Thursday, August 18, 2016

Belittling Survivors of Sex Abuse

Rabbi ZechariaWallerstein
It takes a certain level of naiveté and hubris to think you are serving God by angrily belittling people. Especially if they are survivors of sexual abuse. It is well known that these survivors have emotional issues that in many cases will affect them for the rest of their lives. It is also a well established fact that many are prone to severe clinical depression that often leads them to drug and alcohol abuse - and even attempts at suicide. Sadly in all too many cases, they succeed.

None of this is news. It has all been discussed here before. Why bring it up again?

A few days ago a speech by Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder and director of Ohr Naava, was uploaded to YouTube. Part of that speech was an angry rant - telling survivors of abuse to ‘get over it’ and stop behaving like victims all of their lives. I have to believe that it was less than encouraging for a survivor suffering from depression to hear. Their state of mind is often very fragile. It often doesn’t take much for some people in this emotional state of mind to be pushed over the edge, precipitating an attempt at suicide.

Obviously Rabbi Wallerstein cannot be held responsible for the sex abuse and the depression that followed. But to say that his insensitive words made so angrily in public did not or could not negatively impact someone like that is to not understand the severity of their pain and risk contributing to their demise!.

I am sure that this was not his intention. I believe he thought he was trying to help. He was telling survivors to get past their pain and make something of their lives. His anger was directed at the fact the survivors are their own worst enemies by dwelling it on their pain instead of ‘picking up the pieces’ and ‘moving on’. Easy for him to say.  I doubt that he or any of his close family members were ever victims of sexual abuse.

His speech was in response to a video on YouTube by Heshy Deutch. He is an expatriate Chasid. 

Heshy spoke from the heart. He spoke about doing more than just admitting how bad things are. He spoke about doing something. Changing things enough so that sex abuse will be entirely eradicated… never to show its ugly face in our world again.

We have a long way to go.

Rabbi Wallerstien’s response to Heshy’s video was shocking. He completely ignored the message and said what many other naïve people like him have said in the past. Yelling at times that they should just stop Kvetching and get on with their lives.

He compared abuse survivors to Holocaust survivors. Separating them from the observant from the non observant. Those that stayed observant even after suffering unimaginable pain he termed survivors. In short they stopped pointing fingers and moved on with their lives. Those that did not remain observant he termed victims that – instead of moving on - chose to dwell on their pain and constantly talk about their Nazi oppressors. He then said that sex abuse victims should follow the example of the observant Holocaust survivors. Telling them to stop ‘pointing fingers’ and move on with their lives. (I think that summarizes what he said.)

How dare he make such a comparison?!  

First, although he pays lip service to the fact they we have no right to judge any Holocaust victim - whether they remained religious or not, he went about doing the exact opposite. As though there were no successful non observant Holocaust victims that have moved on with their lives and have done well.

Of course there are.  Despite the pain they must still feel deep down, there are plenty of very successful Holocaust survivors who did not emerge from those horros as observant Jews. They have rebuilt their lives; had families; and have done quite well. Survivors that have not done well are comprised of both observant and non observant Jews.

Secondly, Rabbi Wallerstein does not seem to understand the difference between survivors of abuse and survivors of the Holocaust. I am not talking about magnitude. As a child of the Holocaust, I am well aware of the magnitude of what happened then. Trying to compare just about any tragedy to the Holocaust is a fool’s errand. There is no comparison to what those survivors went through. I am talking about making an analogy between Holocaust survivors and survivors of abuse. This is where Rabbi Wallerstein went seriously wrong in my view.

Rabbi Wallerstein was rebutted eloquently in a Facebook response by Sima Yarmush. She is an observant survivor of sex abuse and a grandchild of observant Holocaust survivors. Rather than trying to paraphrase her words I urge people to read her relatively short post in its entirety. Here is an excerpt:
The analogy of the holocaust is a chutzpa for obvious reasons. Among other reasons, the Jews were being persecuted by anti-Semites intent on annihilating them for no other reason than being Jewish – simple hatred. The atrocities of the holocaust are acknowledged by all.
I, and other survivors of abuse, on the other hand, are victimized by people who are meant to love us and then, our perpetrators are protected, again, by people who we are taught to trust.
We, as a community, have a problem. Until we acknowledge that we are victims of abuse, we can’t be survivors. You are stopping us from being survivors. 
a. As a granddaughter of a survivor of Auschwitz, I’ve witnessed my Bubby cry and grapple with the trauma of being a victim. It is a daily struggle for her; however, throughout, she remains a survivor, upholding the Torah, without diminishing idea that she was, and remains, a victim of the Nazi’s atrocities.
b. Being a survivor does not mean that you can’t discuss the perpetrators, point your finger at them, and hold them accountable. Look at Elie Weisel. 
c. We can, and will continue, to point fingers at those who have committed the crimes and atrocities, while saying “never again.”

Rabbi Wallerstein has issued the following short video response to the criticism he has received for this speech.

Please see RabbiYakov Horowitz's take on this here.