent".

"We feel the distress. There are some who are angry, who cry... Our job is to support them, to encourage them and to seek solutions."

- 'In denial' -

Israel's chief rabbi David Lau faced scathing criticism for visiting the home where Walder's relatives were mourning.

The editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Yaakov Katz, called for Lau to be fired for the case of "moral bankruptcy".

After the visit, Lau issued a statement saying his "heart out goes out to the victims" of sexual abuse.

But for Yair Ettinger, an expert on haredim at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank and a journalist at public broadcaster Kan, Israel's rabbinical establishment "remains in denial".

Haredim are part of "an idealistic society which struggles to look at itself in the mirror", Ettinger said.

But there was now "real awareness of the problem" especially after multiple haredi celebrities have been disgraced, he told AFP.

"The age of innocence is over," he said.

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