Of freedom and cults

Haaretz, Israel/January 21, 2010

The affair of Goel Ratzon - the man whom so many women have obeyed and borne scores of children - is putting the authorities to a difficult test. The populist complaints about the welfare authorities such as "Where have you been all these years?" are baseless. Infiltrating a cult is a nearly impossible mission, and Ratzon's homes were apparently run according to rules followed by cults in a well-known and destructive process.

It starts with identifying suitable women as candidates (by their degree of weakness, crisis and dependency). It proceeds when the joiners receive a "barrage of love" and the warmth and security they so sorely lack. It moves on to total control of their minds, the point of no return. All this is conducted by a dominant and charismatic spiritual father, a guru with supposed hidden powers.

This process, outrageous though it may be, is not illegal, and it is not by chance that the police and social services intervened only when one of the women decided to reveal details of what went on behind the locked doors. Undoubtedly, the media's inquisitive presence, and especially the documentary broadcast on Channel 10, helped widen the crack through which the investigation began. Exposure is the greatest threat to any cult.

However, herein lies the difficulty, as well as the danger. In Israel, as in most countries of the world, there is no law against cults. Even in France, the only country where such legislation has been passed (the 2001 About-Picard law), the prohibition is restricted to "registered organizations that violate human rights and the principle of freedom." A number of provisos were softened in the wake of harsh criticism from politicians and observers both in France and abroad, among them former U.S. president Bill Clinton. They argue that the French law itself violates the principle of freedom.

This law lets a court dismantle a cult and arrest its heads within 15 days. It has so far been enforced in only one case, which is not controversial: against the leader of an apocalyptic cult who ordered his disciples to commit suicide. The Church of Scientology, whose leaders were convicted four months ago of fraud and embezzling money from their followers, has not been banned even though the judges noted explicitly that it is a cult.

Such a law is not possible in Israel. The very fact of discussing it would force lawmakers to deal with religious organizations, New Age groups and mutually hostile nonprofit organizations in a traditional, multicultural society where awareness about cults is entirely dormant. (For example, the 1994 incident in which Rabbi Uzi Meshulam barricaded himself and his followers in his Yehud home over the issue of vanished Yemenite children. This was not interpreted as a cult but rather as religious-messianic activity.)

Ratzon's arrest was based, therefore, on a new law, which on the surface is only tangentially relevant to the affair - the Slavery Law. This law was passed with the aim of stopping trafficking of women. Its advantage is that it also incriminates anyone who has had "consensual intercourse" if it is proved that the denial of free will led to the sexual relations. If the indictment against Ratzon will indeed be based on the Slavery Law, this will be the first time this law is tested in any country. Presumably the prosecution will find it difficult to prove rape, incest and abuse of minors because it is rare and almost impossible to elicit reliable testimony from members of a cult, even former members.

Thus the court deliberations will take on the confusing guise of a debate on values. (Such as what's wrong with a set of laws in a house? What do Ratzon's children lack? They are always clean and tidy; they have never been physically punished.) The authorities will also have to be precise and excellently prepared. In addition, the prosecution should base its work on another provision in different legislation (the law on the abuse of minors and the helpless), which has also not been put to the test - the legislation on mental abuse. This, too, is hard to prove, but it exists in the law and the reality that spawned it. The time has come to take it out of the drawer.

Hopefully the police are relying on solid facts in their frequent statements to the media and the children of the Ratzon commune will receive a meticulous and diligent prosecutor and a courageous and wise judge who know how to handle the challenge. If they fail, Ratzon will be free again. If this happens, it's hard to imagine the damage to the children, who have already been placed with foster families, and to their mothers, who have been wrenched from the cult's iron embrace. In the meantime, they are walking a tightrope over a gaping abyss.

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