MKs bid to tackle ‘harmful cults’ that ensnare 20,000 Israelis. But it’s not so simple
From polygamous sexual predators to the ‘Jewish Taliban,’ sects draw in large numbers of susceptible adherents. Will new legislation break the spell? Or does it go too far, threatening religious freedom?
Ten years ago, when L., a Jewish mother of four from northern Israel, began studying Krishna Consciousness with a group in her home twice a month, she found some of the teacher’s behavior slightly “strange” but the teachings enthralling. Drawn to the philosophy, the formerly Orthodox woman — who says she left organized religion, but never God — didn’t think much of it when the families involved began relocating to the community where the teacher lived.
Within four years, L., now in her forties, and her family would be living in a Hare Krishna commune in Harish, a small town south of Haifa, where, according to her account, the teacher would be controlling the day-to-day decisions of the 40-strong community. The members — including her husband – would grow convinced their parents had sexually abused them. Most of them would cut off all ties with their families, and the teacher would insist their relatives were in cahoots with Israeli anti-cult group Yad L’Achim. One woman would stop seeing her 6-year-old daughter on the leader’s instructions. Those who appeared to cast doubt on the teachings, or the leader’s actions – including L. herself — were shunned by the members of the community. And for a long time, feeling somewhat indebted, and caught in the tight-knit social framework, she would be too afraid, too torn to leave.
“What’s the problem with cults? That it’s not so clear what’s happening there. By the time you realize how insane it is, you’re already inside. Every time there were little things, another red flag, and another red flag, but until the puzzle pieces fall into place, it takes time, and by then you’re already in it,” she tells The Times of Israel on condition on anonymity. She stresses that she opposes the Harish group but not the Hare Krishna movement as a whole, which she still appreciates.
Throughout her experience, L. knew something was wrong, and she told her husband so. But, she says, “there’s always this dissonance between the high-level spiritual knowledge and the day-to-day conduct.” Then, four years ago, the family picked up and left the community and Harish – and four other families did the same.
After leaving, she didn’t consider going to the police. “One of the main problems with harmful cults is that sometimes there is no criminal element, or it is difficult to prove criminal activity, and then it’s as if there’s nothing to do,” she says.
‘By the time you realize how insane it is, you’re already inside’
Enter a new bill proposed by Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis of the Yisrael Beytenu party, which has the coalition’s support and passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday.
The bill would for the first time in Israel’s history enshrine in law a definition of a “harmful cult,” and allow the courts to jail cult leaders for up to 10 years and seize their assets. But, in its current formulation, which will still likely be revised before it is brought to the three votes needed to pass it into law, there is one caveat: it would only apply to cult leaders who committed other crimes, thus compounding their sentences. This stipulation ensures that religious leaders won’t face prosecution merely upon allegations of “cult-like” features. It also won’t help people like L., who needed therapy after leaving her community.
As the bill passes its first hurdles in the Knesset, some researchers maintain that the definition of “cults” is inherently problematic, and could be applied to a broad range of groups. They maintain that accusations of “brainwashing” and cult members losing their free will is scientifically invalid, that the legislation is “vague” and could compromise religious freedoms. If Israel adopts the legislation, it will be repeating mistakes other countries made in the 1980s, warns one.
Defining a ‘cult’
It was likely one of the most dramatic moments in the five-year trial of a notorious polygamist who led a harem in south Tel Aviv with over 30 women and girls, and fathered over 60 children, including with his own daughters. The court had sentenced self-styled spiritual guru Goel Ratzon to 30 years in prison in October 2014 for a slew of sex crimes, including rape and sodomy, but found him not guilty of slavery. And standing outside the courtroom, one of Ratzon’s former “wives,” identified only as Maayan, was sobbing uncontrollably.
“It seems that in the State of Israel, pimps, people who pimp other peoples’ body and soul, can continue to do so,” she cried to a group of reporters. “They have the right – because there is no law and there is no justice.”
