Over the last few weeks the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been conducting public hearings in order to examine the response of Jewish schools Yeshiva Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi to allegations of child sexual abuse. What has emerged is an unfortunate picture of an insular community with a continuing deep-seated fear of state-based persecution. While from an historic point of view the ghettoisation of the Australian Jewish community is understandable, it is not justified in liberal, democratic societies where Jews are no longer considered ‘the Other’.
It is now widely known that four rabbis actively covered up incidents of child sexual abuse beginning in the late 1980s. However, perhaps more troubling is the way many community members, not solely the rabbis involved, closed themselves off to external jurisdiction. This was done so as not to draw public attention to these crimes as well as perhaps more systemic issues within the Jewish community. The personal case of repeated sexual abuse of Yeshiva student Manny Waks is deeply distressing. Waks is so far, the only Australian Jewish victim to come forward to the Commission and the ultra-orthodox Jewish community has subjected both him and his family to bullying, isolation and outright ostracism as a result. As Waks repeated in a recent Guardian article, the ultra-orthodox Chabbad movement within Australian Jewry, but also in a wider sense of the religious community, remains a ‘closed zone’. Speaking out against conduct committed within or by members of it, be it taxation fraud, violence or sexual assault, can ‘at the very least … lead to shunning and intimidation within the Jewish community and would almost certainly damage marriage prospects of your children.’
One of the worst sins possible in rabbinic literature is miserah. In today’s parlance, miserah essentially means being a ‘whistle-blower’. Sadly, many in the Jewish community consider Manny Waks to be a whistle-blower for bringing issues that they consider best addressed within the Jewish community to the attention of state authorities. Someone who commits miserah is known as mosur and will be tarnished with a derogatory brush for the rest of their life.
There was a time, not that long ago, that the prohibition on miserah made sense. With the world’s largest population of Holocaust survivors, many in the Australian Jewish community can still remember it. In societies where the Jewish community suffered oppression at the hands of the state, it was inappropriate, in fact a sin potentially punishable by death, to inform secular, state authorities of crimes committed by Jews.
For generations before the Holocaust, Jews were denied equal access to justice. Even in societies where Jews had rights, those rights were generally secondary and contingent upon the goodwill of the state or the political climate of the day. Additionally, many historic Jewish communities, such as Roman Palestine or Medieval Spain, had some level of legal self-determination that allowed them to robustly police issues and enforce rulings within their own population. In these more precarious times taking a problem to the government authority was seen as the height of treachery because cases of ‘Jewish crime’ had both personal and communal ramifications. The perpetrator could be subjected to discrimination and physical danger while the community could be subjected to changes in government policy to the detriment of the Jewish population, perhaps even acting as an excuse for a pogrom.
Luckily, in Australia and other liberal, democratic societies, systematic ostracisation does not exist. The governmental organisations that function to police or punish criminals represent the Jewish community as much as they represent all members of Australian society regardless of race or religion. Since the government is not a separate entity but includes representatives democratically elected by the Jewish community (amongst others), the concept of miserah is rendered meaningless.
Some have argued that events like the latest war in Gaza triggered a dramatic rise in global anti-Semitism, including in Australia. Additionally, the overpublicised and much-maligned ‘terrorist (read Muslim) threat’ does little to assuage Jewish fears of safety. While there is no doubt there have been specific incidences of discrimination and vilification against Jews in recent years, based in no small part because of Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians, there is nothing to suggest that the level of anti-Semitism is any greater than intolerance towards other ethnic or religious minorities. Despite this, the fear of persecution within the Australian Jewish community remains high, somehow lending internal justification for their lack of action in submitting to external authority.
On the one hand the establishment and nurturing of a closed community that has had the ability to function independently of state control is laudable. It has led to the development, over millennia, of a strong, vibrant, educated and distinctive cultural and religious community. On the other, it is like an elderly uncle who insists that he is fine but then refusing to see a doctor has a cancer eat away at him.
Currently, we do not know how many victims there are of institutionalised Jewish child sexual abuse. It is naïve to believe that Manny Waks and his two brothers are the extent of it. Regardless of who else comes forward, abiding by the religious tradition of miserah has done untold damage to the lives of the Waks family and, ironically, to the Jewish community itself. Nowadays, far from being a justifiable religious edict, miserah is rather a deeply embedded Jewish cultural tradition. While there may once have been a time and a place where it was acceptable, rabbinically speaking, failure to report Jewish criminal activities to secular authorities is no longer relevant in modern democratic societies such as Australia. In fact, today it is actually to the benefit of a community, and to wider society, for any crime, irrespective of whether the victim or perpetrator is Jew or gentile, to be reported to the state authorities rather than any de facto community one. While it is difficult to see such a cultural shift happening in the Australian Jewish community in the immediate future, time, as well as the courage of people like Manny Waks, will hopefully lead away from the ghetto to a more open-minded tradition.