New study at Tel Aviv University reveals deep processes occurring in this sector over the past few years.

After years of silencing and concealment, covering up and repressing the issue, a new TAU study reveals that, over the past few years, more exposure to media and higher education has increased the awareness of the consequences of sexual abuse for its victims and the need for therapeutic intervention and prevention of future abuse. The study was conducted by Dr. Sara Zalcberg of TAU’s Religious Studies Program, Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities, and presented at the ‘Haredi Society in Israel’ conference of the Shandong University and Tel Aviv University Joint Institute for Israel and Judaism Studies.

Weakening The ‘Conspiracy of Silence’

Dr. Zalcberg: “The study’s findings indicate a trend of significant change in the Haredi society’s attitude toward sexual abuse. About a decade ago, many of the victims in this sector were not even aware of the fact that they had been sexually abused; Many parents didn’t know that sexual abuse of children even existed; And Haredi society as a whole was characterized by a three-way culture of silence – involving the victim, his/her family and the community and leadership. According to our study’s findings this ‘conspiracy of silence’ has gradually weakened in recent years, with evidence for a significant rise in both awareness and discourse regarding sexual abuse and its consequences.”

The study comprised interviews with professionals working with the Haredi population, including in cases of sexual abuse, as well as activists involved in community safety, parents of children who had been sexually abused and a woman who had been sexually abused herself when she was a child.

According to Dr. Zalcberg, the study has identified a gradual process, starting with the exposure of the Haredi sector to the job market, to education and to the virtual world, alongside the emergence of grassroots activism – from inside Haredi society. These have engendered a growing openness in discourse about sexuality, the body and intimacy, as well as an increase in the numbers of therapeutic and welfare professionals coming from the Haredi community – ultimately generating the first cracks in the high walls of reluctance to admit and address sexual abuse in Haredi society.

“Once Exposed to the Internet, They are Exposed to Everything”

According to the study, the changes are manifested in several ways. First, a growing and unprecedented use of the online arena, including WhatsApp and Facebook, for discussing and addressing sexual abuse. One interviewee in the study noted: “The Haredi sector is exposed to the internet, and once exposed to the internet they are exposed to everything. Information is more accessible.” A social worker in a Haredi city added: “Haredi women in the therapeutic professions use the internet to disseminate information about sexual abuse, safety and therapy, and so the Haredi community learns about the issue.” 

The study also identifies change among families and parents of victims, manifested in the demand for prevention workshops that provide tools for recognizing and preventing sexual aggression. The supreme value of defending the community against any outside influence or criticism is being replaced by care for the welfare of families and children. This change has also led to a conceptual shift in a large portion of the Haredi leadership, who now recognize the abuse and its victims and promote the connection with welfare authorities.

Dr. Zalcberg emphasizes that the change can even be discerned in the more insular and conservative groups within Haredi society. As Chezi, a Haredi social worker working with the Haredi population in one of the social services, commented: “We see more openness even in the conservative community. Hassidic communities that usually don’t turn to us (to the social services), now come when there’s a case of sexual abuse. They understand that this is a serious matter.”

At the same time, as the study points out, despite the significant processes taking place in Haredi society, there are still considerable gaps in both awareness and addressing the phenomenon and its consequences. Dr. Zalcberg: “Despite the change taking place in Haredi society with regard to discussing and addressing sexual abuse, a great deal more still needs to be changed. Both discourse and awareness should be enhanced, preventive measures must be advanced, and the rates of reporting abuse and asking for professional intervention should be increased. There is urgent need for mapping families and communities who don’t have sufficient access to information and services, and for promoting specifically tailored responses.”