ToI investigates

Virus lockdowns may be hiding an outbreak of violence against women, children

With a man arrested for murder of his wife and an uptick in hotline calls, professionals dealing with domestic abuse worry that the cries of many stuck at home are not being heard

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

An Orthodox Jewish woman looks out the window of the abused women's shelter in Beit Shemesh, July 15, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An Orthodox Jewish woman looks out the window of the abused women's shelter in Beit Shemesh, July 15, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel reeled three years ago when a 34-year-old man, Meir Ephraim Goldstein, was found wandering around a neighborhood in the northern city of Tiberias clutching the severed head of his wife, Adele.

The act by Goldstein, whom a subsequent psychiatric evaluation ruled was not sound of mind at the time, came just three months after Nadav Sela, who lived not far away, in the town of Migdal, murdered his wife Dor Crasanti-Sela, 23, as well as their two sons, Yosef, just under 2, and Binyamin, 8 months, and a neighbor, Nachman Atia, 11, in the family home.

In May 2018, Sela was sentenced to four life terms for the murders and another ten years for the attempted murder of another child.

Tzilit Jacobsohn, chairwoman of Bat Melech, which operates the only two shelters in Israel for abused women from the religiously observant community, went to visit and console the parents of Adele Goldstein, who was 33 when she died.

“They said to me, ‘If only she’d known where to turn. We hadn’t understood the danger that she was in,'” Jacobsohn recalled. “That hit me really hard.”

Dor Crasanti-Sela was killed by her husband alongside her sons, Yosef and Binyamin, on January 28, 2017. (Facebook)

The two events were particularly gruesome examples of a trend in Israel that has seen the murders of 20 women on average every year from 2011 until now, across all social sectors, by people close to them, according to a grim tally kept by the Haaretz newspaper, in Hebrew.

This year saw two such killings, both in January.

Then, just as this article was going to press, 31-year-old Mastwell Mandparo was stabbed to death in her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon; her husband confessed to the killing.

Professionals in the field know that domestic violence increases whenever families are together, such as during festivals and holidays. Several experts who spoke to The Times of Israel used the same analogy: a pot being brought to boiling point during the current crisis.

Israel is not alone. Countries all over the world are reporting increases in calls for help during this period, and UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres spoke about violence against women at the beginning of this month.

Earlier this month, the Israel Police — often the first port of call for a woman feeling that she or her children are in imminent danger — reported a 16 percent increase in calls from distressed women since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. (They were not able to provide updated figures).

Experts assume that this does not begin to reflect the real extent of distress.

Women in already strained relationships, stuck at home with children around the clock, facing economic pressures and possible job losses, as well as uncertainties about the virus itself, must be finding it difficult to pick up the phone either to the police or the social services while their husbands are around, they say.

Children cannot be protected from violence in the home when everyone is cooped up together. (RomoloTavani/iStock/Getty Images)

There is no escape to study, work, shop or see friends. With schools shuttered, there is no way to protect children from the shouting. Husbands prone to violence who are feeling out of control because of the situation are likely to be overcompensating by watching, complaining and getting angry about everyone’s every move.

Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, which deals particularly with sexual violence in and out of the home, said there had been a 50% increase in communication by chat online.

Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. (Facebook)

During normal periods, one in five children in Israel are sexually abused up to the age of 18, usually by someone in the family, according to research, she said. Figures for the Western world indicate that one in five women over this age are raped at some time during their lives, with one in three experiencing some kind of sexual assault.

“Complaints have been made about the exposure of children to sexual exploitation online,” Sulitzeanu said, “for example a girl who was dressing up in all sorts of outfits fell victim to a pedophile. There are kids whose parents don’t have time for them [during lockdown] who shut themselves in their rooms and look for attention elsewhere.”

Earlier this month, calls to the 105 government hotline, which enables children, youth and their parents to report online abuse, increased by 50%.

A ghastly Facebook site (in Hebrew) called “Caught Red Handed” is documenting cases of online pedophile behavior in real time.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Israel the Social Welfare Ministry did not include most social workers in the list of the essential professions allowed to continue to work. Local authorities sent many of them home on unpaid leave and it took the Israel Association of Social Workers a good couple of weeks to convince the decision-makers to change their minds.

They are now back, manning local authority departments that deal with family violence. The country’s 14 shelters, with an average occupancy of  90%, have been open throughout, as have various helplines run by different organizations.

The children’s playroom at the abused women’s shelter in Beit Shemesh, July 15, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The shelters are the most extreme solution for a woman who feels that she and her family are in danger. She must surrender her routine, move to a different part of the country and uproot her children from their schools and friends. Families are allocated a room and use communal dining and other facilities.

Naomi Schneiderman, executive director of Women to Women, which runs a shelter and halfway house accommodation, said logistical and financial challenges due to the pandemic were making an already difficult situation much worse.

It was her shelter that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visited in 2018 to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Saying that he and his wife had been “unsettled” by the visit, Netanyahu promptly set up an interministerial committee on domestic violence, after which, according to various professionals in the field, nothing more was heard.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara at a women’s shelter in Jerusalem. November 25, 2018 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Schneiderman said it was challenging to maintain social distancing between groups of up to 12 families with children not in regular frameworks, all cohabiting in close quarters.

Families are eating in shifts. Much of the therapy is being done on Zoom. The volunteers have gone, “a major heartache.”

Said Schneiderman, “The whole premise here is of human interaction and closeness. The intuitive response when a woman comes in is to embrace her, but now we can’t do that.

