Let’s turn now, for a moment, to that other major scandal currently roiling Israel: the allegations against Rabbi Motti Elon, one of – perhaps the – most prominent religious-Zionist rabbis in Israel today, son of former Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, brother of former MK Benny Elon, former yeshivah head and media star, popular with the secular public as well as a star in his own community.
A few days ago, Takana, a forum for religious leaders combating sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, announced that Rabbi Elon was a “danger to the public”. The initial allegations were vague; it has since emerged that he is being accused of molesting, and of conducting long-term sexual relationships, with young men coming to him for counselling (some of them asking for advice because they were worried they had homosexual tendencies). As far as I can work out, the boys in all cases were over the age of consent and none were willing to press police charges.
Five years ago Rav Elon disappeared from public life, moving his family to a small town in the north. At the time his followers understood this was due to health concerns. But it now turns out it followed a deal with Takana, in which he committed to remove himself from all positions of teaching and leadership. This allowed him to keep the allegations quiet, while – allegedly – removing him as a threat to young men.
They went public now, they say, because he did not keep to the terms of the deal, beginning to see young men in private again, and they started getting complaints about his behaviour again.
What to make of all of this?
On the one hand, there is a temptation to congratulate the national-religious (modern Orthodox) community in Israel for taking the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of a rabbi’s power seriously, particularly compared to the ‘brush-it-under-the-carpet’ attitude so prevalent in the Charedi community in the US, which has only began to change in the past couple of years with a series of high-profile prosecutions of abusive rabbis. Here, the religious-Zionist leadership was clearly genuinely sickened by his behaviour, and took real action against him, despite his high profile and towering stature across the country.But, on reflection, I tend to agree with Mom in Israel, who says:
Keeping secrets is not a good thing when it protects molesters.
Takana thought it was dealing with the problem by banishing Rav Elon to the north, but this really was only another way of brushing the scandal under the carpet. His reputation was intact; he still had a following and young men were still put in harm’s way, open to manipulation by this charismatic figure of authority. Indeed, that is exactly what happened.
Mom in Israel links to the transcript of a talk on the scandal by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the highly respected head of Har Etzion yeshivah (the ‘Harvard’ of the modern Orthodox yeshivah world), who is a member of Takanah. It pains me to say this because Rav Lichtenstein embodies everything I believe in religiously, but on this issue, I am simply shocked by the priorities he reveals and by the level of naivety amongst the rabbis of Takanah.
He openly admits that they were concerned that if the Elon allegations went public, it would damage the reputation of the religious-Zionist community, both amongst Charedim and amongst the secular public. Another consideration, he says, was the reputation of Rav Elon himself – they had “pity for the man on personal level”. All the meetings were done “out of a desire to protect his honour and the public”.
But hold on – what about one certain section of the public – victims, and even more importantly, the future victims?
According to Rav Lichtenstein, the rabbis kept on hoping that with time, things with Rav Elon would “straighten themselves out” (no pun intended). “We hoped”, he said, “that the man had accepted responsibility and that now he must be interested in overcoming these tendencies, and understands that it can affect his situation and his standing.” He personally tried to talk to Rav Elon – begging him, he says – “you are ruining yourself and your life”.
This is simply naivety of the worst kind. Sexual harassers, men who use their position of authority in order to take advantage of their students, do not suddenly stop because they realise it could cost them their career. It does not depend on logic – they can’t be talked out of it.
So while I truly believe that the rabbis of Takanah had only the best of intentions, they were wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again to try to deal with this privately. And it is distressing that in this situation, issues of reputation – of their community and of the accused rabbi – would be a consideration at all.All of which reinforces the argument made by activists fighting sexual abuse in Charedi communities in America: these issues cannot be handled within the community. Rabbis, even those who are clever, genuine, G-d fearing and well-intentioned, simply cannot be trusted or expected to act in the best interest of the only people who count – victims, past and future – when they know the alleged perpetrator and have additional considerations, such as the reputation of their community, muddying their judgement.
In another transcript, of one of Takanah’s meetings with a friend of one of the boys who allegedly had a relationship with Rav Elon, it is noticeable that they can’t even bring themselves to utter his name, instead referring to him – with one exception – as “the senior [one]”. Even when going public with the accusations, they initially could not bring themselves to spell out the exact nature of the allegations. How can people clearly still in awe of Rav Elon be objective on this?
In the future, when it comes to sexual abuse and harassment, there is one address only: the police. The rabbis and activists of Takanah should carry on working, but their aim should not be to deal with these issues privately; it must be to encourage victims to make official complaints. As in the Charedi community in the US, the modern Orthodox community needs a public climate in which there is no shame in complaining about abuse; in which abusers, no matter how senior they are in the community, know that they and their reputation will not be shielded. Only the promise of daylight will put an end to this horrible problem.
No secrets. No silence. Just the police.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, Takana did in fact approach the attorney general about Rav Elon, in 2006; he told the police not to investigate. This was, first of all, years after Takana first heard about the allegations about Rav Elon, come to the 'agreement' with him and he had moved to Migdal. Their main aim, right from the beginning, should have been to bring about a proper investigation, by encouraging the boys to make official complaints and by pushing the AG - who, possibly, has his own case to answer. He should not have left this to the rabbis; in fact, I would really like to know whether a factor in his decision not to pursue an investigation against Rav Elon was the knowledge that this highly sensitive case had already been 'taken in hand' by Takana.