Behind the Headlines Child Abuse in Israel

The physical abuse of children in Israel claims thousands of victims each year, according to a professor of social work at Tel Aviv University. This has only been recognized as a social problem in the past five years. Awareness of the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children has only begun as recently as six months ago, and the number of victims are difficult to obtain, Prof. Hanita Zimrin said.

The creation of consciousness of the problem of child abuse is the goal of ELI, the Israeli Association of Child Protection, founded in 1979 by Zimrin. Interviewed while on sabbatical in the U.S., Zimrin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that child abuse in Israel derives mainly from the Jewish State’s having become a “normal” society, with all its attendant problems, and not, as many suppose, from tensions arising out of the ongoing war situation.

“Normal,” in this context, means multi-generational, as contrasted with the pre-state Yishuv (Jewish community), which was composed largely of childless young adults. It also means nuclear families with a division of labor assigning one parent the sole responsibility for socializing the child. Another key factor is isolation: “an abusive family is an isolated family,” Zimrin said.

Zimrin’s research, conducted over the past 15 years, has revealed that the parent who is burdened with the sole responsibility for socializing the child, is usually the abuser. “Among the Jewish population in Israel, it is the mothers who are usually the physical abusers,” said Zimrin. Fifty percent of the victims of such physical abuse — beating, burning, gross neglect — are under six months of age.

In the Arab population, it is the father who is the abuser in these cases, with abuse occurring after a child is over seven. That age is when the father assumes responsibility for the child’s socialization.

LESS PHYSICAL ABUSE AMONG THE ORTHODOX

There is much less physical abuse reported among the Orthodox population, said Zimrin. The reasons are that Orthodox Jews are still living “as extended families with good family ties.” While the mother is still responsible for the child’s socialization, she is not isolated and she has a good support system.

This pattern also ensures a control system — making it easy for abuse to be recognized should it occur — and stopped. A similar “control” system exists on the kibbutz — where, in addition, the mother is not assigned sole responsibility for the child’s discipline and education.

The only situation where abuse is more frequent in Orthodox families, Zimrin said, is the case of mentally handicapped children, who are often seen as reducing their siblings’ chances of a good match.

ABUSE NOT CONFINED TO LOWER CLASSES

Child abuse is not confined to the lower classes–”this is a myth,” said Zimrin. Part of the reason for the large number of cases in the lower classes is that they are exposed to social services, and more cases get reported. Upper class families are also “more sophisticated” and know how to “tell the right stories.”

It is because many Sephardic Jews are in the lower classes that there seem to be more cases of child abuse among them, “but this perception is wrong,” said Zimrin. While there exists more corporal punishment among the Sephardim, this is not the same as physical abuse.

EXISTENCE OF SEXUAL ABUSE

Awareness of the existence of sexual abuse of children is only beginning in Israel, she said. “People say it doesn’t exist, just like they said about physical abuse five, ten fifteen years ago.”The Ministry of Welfare could not even give her a figure on the number of such cases.

The youngest victim she knows of was two-and-a-half years old. “It is one child, usually a daughter, who is the victim,” Zimrin said. “When she grows up, her sister replaces her.” Often the mother colludes in this family pathology.

In cases of sexual abuse, there are more reports coming directly from children of upper classes. Zimrin believes this is because they feel more able to take control of their lives than do poor children.

After a case gets reported, welfare officers from the Department of Welfare can apply the “Youth Care and Protection Act” and even take the parents to court. The officer can act as the child’s guardian within the family or have the child removed from the home for up to three years. In the case of sexual abuse the perpetrators can be imprisoned.

Children are not required to testify in court, a unique and humane Israeli innovation. The juvenile interrogator who takes down their testimony can act as surrogate for the child and be cross-examined in her or his place. “The child is not abused by the court system,” said Zimrin.

What is missing is a shelter/crisis intervention center where a child can be taken to by a welfare officer in case of emergency. ELI hopes to create such a shelter. There is also no program of psychological treatment for abused children — it is a hit-or-miss affair depending on individual case workers. Zimrin is working on a comprehensive community plan to ensure such treatment for the children.

THE ROLE OF ELI

ELI, which Zimrin chairs, follows up on reports of welfare officers; assists social work professionals in their work, and does intensive outreach to various groups in society: parents, children, youth movements, the government, professionals in schools and hospitals, and the general public. Its aim is to enable people to identify child abuse and know what to do about it.

The organization, which is non-profit, is also putting in its first hot-line, and has publicized the slogan, “Lift the phone before you lift your hand.”

ELI receives no government funding and is an almost entirely volunteer operation. Zimrin is a volunteer as are social workers, psychologists and other professionals. Only two part-time social workers and a secretary get paid. ELI’s street address is, appropriately, Hamaginim (the protectors) 60, in Herzliya. (Phone: 052-70974).

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