Having spent over a decade helping agunot, women trapped in Jewish marriages, I have seen firsthand the challenges of advocacy, including the barriers to communal change. There are multiple social and psychological phenomena that lead to people condoning wrongful behavior or remaining silent bystanders–and unfortunately, we are seeing the same dynamics play out on an international stage following Hamas’s violent attack.
When I am in a community advocating for the freedom of a woman unable to obtain a Jewish divorce, I hear the same pushback over and over again. “You don’t understand,” people will say, “I spoke to the guy and this case is complicated. There’s this thing that happened in 2005, and 2007, and don’t even get me started on what she did to him in 2010! So it’s okay that he’s keeping her trapped, she deserves it!” My response is always the same: There is no question that divorce is complex–heck, even healthy relationships are complicated, and marriages torn apart by abuse, infidelity, or addiction are even more so. However, at the end of the day, none of that really matters. While a divorce may be complicated, giving a get, or Jewish divorce, is simple; it must be done, no matter what. While the divorce may be painted in many shades of gray, the decision to abusively withhold a divorce is black and white. It is only by taking an unequivocal stand against Jewish divorce denial that we will see it dwindle. Fortunately, Jewish communities are increasingly understanding this concept, and get refusers receive less support than before, but it is by no means a resolved issue.
When I first learned the brutality of the attacks on civilians in Israel, I naively thought that surely here the international community would not attempt to condone or explain such violence. I was wrong. Not only have numerous international groups, social media influencers, and others refused to condemn the violence, but even some Jewish voices have been notable in their hesitation. Some outright blame Israel for the attack, some say nothing, their silence deafeningly loud. Some hem and haw, struggling with how to “sit with” the news and respond. In one case, a Jewish man mused on social media how it is difficult for him to even consider the humanity of the Israelis, given that they are all settlers and colonizers, anyway.
But how did we get here? And can we change it?
While the issues of Jewish divorce and terrorism in Israel seem different, in fact, responses follow eerily similar patterns. By identifying these common traps, we can better educate ourselves and others.
Photo Source: Keshet Starr
Trap #1: The Danger of Rationalization
The human brain is an amazing thing. Our minds can develop Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, groundbreaking mathematical theories, and cures to devastating illnesses. Our minds also have the power to convince us that whatever we want to do is really, actually, right.
For instance, financial fraud often begins with small steps–$50 here, a bad check there. The perpetrator rationalizes to themselves why this behavior is ok. “My mother is sick, and I have to help her.” “It’s a big company, they won’t miss it.” “They don’t pay me a decent salary.” As the fraud escalates, the perpetrator continues this narrative. They don’t want to see themselves as bad actors, and so they don’t–they internally resolve the conflict.
I am a true crime junkie, and in a recent podcast, Over My Dead Body, I heard something extraordinary. In this case, a man and woman in the middle of a heated affair were planning her husband’s murder. They decided to throw him in a lake and see if he survived–if he did, that would be “G-d’s will” and if not, G-d was clearly approving of the murder.
Why do we do this? Well, we human beings want to do what we want to do. But we also want to maintain our self-image as good, virtuous people. And so even as we are doing terrible things, we justify it.
Every single get refuser I have ever met has an explanation for why he is doing what he is doing–without exception. Perpetrators of terrible wrongs generally have reasons as to why they feel they are correct, which is why we, as community members, must read through the maze of words critically.
Today, the news and social media are full of long explanations about why Israel deserved this, about why this was inevitable, etc. To an uneducated viewer, these ideas seem perfectly rational. We must remind ourselves that just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean it is good–after all, Hitler was an intelligent person with excellent public speaking skills. Words are just words, they take us wherever we want to go, and they do not always reflect real truth and values. Everything can be explained, even–and especially–genocide.
Trap #2: It Feels Good to Blame the Victim
When we hear about a bad thing happening to someone, we have a natural human instinct that kicks in–we are afraid that bad things will happen to us, and so we come up with a reason why that person was different, why they, in some way, deserved what happened to them. Victim blaming is common because it’s self-protective–as long as we don’t make the same mistake, we’ll be safe. We’ll be okay.
