20 Nov 2010

Prosecuting Israeli cult case reveals difficulty of protecting children from religion-related abuse

Haaretz - Israel January 20, 2010

Of freedom and cults

By Avirama Golan

The affair of Goel Ratzon - the man whom so many women have obeyed and borne scores of children - is putting the authorities to a difficult test. The populist complaints about the welfare authorities such as "Where have you been all these years?" are baseless. Infiltrating a cult is a nearly impossible mission, and Ratzon's homes were apparently run according to rules followed by cults in a well-known and destructive process.

It starts with identifying suitable women as candidates (by their degree of weakness, crisis and dependency). It proceeds when the joiners receive a "barrage of love" and the warmth and security they so sorely lack. It moves on to total control of their minds, the point of no return. All this is conducted by a dominant and charismatic spiritual father, a guru with supposed hidden powers.

This process, outrageous though it may be, is not illegal, and it is not by chance that the police and social services intervened only when one of the women decided to reveal details of what went on behind the locked doors. Undoubtedly, the media's inquisitive presence, and especially the documentary broadcast on Channel 10, helped widen the crack through which the investigation began. Exposure is the greatest threat to any cult.

However, herein lies the difficulty, as well as the danger. In Israel, as in most countries of the world, there is no law against cults. Even in France, the only country where such legislation has been passed (the 2001 About-Picard law), the prohibition is restricted to "registered organizations that violate human rights and the principle of freedom." A number of provisos were softened in the wake of harsh criticism from politicians and observers both in France and abroad, among them former U.S. president Bill Clinton. They argue that the French law itself violates the principle of freedom.

This law lets a court dismantle a cult and arrest its heads within 15 days. It has so far been enforced in only one case, which is not controversial: against the leader of an apocalyptic cult who ordered his disciples to commit suicide. The Church of Scientology, whose leaders were convicted four months ago of fraud and embezzling money from their followers, has not been banned even though the judges noted explicitly that it is a cult.

Such a law is not possible in Israel. The very fact of discussing it would force lawmakers to deal with religious organizations, New Age groups and mutually hostile nonprofit organizations in a traditional, multicultural society where awareness about cults is entirely dormant. (For example, the 1994 incident in which Rabbi Uzi Meshulam barricaded himself and his followers in his Yehud home over the issue of vanished Yemenite children. This was not interpreted as a cult but rather as religious-messianic activity.)

Ratzon's arrest was based, therefore, on a new law, which on the surface is only tangentially relevant to the affair - the Slavery Law. This law was passed with the aim of stopping trafficking of women. Its advantage is that it also incriminates anyone who has had "consensual intercourse" if it is proved that the denial of free will led to the sexual relations. If the indictment against Ratzon will indeed be based on the Slavery Law, this will be the first time this law is tested in any country. Presumably the prosecution will find it difficult to prove rape, incest and abuse of minors because it is rare and almost impossible to elicit reliable testimony from members of a cult, even former members.

Thus the court deliberations will take on the confusing guise of a debate on values. (Such as what's wrong with a set of laws in a house? What do Ratzon's children lack? They are always clean and tidy; they have never been physically punished.) The authorities will also have to be precise and excellently prepared. In addition, the prosecution should base its work on another provision in different legislation (the law on the abuse of minors and the helpless), which has also not been put to the test - the legislation on mental abuse. This, too, is hard to prove, but it exists in the law and the reality that spawned it. The time has come to take it out of the drawer.

Hopefully the police are relying on solid facts in their frequent statements to the media and the children of the Ratzon commune will receive a meticulous and diligent prosecutor and a courageous and wise judge who know how to handle the challenge. If they fail, Ratzon will be free again. If this happens, it's hard to imagine the damage to the children, who have already been placed with foster families, and to their mothers, who have been wrenched from the cult's iron embrace. In the meantime, they are walking a tightrope over a gaping abyss.

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Exposed: Tel Aviv man has 32 women and 89 children

Israeli polygamist cult leader arrested on suspicion of rape, enslavement and indecent assault of minors

Add Israeli polygamist to long list of 'messiahs' who sexually exploit their cult followers


Ynetnews - Israel January 22, 2010

A test for our democracy

Goel Ratzon’s lifestyle tests our ability to accept bizarre but legal conduct

by Shaul Rosenfeld | Opinion

It’s not a lie if you believe it, said George Costanza in "Seinfeld".

