Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sex in the City – of Bnei Brak

Once again my thoughts turn to my memories of Bnei Brak - ‘my home in Israel’ for a period of 18 years in the 70s and 80s. Still fresh in my mind are the warm feelings I have for the people I met there.

But Bnei Brak isn’t just about these wonderful human beings. The town seems to be having its share of problems. It is a city that is virtually all Charedi (even though it also includes a small pocket of Religious Zionists and it even has an area where secular Jews live). Unfortunately, according to an article in Ha’aretz, Bnei Brak has the highest incidence of sex crimes in the entire country.

This should not be taken to mean that Bnei Brak is a city full of sexual perverts. Indeed one of the reasons the sex crime rate is so high is because of a single serial rapist outside of Bnei Brak:

The Dan Region police received reports of 10 sexual assaults of girls in recent months. Two cases involved rape; the rest were instances either of attempted rape or indecent assault. In all cases the girls, aged approximately 12, gave a similar description of their assailant, who they said wore the garb of a specific Haredi community, and used the same modus operandi in his assaults.

I can’t verify the statistics about Bnei Brak quoted in the article, but the response from the Charedi leaders there seem to justify at least the existence of a serious problem:

"The number of sex offenses in the Bnei Brak area is higher than any other city by tens of percentage points, and it is clear to us that we do not know about many cases that are not even reported because of the well-known fact that in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, there is great reluctance about reporting such incidents," a senior police officer in the Tel Aviv District said.

Tens of percentage points! Well, I guess if one serial rapist does ten of them it can result in this kind of statistic. Ha’artez’s headline is therefore misleading!

How misleading? Are there a significant number of sex crimes in that city by its own residents? I don’t know. There is nothing in the article that tells you that.

What ever the case may be I’m glad to see that rabbinic leaders have changed their attitudes with respect to the secular authorities in dealing with this problem. Here is what a senior police officer in the Tel Aviv said:

"Contrary to the past there is greater trust in the police [among the Haredi community] and less shame in filing a complaint. We recognize these phenomena that occur occasionally, and recently there have been many publications in the city, which have warned children about sexual predators," a senior public figure from Bnei Brak told Haaretz Sunday.

"Now the approach tends to be inclined toward involving the police as soon as possible after we learn that the attack has taken place. More than ever there are reports in various places, especially in schools and in letters to the parents, warning against the phenomena that threaten the children," the local source added.

But questions remain. Just how much of those 'tens of percentage points' quoted by the police reflects the city’s own residents versus those who come outside it? And... Why Bnei Brak? What’s the attraction for a serial rapist? Why not a more secular town where there is more erotica?

Bnei Brak is a city with some of the strictest codes of sexual conduct of any other city in the world. Why should a city like that have such a high rate of sexual offences? There is no place on earth that should be better protected. The laws of Tznius and sexual conduct are designed to eliminate all eroticism.

Erotic images do not exist. There are no billboards with erotic pictures on them. There is no TV or movies. No theater. No secular books, magazines, or newspapers. Religious newspapers and magazine do not contain any images of women… no matter how Tznius their dress.

There is no secular music played in the homes - or streets - or stores. The internet is forbidden. Outdoor concerts - even with separate seating only - are forbidden for fear of contact between the sexes. The women of that community are the most modestly dressed women in the world. The segregation of the sexes is the almost total. If ever there was a place where eroticism was completely absent, it is Bnei Brak.

So again, why are there so many sex crimes there? What is it about Bnei Brak that attracts a serial sex offender?

Could it be that at least in part the citizens of Bnei Brak are simply over sheltered? Perhaps they are more vulnerable to attacks from the outside because of their innocence? And if there are substantial numbers of sexual abuse from within that community perhaps that too can be blamed on over sheltering.

The obsession about Tznius and the taboos over sex - or any discussion thereof – ought to be reconsidered. Currently the taboos about sex are so strong that’s residents are filled with anxiety at the mere mention of it.

On the other hand the slightest exposure to outside stimuli that most people would not think twice about might be experienced as erotic to potential in-town perpetrators. And for the few who lack sufficient control, those urges might arouse aberrant sexual behavior and assault.

Food for thought.