There’s also another, darker, layer, to victim blaming. Sometimes, when we have been conditioned for a long time to value some people over others, we are even faster to lay the blame at the victim’s own door. For instance, when we blame victims of rape and sexual assault for wearing the wrong clothes, or being in the wrong place, we do so on the heels of a long history of undervaluing women.
Victim blaming is sometimes subtle, a “blink or you’ll miss it” moment. In agunah advocacy, it’s more obvious. “She doesn’t have a Jewish divorce?” People will ask. “But what did she do?” Get refusers play into this narrative, telling anyone who will listen how they have to engage in this abuse because their wife is just so crazy they have no other option. We can explain that there are no good reasons to abusively withhold a divorce, but victim-blaming is so deep in certain portions of our culture, it’s hard to eradicate.
Following the attack on Israel, many voices were far from subtle in their victim blaming. In a statement by multiple student groups at Harvard University that went viral, the students were overt in their victim-blaming, stating that “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Ironically, the students were correct in noting that “today’s events did not occur in a vacuum.” They occurred in the wake of many thousands of years of anti-Semitism and dehumanizing rhetoric against Jews, rhetoric which has not evolved very much at all despite the passing of time, but simply changed form, appearing on social media in the bubble wrap of “opposing resistance.” Much of our world has been taught to devalue the lives of Jews, making victim-blaming all too easy, even from Jewish voices.
Trap #3: Cognitive Dissonance is Stressful–Let’s Avoid It
Yet another trap I have encountered both in agunah and Israel advocacy is the difficulty of holding two truths at once, leading people to make absurd rationalizations to resolve the tension. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we receive contradictory information we cannot reconcile. This creates frequent issues in get refusal cases. For example, if I know that Jim is a nice person but I am also hearing that Jim is refusing to give his wife a Jewish divorce, that creates tension–the two realities are hard to reconcile. In order to avoid the stress this cognitive dissonance causes, I may choose to resolve it by arguing that Jim cannot really be a get refuser, or he must have a very good reason for engaging in this behavior, because then I can maintain my impression of Jim as a very nice guy. Given how charming and charismatic many domestic abusers are, this is a common dynamic.
Similarly, when individuals have been trained to think about issues in terms of binaries–good and bad, right and wrong, righteous and evil–encountering information that violates this impression is deeply conflicting. If someone has been taught that Israel = bad and Palestine = good, then hearing that Hamas is slaughtering innocent civilians confuses this paradigm. In order to resolve the confusion, many will take seemingly extreme positions, all of which can be found in quick perusal of social media: “It didn’t happen;” “It did happen but not as bad as they say;” “It happened but it was justified!”
Some commentators have found ways to express care for the Palestinian people while also explicitly condemning Hamas’ butchery and Israel’s right to defend itself. Seemingly, reasonable people can hold both views. However, because of the cognitive dissonance involved, many take shocking and extremist views in order to resolve the conflict and stay in the simplistic world of binary thinking.
The impact of this cognitive dissonance is significant. Many agunot have shared with me how terrible it felt to not only be abused by a partner, but to have that abuse either ignored or condoned by the community. Similarly, many of us are experiencing the shock and confusion of not only grappling with pain, but feeling the world’s indifference to our suffering. This is a moment to not only come together and mourn, but to pay attention to the wounds we ignore, and realize how critical our collective reaction is to addressing injustice.
In all forms of advocacy, there is great power in simplicity. Divorce may be complicated, but the choice to withhold a get is wrong, and must be unequivocally condemned. Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex–anyone with a modicum of intelligence and an internet connection can understand that–but Hamas’ choice to target and kill innocent civilians and take hostages is a very simple one. These actions must be unequivocally condemned by all members of our society, from Harvard student groups to international bodies.
Ultimately, if we cannot unequivocally condemn the sexual assault of women and violent murders of children–if we must hem and haw and bury our condemnation in layers of language–then our moral compass has been profoundly damaged. If we claim to be champions for the oppressed and still equivocate on this point, then we are far more lost than we realize.
If this is you, it’s not too late–This is the moment to stand up for justice with simplicity. The world is watching. Which side of history do you want to be on?