Violence in the Jewish Family
American studies indicate violence occurs just as often in Jewish families as it does in other families. The difference is that Jewish women seek outside help less often and take longer to do so. They are likely to remain in relationships in that they suffer violence for five to seven years longer than their non-Jewish counterparts. The powerful myths surrounding the Jewish family are a major reason for these differences.
One powerful, influential myth is that of Shalom Bayt, the myth of domestic tranquillity. Women and mothers feel very responsible for maintaining this peace. When it cannot be realised, they feel guilty, ashamed and perceive themselves to be bad women and poor mothers. Jewish families are perceived by the outside world as warm, cohesive and peaceful. It is difficult to speak openly about the problem of violence, thereby destroying these internal and external images and expectations. In addition, by speaking out, a woman will bring scandal on her family.
Another powerful myth is of the mild, docile and more or less passive Jewish man.
When this image morphs into a horror show on a daily basis, it must be “countered” on different levels. It can take a long time for a woman to define her husband’s behaviour as violent. Initially, she will propose and accept every possible explanation and excuse and is frequently prepared to see herself as the cause of the violence.
Abuse within a relationship usually does not begin with physical violence. Instead, it starts with control (over money, where the wife goes and with whom she has contact), isolation (cutting off contact with the outside world, prohibiting her from attending courses, for example) and limits on her freedom of movement (among other things through religiously based imperatives and prohibitions).
At the start, the husband’s intent to control his wife may appear to be chivalrous. He accompanies her everywhere, driving her to places and picking her up... The real trouble starts only when she would like to do something on her own again. If, at that moment, a woman does not stand her ground regarding her desires and needs and instead tries to understand her husband and backs down, she may set the stage for a gradual spiral of violence within the marriage.
The last myth is of the wife’s self-image. Frequently, the picture is one of a strong, well-educated woman who has the daily running of her home well in hand. She may be a woman who bears responsibility for the well being of all her relatives, whether she works outside the home or not. This self-image is also the result of a synergistically reinforcing interchange of attributions from both inside and outside the family. It is not easy for a woman to admit to herself and others that this is a mirage and to concede she was wrong about the man she chose as a husband and father for her children (or that someone else chose for her).
In relationships characterised by humiliation and violence, self-respect and self-confidence may sometimes be undermined for years. A high level of insecurity compounds the problem, making it difficult to go out and seek help. Given this, many women run the risk of becoming increasingly passive and tolerant of a situation that is escalating slowly to a crisis. In many cases, mothers only feel forced to act when they see their children are directly or indirectly threatened as well.
Several distinctions are made between types of violence against children within the family. These are physical and psychological abuse, sexual exploitation and neglect.
According to studies done in the United States, all these types of violence can be found in Jewish families as well. It is suspected that psychological violence occurs more often in Jewish families than physical abuse.
It is known that it was very difficult for many survivors of World War II to fulfil the responsibilities of being a parent “well enough”. Frequently, their difficulties in raising children were expressed in forms of emotional and physical abuse. A few children of what is called “the second generation”, or “the Children of the Holocaust”, have described these families from their point of view. Although they, as children, have (must have!) a great deal of understanding for their parents, by reading between the lines one can see they often describe abusive situations.
The palette is a wide one. Some children were never allowed to bring others home or visit their friends. They had parents who were so fearful that they restricted any freedom of movement their children had. Other parents spoke endlessly about their experiences during the war, or, by contrast, were unable to tell their children why there were no longer any relatives left. Some parents punished their children using methods they experienced in the concentration camps (ranging from shouting at them to using extreme disciplinary methods like lashings). Children of the second generation who were damaged in this way may in turn have difficulty giving their own children what they never received themselves. (In order to avoid misunderstanding, I must add that I certainly do not believe that the entire second generation has been traumatised in this way.)
If Jews are living in an area where they are in the minority or may even be the sole Jewish family, there are additional risk factors. Children may, for example, be forced to always behave perfectly or conceal their Jewish identity. These children are under pressure, plagued as they are by fears they may endanger themselves or their parents. The anxiety of the parents repeatedly engenders tension in the family, which can then become fertile ground for conflicts. Stress factors in daily life are a generally recognised danger. Families with many children living in cramped quarters and plagued by financial worries quickly become overwhelmed with the running of their daily lives. Children must be disciplined early and sharply in order to take on responsibility that is beyond their years. Mothers in such families are often continually overextended and both parents lose their patience rapidly.
Special Jewish emergency hotlines in the USA report a clearly higher number of calls around the Jewish holidays. A chronically conflicted marriage is another known stressor that poses a risk to the well being of the children. Even if no direct violence is exercised on them, the situation is very burdensome for the children.
Religious and traditional rules and customs can be abused within the family to exercise control and threaten women and children to constrain unnecessarily in their freedom of movement and behaviour. As everyone knows, a great deal depends on the interpretation of these rules and there is always a paragraph in the Torah that can be found to support one’s position. The Shabbat and holidays can, as a result, become nightmares for the family.
If a woman dares to get a divorce, her husband can threaten to refuse to give her a Get [a letter of divorce]. The whole problem with the Get is that it is a form of structural violence that only worsens the situation of the women affected. The Jewish community can be dangerous as a place of social control while also being a place of social support and openness. The community could see to it that the difficulties in the family do not escalate into violence and the victims of abuse receive help quickly. The contribution can be enhanced if every member of the community is allowed to choose freely the type of family they live in and that outsiders, be they single, divorced, together with a non-Jew, or living in a homosexual union are integrated in the community. If there were true freedom to choose the type of family one lives in and it were possible for everyone, man or woman, to really belong to a community or congregation, then withdrawing from a violent situation in the private sphere would no longer be so costly.
Born in Leiden in the Netherlands, Rochelle Allebes lives today in Zürich, where she works as a social worker, supervisor and therapist.
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