In Israel, 200,000 women may be abused every year

JERUSALEM — It could be a typical middle-class Israeli home.

A Fisher-Price farm sits on the living room floor, laundry hangs outside, children race in and out and in a homey kitchen downstairs, a mother prepares eggs for her two young boys.

But a television screen on the living room wall warns residents against approaching visitors. And the 12 women residents and their 25 children — many of them emigres — are forbidden to leave at night. Several years ago, when one woman walked out, against advice, to meet her husband, he killed her.

Domestic violence in Israel is on the rise. Approximately 200,000 Israeli women are battered each year, according to the Israel Women's Network. Some 40,000 of them reach emergency wards. Last year, 15 of these victims died.

Only about 2,000 women file charges or seek refuge in such facilities as the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women, which serves some 70 women and 100 children each year. The facility, one of 11 such shelters in Israel, collaborates with the Hadassah Medical Organization which forwards patients in need of housing. Four of the shelters are in Jerusalem.

The intifada, the Gulf War, the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and recent fears of Iraqi chemical warfare have all led to upsurges in domestic violence, social workers and physicians report.

"I think it's a very aggressive society we live in," said Rachel Bialer, director of the Jerusalem shelter. "Our history has a lot to do with it."

Gurith Schneidman, head of social work services at Hadassah's two Jerusalem hospitals, said, "Whenever political tensions rise, the numbers in the emergency rooms are higher." During the winter months, when Israel was threatened with a potential Iraqi attack, the number of battered women referrals was the highest it had been in many months.

Domestic violence "is a global issue," said Nora Kort, a Palestinian activist and social worker who heads the Arab Orthodox Society in Jerusalem's Old City. What's new in the Middle East, she said, is that it's being addressed, including in the Arabic press.

Women are not the only victims. Child abuse, like spousal abuse, permeates every segment of Israeli society, said Dr. Yigal Shvil, head of the Child at Risk program and pediatric nephrology department at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center.

The magnitude of the problem is not nearly as great as in the United States, Shvil said. He estimated that among Israel's 1.5 million children, 20,000 are abused each year — about 230 suspected cases arriving at Hadassah's two hospitals annually.

But while the abuse and abuse-related murder statistics may be low, the denial level is often high, compounded by the belief that abuse doesn't occur in Jewish families.

"The phenomenon exists in the Jewish population and it exists among new immigrants," he said.

Shvil first encountered the growing problem in the early '70s, when he noticed bruises and cigarette burns on a small girl and discovered that her parents had not wanted a third daughter and were forcing her to sleep in a doll cradle that was too small for her.

"The father had broken her arms and legs," he said. "I saw healed fractures."

As a result of such cases, he said, Hadassah now has a team consisting of himself, two social workers, a psychologist and a pediatric psychiatrist to deal with suspected cases of child abuse.

While Hadassah does not maintain statistics on the religious and ethnic breakdown of its clients, several who work with battered women and children report an upsurge in domestic violence in the last 12 or 13 years.

Schneidman, who also consults with the Jerusalem shelter, attributes the rise in part to demographic changes, including immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. At the Jerusalem shelter, one of several in the country that serve secular Jews, about one-third of the 12 women are ex-Soviets; two are Ethiopian.

Among the former Soviets, she said, alcohol use is often high, contributing to abuse.

"There's also a crisis of adaptation. They don't know the language, the culture, the bureaucracy. Some are so unequipped, so troubled, which can explain the extra use of alcohol." In addition, she said, women often cope better with changes than their husbands, which could raise the "rate of anger" directed against women.

Among the Ethiopians, poverty, low literacy rates and scant knowledge of Hebrew exacerbate stress. And the paternalistic Ethiopian culture makes it difficult for a woman to achieve independence.

The task of treating victims of domestic violence in Israel, Schneidman said, is also complicated by religious and ethnic differences. In both the Arab and the fervently religious Jewish communities, there is a strong desire to keep such incidents private. Frequently, women themselves will hide suspected abuse.

Schneidman remembers a woman coming into one of the Hadassah hospitals the night before the Passover seder. She had a high temperature, a cough and pneumonia. She was anxious to get her medicine and depart to finish making her home kosher for Passover. But physicians noticed bruises and burns. Social workers later discovered that three of the woman's seven children were being abused.

To treat such cases, a shelter for fervently religious women and children was opened earlier this year, with the involvement of rabbis and women from the community.

Arab communities, which have their own shelters, face other complications. For example, if a woman is viewed as bringing disgrace upon her family through premarital pregnancy or infidelity, some husbands or fathers may feel a moral obligation to abuse or murder her, Schneidman said. About one-third of the women murdered in Israel last year by their spouses or male relatives were Arab, she said. Moreover, because Arab society is paternalistic, the husband is likely to get custody of the children if there's a divorce.

Until recently, domestic abuse was not discussed openly in Israel, Schneidman said.

"The phenomenon was very new and very embarrassing. Nobody thought it should be a hospital dilemma or that we should be involved in it."

But increased awareness brought about changes in reporting laws. While Israeli hospitals have been required to report suspected cases of child abuse, spousal abuse was a grayer area, unless the woman filed a complaint with the police. Today, hospital officials can inform legal authorities of suspected abuse, have the husband placed under 24-hour police custody and keep the woman in the hospital for 24 hours until a safe place can be found.

But Israel is a small country and it's difficult to hide, said Schneidman, who is trying to persuade a Russian emigre to leave the country for her safety.

Gaining the trust of abused women is critical, Bialer said. In the past, counselors often used feminist rhetoric in an attempt to persuade women to be strong and leave their husbands. It often backfired.

If women who have just entered a shelter are given a strong message that they should divorce, they may feel like failures if they decide to return to their spouses. And if the abuse continues, they may be reluctant to return to the shelter.

"Some women can only leave their husbands after coming to us five times," Bialer said. "It's a process."