As the former victim’s comments underlined, Israel – which does have human trafficking and abuse laws, and can prosecute for bodily harm – has no explicit legislation that recognizes or criminalizes cults, or harm to the “soul” that comes as a result of membership in one.
Ratzon was perhaps the most prominent case in recent years, a period that also saw the rise of the on-the-run Lev Tahor sect, founded in Canada and currently in Guatemala, and allegations against Rabbi Aharon Ramati at a Jerusalem seminary that he was running a cult. (Ramati was briefly arrested and later released to house arrest. The court barred him from running a school for 70 days.)
The dearth of legislation in Israel on this matter has created “a hotbed of harmful cults,” said Levy-Abekasis in the Knesset on Wednesday, pointing to the government’s several failed attempts to crack down on the phenomenon in the past 30 years. Apart from the jail time and frozen assets, the bill also calls on the Welfare Ministry to build an online database of Israeli cults, including the names of their leaders (the suspected cult leaders will be contacted in advance to have a chance to defend themselves, it stipulates), and all cult victims will have a legal guardian appointed to represent them.
The bill defines a cult as a group that “rallies around a person or an idea, in a way that there is exploitation, dependency, authority, or emotional distress experienced by one or more members, uses methods of controlling mental processes or patterns of behavior, and operates in an organized, systematic, and sustained fashion, while committing crimes under Israeli law that are felonies or sexual offenses or serious violence.”
According to the director of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, there are some 100 cults active in Israel, with 15,000-20,000 adults and 3,000 children in their ranks.
Rachel Lichtenstein, the director of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, says what makes a group a cult is never ideology, but rather the techniques of control exercised by its leader. The criteria she lists include having a leader at the center, emotional, psychological, and occasionally economic exploitation, social sanctions and humiliation, isolation of members from their families, surveillance, and more. The group gathers testimony and, once it receives a number of reliable accounts (she stresses the organization will never rely on a single account), it will classify some groups as cults. (The organization identifies the Harish group as a cult, based on the testimonies of 15 families who left).
“There has been no initiative by the authorities to take a stand,” she says. When people leave cults “they have no opportunity to sue,” she says. “They go the police and are told: ‘You did it all willingly.’”
30 year of failed attempts
The bill marks the first time the anti-cult efforts have reached Israel’s legislature (countries such as France and Belgium have anti-cult laws).
In the late 1980s, a interministerial Knesset committee compiled a report on these groups, but the recommendations in the several-hundred-page report – which were approved by the Knesset in 1995 — were never implemented.
‘There are some 100 cults active in Israel, with between 15,000-20,000 adults, and 3,000 children in their ranks’
In 2011, a report filed with the Welfare Ministry urged the government to take action against what it estimated was some 80 groups – but said there was little study of the issue (the report numbers were based on the Israeli Center for Cult Victims’ data). The phenomenon was “marginal” in Israeli society, it noted, but information about the groups was also limited.
The report also cites research profiling the average cult member in Israel: around 25 years old upon joining, most were Israeli-born (86%), middle-to-upper-class, with 12 years or schooling or more. Some 44% reported a personal crisis prior to joining the group, 60% had sought some psychological counsel during their lives, 11% had previously been hospitalized for mental illness, and 15% were discharged from the army due to mental illness.
Can you lose your free will?
While entrenched in the cult, you are “not operating out of free will,” maintains L. After receiving complaints, the ISKCON umbrella group for Hare Krishna at one point intervened and representatives conceded to her that there was a problem. The organization sent in other teachers, gave the leader a warning, and kept tabs on the group, but L. maintains their response – which she says strengthened her resolve to leave — was insufficient. “I think they needed to tell everyone there, listen there’s a problem here. They didn’t do that.”
While she was in the group, L. says, there was a certain amount of control over her mental faculties. “There are people who will say it doesn’t exist, but of course it does.”
Dr. Adam Klin-Oron, an anthropologist of religion, fellow at the Van Leer Institute, and professor at Ben Gurion University, is one of those people.
“There is wall-to-wall academic consensus that this term [brainwashing, or control of mental processes] is not valid. That there is no such thing as mental control,” he says.