Naomi Schneiderman, executive director of Women to Women. (Courtesy)

“We’re talking about families experiencing a crisis within a crisis,” she continued. “The background is that of post-trauma [PTSD]and now this [the coronavirus lockdown] contributes added stress for both the mothers and the children.”

Families thinking of leaving the shelter have put those plans on hold, and new families are required to isolate themselves for the first 14 days. “It’s not conducive to the whole therapeutic approach and the process of recovering one’s autonomy and self respect. It’s like being a prisoner, just in better conditions,” Schneiderman said.

To improve the situation, the Social Welfare Ministry and the Women’s International Zionist Organization are planning to open a facility later this week for those needing to go into initial, temporary isolation.

Children playing in a shelter for victims of family violence. (Orly Tobolski-Hadad)

Women to Women currently has 16 families living in halfway homes in the community. “A lot of them work in simple jobs such as house cleaning and don’t qualify for unemployment benefits right now,” Schneiderman said. “Some haven’t worked long enough to qualify. We’ve been fundraising and trying to help them along. It can be a struggle for them even at the best of times.”

Dina Havlin Dahan, chairwoman of the umbrella organization for the shelters, said, “It may sound odd, but the women in the shelters are lucky, especially during this period. They are in a protected, safe place. Their children are occupied for lots of hours in the day. They have food, everything they need from the physical point of view. They are in a far better position than victims of violence who are closed in at home with the perpetrators.”

Dina Havlin Dahan, chairwoman of the Forum of NGOs Operating Shelters in Israel. (Facebook)

Havlin Dahan, who runs one of two mixed shelters for Jewish and Arab women, said she thought that after an initial period of great pressure following the onset of coronavirus, residents had entered into a routine and a “period of calm,” having adjusted their expectations.

“A lot of things just aren’t happening at the moment, such as legal cases or decisions about alimony, allowances, or debt repayments. We’re not preparing them to look for apartments, to start studying or working. It’s a bit like the quiet before the storm. The frustration will come afterwards when the restrictions are lifted and they wonder why no progress has been made.”

While the extent of family violence in the relatively closed ultra-Orthodox community is similar to that of the general population — some 200,000 women and 600,000 children experience domestic abuse across all population sectors each year — awareness about available services is often not as widely accessible as in other communities, according to the Bat Melech organization.

There is distrust of nonreligious authorities and often a reluctance to involve the police. Community members may be shunned for turning to outside authorities for help on family issues.

Some women fear that by openly admitting that their husbands beat them they will damage their children’s prospects of making a good match and their family’s standing in the community.

They may also believe that they must continue to try to work on their marriages, according to the religious injunction to do so, not realizing that violence crosses the line.

The two murders in 2017 — both by religiously observant men, who claimed that they were ridding the world of “Amalekites” (biblical enemies of the Jewish people) — propelled the Bat Melech organization into a massive awareness-raising campaign in the Haredi community that included the wide distribution of stickers with the organization’s name and contact details, and later reaching out to community leaders about violence in the family and encouraging them to visit shelters to hear firsthand accounts.

Two years later, awareness within the community is still much lower than among the general public, said Jacobsohn, compounding fears there and across wider society of a hidden “crisis within a crisis” — domestic violence simmering beneath the surface as families are forced together for long periods and tensions mount.

“We have to get the community to pay attention, to notice things, to know where to refer people,” Jacobsohn said. “During the lockdown, people won’t see abused women at the university, in the garden, in the synagogue. We’re doing everything we can to get the message through, to get to all the circles that surround women.”

During the first month of the coronavirus crisis, before the full lockdown, calls to Bat Melech’s helpline grew by an estimated 35-40 %. Accurate figures for the period after that are not yet available.

Some women wanted legal information, others felt threatened. Just minutes before lighting the candles on Passover eve earlier this month, Jacobsohn took a call from a woman who had not been returning WhatsApp messages. “All I heard in the background were screams,” she said. “I immediately contacted social services.

Tzilit Jacobsohn, chairwoman of Bat Melech

“Many ultra-Orthodox women don’t have televisions or cellphones. They don’t have access to social media. It’s not easy to get to them during normal times, let alone the coronavirus period,” Jacobsohn, a lawyer and mother of eight, told The Times of Israel.

Referring to the initial chaos in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods as the coronavirus set in, Jacobsohn added, “We’ve seen how critical precise, timely information has been. Lives are at stake.”

Ultra-Orthodox families tend to be large. Suddenly, with schools shut, 10 children can be at home in apartments that are often small.

Jacobsohn said it would not be professional to predict what will happen once the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Havlin Dahan said that she was prepared for a wave of referrals, but did not know whether it would happen. “There’s terrible distress out there. We hear it. But how it will develop? The period is so crazy that I don’t know.”

Yael Levin, a social worker who manages a shelter owned by the Na’amat women’s organization and the Social Welfare Ministry, said she expected the demand for therapy and treatment to grow and charged that the coronavirus had laid bare the effects of a lack of government funding for years.

Yael Levin. (Courtesy)

In social work, there were no regulations limiting the number of clients so that one social worker could find him or herself responsible for 150 families, she said. The profession was poorly paid and hundreds of available jobs stood empty.

Orit Sulitzeanu also fears that the system will not be able to cope.

Noting that the committee charged with managing the coronavirus does not include any women, she said, “The state doesn’t see these people. I understand that corona affects all of us. But first of all we must see the weakest populations. It’s easy to see a need for food.  But communities have complex problems that are transparent usually, and now even more.”

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