Indeed, as odd as it may seem, a lie is created when what a person knows or believes is incommensurate with what he wrote or said, not because he claimed something that turned out to be wrong. It is certainly possible that quite a few “gurus,” “mediums,” “spiritual guides,” or mere “people with supernatural forces” do not lie to their followers when they “read their future,” “connect to higher entities,” or “discover the great truth.” This is so because they truly believe their own foolishness with all their hearts.

The degree to which Goel Ratzon believes that he possesses divine traits, safeguards the gates to Heaven, and is the savior of the universe (as many of his women believe), or whether he is a crook who managed to fool more than 30 women is not so clear or significant. His harem in south Tel Aviv and his widely reported arrest served as yet another testament to the difficulty of many people in Israel, as is the case throughout the West, to deal with a “freak show” that is not part of a reality TV series.

His arrest stirred a major shock that prompted confusion about the proper questions and comparisons to follow. And so, Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen characterized the affair as “unprecedentedly grave,” while radio host Esty Peretz failed to understand welfare officials’ inability to terminate the affair sooner. Meanwhile, the global media compared Goel Ratzon to the Austrian Josef Fritzl.

The first distinction that to a large extent was lacking within our public discourse was between the legal (even if disgusting) and illegal. The supreme test or tolerance for democratic pluralism is its ability to digest the anomalous, bizarre, and freakish as long as it does not cause intolerable damage, and certainly if it’s not illegal.

Israeli laws pertaining to all cults, including Goel Ratzon’s cult, are lacking. In fact, to this day there is no legislation that explicitly addresses the definition of cults, and to a large extent authorities deal with them only if they are suspected of a specific violation of criminal law, rather than because of their very existence as cults. In order to improve and boost the legal ability to thwart the dangers inherent in some cults it would have been better to draft new legislation. However, a committee that looked into the issue for almost five years during the 1980s merely recommended that existing laws be adapted to address the cult phenomenon.

Tolerating the bizarre

The Goel Ratzon affair has two aspects, which have been somewhat blurred. The first aspect is a series of criminal suspicions, including the rape of some of his daughters, as well as the maintenance of a horrific regime of subjugation, coercion, humiliation, and abuse of minors. These issues must of course be looked into by the courts and he should be punished by the full force of the law should he be found guilty.

The second aspect is the public outcry that mostly stemmed from the great reservations over the unusual lifestyle exposed in Ratzon’s harem. This may anger some people, yet the law in Israel does not forbid a man from living with more than one woman, as long as he is not married to more than one. The law also does not ban women from tattooing the figure of this man on their bodies or of viewing any delusional guru as their savior and righteous messiah. Had it not been for the plethora of criminal suspicions he faces, the phenomenon of Goel and his many women and children would have to be tolerated, even if it is confined to society’s most bizarre margins and provokes significant revulsion.

Yet the interesting aspect of this affair is not Goel himself, but rather, the way a stuttering and ignorant libertine who is not particularly good looking was able to captivate quite a few women, some of them educated, willing to sacrifice what’s dearest to them for his sake, even if they share his bed with no fewer than 30 other women.

However, the local Goel affair is no more than an insignificant symptom of a much wider phenomenon of uncritical devotion to the mirages of “gurus,” “mediums,” “energy experts” and “alien lovers.” As such, even though the predications or content of various elements classified as “extrasensory perception,” ranging from scientology to numerology,” have never been proven to be worth anything, many people nonetheless follow them.

Indeed, when the mystical and supernatural can read the future for us, engage us in deep talks with the dead, and create a wonderful connection with heavenly entities, what’s the point of the boring and dry alternative of rationality and science?

Dr. Shaul Rosenfeld is a philosophy lecturer

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Ynet News - Israel January 21, 2010

Cult leader's women 'sobering up'

Police say Goel Ratzon's 'wives' opening up to investigators, meet families; testimonies support suspicions of enslavement, sexual offences

by Avi Cohen

This coming Sunday, polygamous cult leader Goel Ratzon will appear in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, for deliberations regarding police requests to extend his detention again. Ratzon was arrested last week on suspicion of enslaving dozens of his "wives" and of sexual offenses.

