Who gave you permission?…a review by Alan Gold

October 7, 2016 by Alan Gold
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Alan Gold is reviews the memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back.

The memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back
Michael Visontay, Manny Waks

Published by Scribe. RRP $35

Michael Misrachi,George Newhouse, Manny Waks, Michael Visontay

Michael Misrachi,George Newhouse, Manny Waks, Michael Visontay

Even from the first few words of this account of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of some in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Melbourne, we know the kinds of horrors which Manny Waks endured at the hands of those in whom he and his parents had placed their trust. And what made it worse was the silence enforced upon them, a silence broken only by his recent bravery in exposing the sins of his despicable perpetrators.

In the Preface, Waks talks of, “…the intimidation and ostracism that I and my family have endured due to my public advocacy regarding child sexual abuse within the Jewish community.” And he continues, “…I just wish that Orthodox Jewish leaders would be less hypocritical and more tolerant of others. They also may want to wake up to the disturbing fact that many within their community have left due to having been sexually abused as children…”

Having witnessed the evidence given at recent hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as heads of prestigious schools, were forced to admit their complicity of silence while allowing the abuse of children in their care to continue, it is shameful to be forced to admit that the same thing has happened in the Jewish community. These other leaders of other Christian institutions were complicit in their covers-up of the crimes of those they employed. Yet as Waks, and his co-writer Michael Visontay make very clear, that conspiracy and complicity of silence is precisely what happened in an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne.

That it happened is reprehensible; that it was covered up by teachers, principals, Rabbis and community leaders is disgusting and incomprehensible.

His story is by now quite well-known, mainly because the crimes committed against the person of a young Manny Waks, his brother and others, have been made public by his unswerving determination to bring the perpetrators to justice, and to shine a light onto this most shameful crime of that community.

It is to our communal dishonour that these things happened to children in a religious group which demands that we Jews obey the letter of the Mosaic Law. Yet the evil of the crimes against little children deserves the severest condemnation because of the silence of those whose moral and professional responsibility it was to have put an end to this infamy.

Since the Second World War, the Jewish community has suffered from two social silences.

The first, and most understandable, was the silence of Shoah survivors, incapable of recounting the horrors of the camps to their children, and using body instead of verbal language to show their continuing trauma.

The second, incomprehensible to any mother or father, is the silence of those in Jewish education circles who knew of, yet remained silent and complicit in, the sexual abuse of children.

Nobody could blame the victims of Nazism for their incapacity to speak about the horrors perpetrated against them. But their children knew, because when they left even a scrap of food on a plate, the implication was ‘eat up, you never know when you’ll get your the next food.’ Their children saw how their parent’s bodies cringed when they passed a German Shepherd dog on the street, no matter how tightly it was restrained on a leash. Their silence spoke volumes.

But the silence of those in the orthodox Jewish community who knew what was happening to the children being educated in their care, is far from blameless, or understandable. It is culpable, immoral, shameful, despicable. To allow young children to be sexually abused, just because the abuser is an orthodox Jew, or a teacher, or a member of the community, is reprehensible  irresponsibility bordering on criminal indifference. To shun the family for speaking out is medieval in its immorality.

Manny Waks, the second oldest of 17 children born to an ultra Orthodox Jewish family in Melbourne, was sexually abused at the Yeshiva College, opposite his home. It’s hard to imagine a worse crime to be perpetrated against a child. But to compound it by the Orthodox community banding together to shun him, his family, and to build an impenetrable wall around the perpetrator, exponentially compounds the damage of the crime.

Waks’ recently-published coruscating account of the crime he suffered, and the consequences of trying to bring those guilty to account for their evil, is heart-breaking. His co-writer is the gifted journalist and author, Michael Visontay, who has produced a gripping narrative of exceptional power.

The title of the book, “Who Gave You Permission?” is taken from a sermon given by an infuriated Rabbi of the Yeshiva Centre, Zvi Hirsch Telsner, who didn’t ask the question of Manny, but of his father Zephaniah, who supported his son in trying to make the ordeal public.

And ‘who gave you permission’, is at the very epicentre of the reason why Waks has published his book. It speaks of the stranglehold which the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have over their congregants, as though these Rabbis were judge and jury, and that members of their group could only think and act with their approval. While Catholicism elevates the Priest into the special status of an intermediary between God and the congregation because of his ordination, Judaism permits no such status. Rabbis may be more educated in religious tradition than others in their congregation, but they occupy no special stratum in a spiritual hierarchy. Yet this Rabbi believed that only he and his co-religionists had the moral and ethical right to determine what could and couldn’t be said by the victims of this evil crime.

I can only imagine my reaction if some self-righteous Rabbi has asked me that question, in public, from a pulpit when I was trying to bring to justice the perpetrator of a crime against a member of my family. This Rabbi’s indignation, his concern solely for the repute of his religious institution, and not for the welfare of those his Yeshiva was charged to protect, is one of the most despicable aspects of this vile crime against a young Jewish boy.

You’d think that we in the Jewish community would have learned something from the behaviour of pedophile priests and their exposure by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

But no, it seems that certain members of the Orthodox Jewish community have learned nothing. And thanks to Manny Waks, and to his author Michael Visontay, who have shone a light into the darkest places of that community, we have seen, and we shall know in future what to do about it.

The launch was at Bondi Pavilion was ended by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival and the book was launched by George Newhouse.

Alan Gold is a Sydney novelist.





One Response to “Who gave you permission?…a review by Alan Gold”
  1. Bruce J Cooke says:

    Regrettably the sledging & abuse continues unabated on some blog sites.
    The bloggers are often “known” but post under false names so nothing seems to be able to be done about it.One thing Chabad teach that I accept fully is that this world is shekker & the next world is the world of emett.

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