"Currently there is no law in the State of Israel to guard individuals against the sects and their influence," says Dr. Gabi Zohar.
A panel of academics and professionals from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services will meet Thursday to discuss the possibility of creating legislation to legally outlaw sects and cultish practices in Israel.
The one-day symposium, which will explore the ethical dilemma of curbing such groups and attempt to sharpen the definition of what constitutes a cult, comes five months after a first-of-its-kind government report recommending a set of laws to curtail such groups and clearer guidelines on how the relevant government authorities could work together to stop them.
"Currently there is no law in the State of Israel to guard individuals against the sects and their influence," said Dr. Gabi Zohar from the International Center for Health, Law and Ethics at the University of Haifa, who will chair Thursday's forum. "This means that cults are able to function freely in our society and do whatever they please."
"The conference will examine what exactly constitutes a cult, based on the findings of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Service report and outline a standard infrastructure that will form the basis of a law against cult activities," he continued, adding that there is a fine line between civil liberties and laws restricting freedom of choice expressed in the cults, so it is not straight forward.
That issue will be discussed too, said Zohar, a clinical social worker who provides treatment to families of cult victims.
According to information presented by the Welfare Ministry, there are roughly 80 groups actively operating in Israel today that could be clearly defined as a cult. In addition, experts suggest that thousands of individuals have chosen to adopt the beliefs of a particular group and live their lives according to principals demanded by a single leader or guru.
In many cases, cult members are brainwashed into cutting off all ties with their parents, siblings and even their children and instead encouraged to build up their connections with other members in the cult, the ministry's report found.
Over the past two years, authorities have publicly ousted two such cults – the first a Tel Aviv group belonging to Goel Ratzon, a guru who had some 20 wives and 40 children living according to guidelines that he created; the other group was based in Jerusalem and Tiberius and included six women and multiple children that believed in the communal living dictated by a 55-year-old man that followed the Breslov Hassidic movement.
Due to the lack of laws, the cult leaders could not be indicted on charges of leading a brainwashing sect, rather they had to be arrested on other charges such as child-sex abuse and rape.
Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs director-general Nachum Itzkovitch said Wednesday "for the victims and their families, cults represent a deep-rooted problem. It is up to the government and Israeli society to be aware of this phenomenon and find a way to treat and prevent it from happening."