Destigmatizing sexual violence in the Jewish community

June 2019
Miriam Sager

Whenever I hear a Jewish name in a report of accusations of unprincipled or illegal behaviour, I cringe — Woody Allen, Madoff, Katsav, Weinstein, Michael Cohen. The list goes on, and is more often than not related to one of three headline-making topics: power, money, and sexual violence. 

Not that I am surprised: as an Israeli who volunteered and worked at the Jerusalem sexual assault centre, it was clear that in Israel, as just about everywhere else, most perpetrators of sexual violence are known to their victims. We needed separate services for the secular Jewish community, for Orthodox women and for Arab women, but each group of women and girls (and some boys and men) experienced sexual violence at the hands of mostly men of the same group. 
I believe the initial high level of denial that “it (rape, child sexual abuse, etc.) doesn’t happen here,” was based on the myth that Jews are different, but it’s obvious to me that, like others, Jews live in hierarchical structures that breed corruption and abuse. 
Then there are the twin myths that Jewish men are more gentle than others, and that Jewish women are bossy and dominant. True, each culture has its own flavour of male domination and sexism, but having seen sexual, physical and emotional violence perpetrated by Jewish men, I know that we are not all that special. The shelters for women in Israel are as full as they are here in Canada, although here Jewish women don’t often turn to such public services.
And why not? Certainly, some can afford to seek private help, but for Jewish survivors the myth that “this” does not happen among Jews might increase feelings of shame, self-blame, and pressure to remain silent and not seek help or recourse. 
Another reason is the anti-Semitism that is out there. We fear that the bad behaviour of one of us will reflect on all of us and will feed into anti-Semitic stereotypes and hate. Those who would consider seeking criminal justice, may not trust our legal authorities to provide fair treatment to Jews. Although I condemn these men’s behaviours, I do not want them to fall into the hands of hostile public opinion, authorities and prisons. Handing a Jew over to outside authorities has even been prohibited by Jewish law. 
Jewish women, like women of other vulnerable minorities, might feel torn between loyalty to their community and their own needs for safety, accountability, and healing. And having been trained, as women, to care for others at the expense of their own wellbeing, they often choose to remain silent. Either way, it is a tough choice. No survivor should be shamed or blamed for what happened, nor for their ways of coping with what no one should have to live through. 
Getting help does not necessarily mean washing dirty laundry in public: confidential help is available. But individual help and even ending stigmas within the community are not enough. To end sexual violence, we must also continue to work to remove anti-Semitism, racism, and all other “isms” that compound the isolation and vulnerability of women, children, and other marginalized people. 
Miriam Sager works at the Hamilton Sexual Assault Centre, and leads support groups.