“In the 1980s there was a wave of ‘brainwashing’ claims, and then parliaments around the world examined the issue, courts around the world examined the issue, and reached a clear ruling: That there is no such thing as cults… that the people making these claims are often not experts on the issue. And in the end courts, including in Israel, rejected expert witnesses who claimed there is ‘brainwashing.’
“It’s as if Israel is repeating the mistakes of other countries, and is not learning from them,” he adds.
Klin-Oron maintains the bill is problematic in various ways: The phrasing is too vague and open to interpretation, allowing the government to crack down on any group it doesn’t approve of, he argues.
“If now, in Israel, they don’t like, for example, Reform Jews, they could decide to call them a cult. I don’t see a situation in which that would happen, but there are precedents…. If another government rises that doesn’t like the ultra-Orthodox, they could declare Satmar a cult,” he says. “Who said that a Gur Hasid chooses at every given moment, in an autonomous way, how to behave? Who said someone in the army chooses how to behave, and has mental control over his behavior? Every group that has some sort of surveillance can be considered in this way.”
He also argues that leaders of these groups who committed crimes — such as Goel Ratzon — are punished for those crimes “very severely by the state, so why do you need the law” to add more charges?
Finally, he maintains that many people interviewed while inside a group, including some of Ratzon’s former wives, report being satisfied. “You’re supposed to decide for mature adults that their choices are unacceptable to you? There are nearly no precedents to this in Western states for mature adults,” he says.
New religious movements (NRMs, a term he uses in lieu of “cults”) also have a remarkable amount of turnover, he says. “People come and leave, come and leave,” he says. “So if from the moment you entered the group, they started controlling your mental processes, how are people leaving?”
‘Who said that a Gur Hasid chooses at every given moment, in an autonomous way, how to behave? Who said someone in the army chooses how to behave?’
Prof. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a clinical psychologist of religion and professor at the University of Haifa, was on the original Knesset committee looking into cults in the late 1980s, but he left after a year, because “nothing came of it.” Both the prosecution and defense in the Ratzon case asked him to testify on their behalf. He declined. Beit-Hallahmi does not recognize the term “cult” and says it’s a “vulgar” classification.
“Obviously there is exploitation of people in a terrible way, but this exploitation exists in many other frameworks,” he says, citing fans of the Beitar Yerushalayim soccer team, often accused of racist violence, as an example.
Beit-Hallahmi notes that when minors are involved, the authorities certainly should intervene. But adults who choose, for example Belz Hasidim, to donate money to their leaders do so out of faith.
He also thinks the bill won’t change the situation on the ground.
“There was a law in the 1970s [against proselytizers who offer money]. And nothing happened afterwards. No one was prosecuted…. No one went to jail,” he says. “From the perspective of freedom of religion in Israel, I don’t think anything will change. The same freedom that existed before will continue after,” he says.
L., for her part, says the bill is “a little problematic” but “it’s important, because if it doesn’t happen, “then any crazy leader with some knowledge and some charisma can play with people’s minds. It’s insane.” At the same time, it must be balanced so “that it doesn’t harm individual freedoms, because you can’t tell people what to” do or believe.
L. argues that the case is like “undue influence” where elderly people are convinced to sign leases, and the intimidation can be likened to domestic violence or sexual harassment where the victims remain silent.
“Why don’t they tell anyone? Because they’re afraid. Because their boss influences them, psychologically, in a way that makes them afraid to talk. They don’t know what will happen as a result. And why doesn’t a battered woman say ‘my husband beat me, help me’? Because she’s afraid of him. It’s the same psychological reaction that makes people afraid. The leader frightens them, threatens them, causes them to be anxious all the time and just trust them.”
The bill will deter cult “leaders from acting so brazenly, with such control,” she says.
Lichtenstein, of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, concedes the issue is “complex” and “not black-and-white.” But she says while the legislation won’t shut down these groups “tomorrow,” is nonetheless “so important.”
With this difficult issue, you “have to be very cautious,” she says, but the government “must also not be afraid to take initiative.”
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