Meanwhile, police continue to investigate the case, revealing further details about what took place during the last two decades in the "harem" which Ratzon created in the Tikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

Police say that during the investigation, some of the women began to open up and even "sober up" from the brainwashing they had undergone in the cult. According to police sources, some of them even wish to remove the tattoos that mark them out as members of the cult.

During the week, police and social workers have tried to get them to speak about their time in Ratzon's household.

Some of the testimonies collected, the police say, support the suspicions regarding the conditions of enslavement and sexual offences. However, sources involved in the investigation noted that the process is

not be easy for the women, that it is not easy for them to open up and criticize Ratzon's acts.

Some of the women have met their families, and social workers say the meetings were very moving. These same women, who apparently understand that they will not be seeing Ratzon again, also opened up with their families, in some cases many years after ties were severed. In some of these meetings, which took place under police observation, the women thanked the police who had "saved their lives."

But many of the women remain loyal to Ratzon. "If it was enslavement, our children would have been hungry," one woman said this week to Ynet. "There is plenty of food in the house, and the women work because they want to advance. We also go on trips and even abroad, and it is not slavery at all."

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YnetNews - Israel January 24, 2010

Judge: Ratzon is dangerous, incriminates himself

Court extends remand of Goel Ratzon by nine days, rejects defense' request for review. Judge: He is dangerous to all of public since he recruited women as he wandered city, convinced them through his smooth talking to join what seems to me to be a cult

by Avi Cohen | YnetNews

Goel Ratzon will stay another nine days in police custody, according to a ruling by Tel Aviv Magistrates' Court Judge Rachel Greenberg on Sunday. The judge wrote in her ruling that the cult leader from Tel Aviv's Tikva neighborhood who was arrested a week and a half ago on suspicions of enslaving his dozens of "wives" and sexual offenses did indeed commit the crimes ascribed to him.

According to Greenberg, suspicions were raised during investigation of Ratzon himself that he did commit sexual offenses. Regarding enslavement of his "wives", the judge said that the large extended family living with him "seems to me to be a cult" in light of the evidence submitted to the court and that Ratzon is poses a threat to the general public.

Ratzon was brought for a second time to court on Sunday. Before the hearing, his son Yigal Ratzon approached him and told him, "Dad, I love you." He asked his father if he is pleased with the interviews he has given to the media in support of his father. His father nodded his head, but then the police prevented the two from continuing their conversation.

At the beginning of the hearing, police representative Tal Soholitko asserted that there has been progress in the investigation, during which additional evidence was gathered that increases suspicions against Ratzon.

"Words cannot describe what the suspect allegedly did to the victims," Soholitko said. "It borders on utter contempt for human dignity."

On other hand, Ratzon's legal counsel, Attorney Shlomtzion Gabbai, asked the court to release her client to house arrest and claimed that some of the actions attributed to him are no longer criminal offenses because the statute of limitations has expired.

'Wife proven worthy because she keeps quiet'

Judge Greenberg wrote in her decision that the women described Ratzon's conduct at home during their investigations. They detailed their debts to Ratzon and the demands he placed on him, both financially and emotionally.

"In order to demonstrate the demands, I will note that it was revealed during one of the testimonies that the suspect believed the woman proved herself (worthy) because he shouts and degrades her, and she keeps quiet," wrote the judge. "In addition, the women said that until the suspect found out that the women were prepared to void themselves entirely before him, he denied them certain things."

The judge also ruled that "there is no disagreeing" that Ratzon had "a nearly limitless influence" on the women and children that were under his complete mastery until recently, and that "it does not take a lot of imagination" to understand that his release is likely to prevent these very women and children from providing complete and truthful testimonies to the police.

"In addition, I reject the claim that the suspect does not pose a danger to the general public," added the judge. "He recruited the women under his control while wandering through his neighborhood and other places in the city. Through his smooth talking, he succeeded in convincing them to join what seems to me to be a cult. There is no doubt that in this sense, the suspect continues to pose a threat to the general public."

Defense lawyer, Attorney Gabbai, asked the court to send Ratzon to a detainment review to review whether he could be sent to a detainment alternative because he is a 60-year-old man with no criminal record. However, Judge Greenberg rejected her request.

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