Leah, the mother of four young children, endured a decade of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband before seeking help at a shelter for battered women.
A shy woman in her late 20s, Leah (not her real name) is one of an estimated tens of thousands of Israeli women who are abused by their spouses or live-in boyfriends. She is also one of a growing number using the increasing number of services for battered wives and their children.
Virtually a taboo subject here just a decade ago, the problem of wife abuse is getting national recognition.
There are between 100,000 and 200,000 battered Israeli women, according to Yaffa Slisler, she Resource Center Coordinator for the Israel Women’s Network. The number is inexact because many women decline to report the abuse.
Last year, 23 women died in violent domestic incidents, Slisler said.
"There is definitely more awareness of the problem on the part of legislators and the public at large," said Ronit Lev-Ari, a sociologist who heads the department of family violence prevention at Na’amat, the country’s largest women’s organization.
The plight of battered women has made it onto the political agenda, said Ruthie Rossing, resource development officer of the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women.
"It’s not a fringe issue anymore," she said.
Let-Ari attributes this breakthrough to a number of factors, including a new atmosphere of openness within Israeli society that allows debate on such taboo topics as incest and homosexuality.
She also credits the efforts of women’s rights advocates, whose efforts to publicize the plight of battered women reached a peak in 1990, when Knesset members were debating whether to pass the controversial Law of Family Violence Prevention.
Enacted in June 1991, the law allows a judge to immediately remove an abusive spouse from the home for a period of seven days to six months.
"Under the law the abused spouse is able to press charges, and the judge can issue a restraining order almost immediately," Lev-Ari explained.
"The law and all the publicity surrounding it went a long way toward informing women that they have legal rights, and that they should take advantage of them," she said.
Since then, as women have become less afraid to speak out, several organizations have risen to the challenge.
A number of women’s groups, including those in the Orthodox Jewish and Muslim sectors, have set up 24-hour telephone hot lines and other emergency services.
Thanks to intense lobbying by women’s groups and others committed to helping battered women, seven shelters have sprung up around the country, including a shelter for Arab women.
All shelters are financed mainly by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and rely heavily on donations.
Greater emphasis is also being placed on identifying abused women and those who are at risk of being abused in the future.
Realizing that the greatest deterrent against abuse is prevention, Na’amat recently inaugurated an in-house education program for female soldiers that deals explicitly with the problem of wife beating and explains ways to identify a potentially abusive partner before marriage.
On an empirical level, surveys conducted by Na’amat show that, contrary to long-held stereotypes, wife abuse in Israel is not limited to the poor and Sephardic segments of the population.
In one study of 200 battered women who had called the organization for help, "more than half were educated and from middle-income homes," said Lev-Ari.
"Education and a nice home are no barrier against wife abuse," she said. "Whether a woman comes from a poor of a wealthy neighborhood, the risk of abuse appears to be about the same.
"But," she said, "the wealthier woman may be more reluctant to seek help than her poorer counterpart."
Women’s rights activist Ruth Rasnic attributes this to the fact that "poor women, who often by rely on government assistance programs, are used to turning to others for help, whereas middle-class women attach a stigma to seeking help."
"It’s usually only the poor who end up in shelters," she said.
In addition, "For middle- and upper-class women, even those with good jobs, leaving the abuser inevitably means lowering their standard of living. And many women, especially housewives in traditional homes, lack job skills and fear they will be left destitute," Rasnic said.
Such was the case with Leah, who endured her husband’s abuse because she "didn’t have the strength to get help."
Married at a young age, she said she "realized almost from the start that I was in a bad marriage, but once I started having children I felt stuck."
"I told my parents what was happening, but they told me not to leave my husband, that I was better off with him than without him," she said. "Maybe they thought I would become a burden on them if I left him."
Sitting on a couch in the shelter and wringing her hands, she said, "I finally sought help when I realized my husband was sexually abusing our daughter. I finally found the courage to break free, for her sake."
After spending six months in the shelter, which can house almost a dozen women at any one time, Leah said she was ready to begin a new life, out of the shelter and away from her husband.
"I know it won’t be easy," she said, "but it’s something I have to do."