During Israel’s early years, officials were alarmed by reports of women being attacked at night in the streets. Law enforcement studied the problem and presented a remedy to the Cabinet: a curfew for women. If they were not out on the street late at night, according to the proposal’s logic, women would not be attacked, and sexual assault would diminish.
During the discussion, Golda Meir spoke up. The women who are being attacked are not the cause of this violence, she said; they are its victims. If a curfew is the answer, it’s men who should be banned from the streets at night.
A curfew for men was just too radical; the whole idea was dropped.
I was reminded of this story recently for two reasons. The first was when someone told me, with absolute certainty, that domestic violence is not a Jewish problem. “Jewish men don’t beat their wives,” I was told.
The evidence suggests otherwise. Cross-cultural studies of domestic violence show a consistent rate across communities. That’s not to say there are no differences among cultures. But intimate-partner violence in this country tends to occur among Jews at rates similar to those among non-Jews. Reviewing the caseloads of Jewish domestic violence groups, one finds domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. An Internet search of “rabbinic sexual abuse” will yield a depressing plethora of cases. Any of us who thought somehow we are “better than that” can check our smugness at the door.
In Israel, the problem Golda and her colleagues had to deal with more than 50 years ago hasn’t gone away. A report by the Women’s International Zionist Organization last year estimated 200,000 Israeli battered women.
The myth that Jews don’t engage in domestic violence is just that — a myth.
The other reason I thought about Golda’s story is that we still tend to think and talk about domestic violence as a women’s issue. When I hear about domestic violence, it’s almost always from women. Support for Shalom Bayit, our community’s organization fighting violence, comes mostly from women.
It’s understandable. After all, one hears about anti-Semitism mostly from Jews. So it’s not surprising that women lead the way in confronting sexual violence. But Jews don’t cause anti-Semitism; anti-Semites do.
Let’s be honest: Sexual violence is a men’s issue. The vast majority of assaults — against a spouse, a date or, for that matter, a stranger — are perpetrated by men. I get why women talk about it. I just don’t get why men don’t.
When I counseled men who had committed violence against their partners, they tended to ascribe the cause to uncontrolled rage or substance abuse. These were often contributing factors. But, in my experience, they didn’t cause the violence; they just eased the path. What seemed far more prevalent were two things:
• The belief (not always conscious) that relationships with women are based not on equality, but on a power differential in which men exert control.
• An understanding of masculinity (also, not always conscious) that diminishes feeling, sensitivity, connection with others and self-control in favor of macho traits, including violence. Cultural critic Jackson Katz refers to this societal male ideal as the “tough guise.”
In other words, male violence against women has a lot to do with how men view women and how men view themselves.
The epidemic of sexual assault on campuses and the endless parade of professional athletes charged with domestic violence and other violent crimes bear out the prevalence of toxic images of masculinity in our culture. Much of the tough guise men learn is not just dangerous toward women; it’s self-destructive as well. With studies indicating that mass-media images of masculinity and femininity have grown more extreme over the last 50 years, it’s not hard to imagine that many young men have lost their way.
Many, but not all. It’s not that every cultural conception of masculinity is dangerous. How we manifest gender roles is based to no small degree on what we learn, and we have a say in what our boys learn.
We and our kids are barraged by all sorts of messages. Jewish wisdom can provide a lens to help us filter and make sense of it.
“Who is strong?” asks Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot. “One who conquers his own inclinations. Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.” It is mastery of ourselves, not dominion over others, that characterizes rabbinic images of masculinity.
Jewish educators can address these issues with teens, teaching and modeling healthy relationships and healthy, authentic conceptions of masculinity and femininity.
Several initiatives give me hope. Moving Traditions, the organization that created “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl’s Thing” groups for adolescent girls, has developed a parallel program for teen boys in which positive images of masculinity are modeled. Shalom Bayit created Love Shouldn’t Hurt, a project that teaches teens how to build healthy relationships.
Women are leading the struggle against violence, but it won’t end until men get real and honest about what it means to be a man, for ourselves and our sons.
David Waksberg is the CEO of Jewish LearningWorks in San Francisco. He is also a husband and father.