Experts: Polygamist ran 'family' as a cult

Haaretz, Israel/January 17, 2010

Police say Goel Ratzon (60) has been cohabiting with 17 women in several flats in south Tel Aviv but he says the number is more than twice that.

He is not married to any of them but they see themselves as his wives and police say he fathered at least 38 children with his multiple partners. All the childrens' names are variants of Goel, which means "savior."

The enormous family - which calls itself a cooperative but is seen by others as a cult - live in several apartments and compounds, with Goel Ratzon moving between them. The women, many of whom work and support their children, worship Ratzon and each bears a tattoo of his face.

Some of the women say their lives would be meaningless without him. Ratzon says they love him because he helps them.

In February last year, Channel 10 TV screened a documentary on Ratzon and his wives. A few days after the broadcast one of the women tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants and was rushed to hospital by Ratzon and some of the other wives.

In September, Maariv published what it said was the family's rule book, which covered the children's education, communication within the house, household management and more. Transgression of the rules was to be punished by fines of up to NIS 7,000.

After covertly observing the community for months, Police yesterday arrested Ratzon on suspicion of enslavement, rape, extortion and other offenses.

"The work of the police and the welfare services on this case would have been so much easier if Israel had specific anti-cult legislation," says Dr Habi Zohar, a specialist on sects who counsels families who have lost members to cult activity. Zohar also advises the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, which collected testimonies from Goel Ratzon's wives over the past year.

"Ratzon's group is a cult,there are no two ways about it," Zohar said. "Dozens of cults in Israel are engaged in psychological, spiritual and emotional exploitation just as bad as Ratzon's but the state can't intervene until one of the victims complains."

Zohar defines a cult as a group with a leader who dictates an agenda, an ideology or a philosophy. The leader exercises complete control over a member's behavior and thoughts. In many cults members are recruited through brainwashing or religious conversion. Such a group would be likely to suffer financial, physical, spiritual and emotional exploitation, with all members, including children, completely subject to the leader's rules and whims. All those characteristics appear to be present in the case of Ratzon and his wives.

Zohar warns that some of the women or the children may attempt to hurt themselves if Ratzon is separated from them.

"I'm not sure if there will be mass suicide, but instances of self-harm, among both women and children are certainly a possibility," he said. "They may also try to attack people perceived as enemies, such as welfare workers and journalists."

Neighbors of the women described them as quiet and reserved.

"They never say hello, and always bow their heads if you go by," one neighbor said. "They tried to stay as isolated as they could but the children seemed well-treated."

She said the women would share parenting chores.

"One mother would take seven kids to school, then go to work. Another would stay at home with the smaller ones. When Goel would arrive he would get out of his car like he was a king, and they would run behind him carrying bags, clothes, even furniture."

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