Sisterhood Blog

The Myth of Choice: The ‘Queens’ and ‘Concubines’ of Goel’s Harem

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Goel Ratzon, a 60-year-old man with long white hair and penetrating eyes, has at least 17 wives and 28 children, though the precise figure remains elusive. Ratzon, who apparently believes himself to be something of a messiah, or the modern embodiment of King Solomon, was arrested last week in Tel Aviv, as were some of the wives, following an eight-month undercover operation that included some daring work of a female detective who presented herself as a willing conquest. The details emerging over the past few days about life in his cult/commune/harem form a disturbing and mysterious portrait, in part because of how zealously many of the women have come to his defense.

Ratzon, who is facing charges of rape, enslavement, extortion, indecent acts against minors, and possibly incest, has been living an elaborately organized polygamous lifestyle since 1993. The household, which is spread out among several apartments in a blighted neighborhood of Tel Aviv, is run according to “The Book of Rules” — intricate protocols with punishments to limit the women’s free movement and speech, along with a systematic, assembly-line rotation of tasks among women such as tending to the children, cooking, and sleeping with Ratzon.

Women compete for the privilege to feed him, comb his beard, and bear his children. He keeps records of every woman’s ovulation cycle, and a woman at the peak of her fertility has increased status. The women apparently look after each other in a tight-knit, closed circle, and they are not allowed to speak to strangers, to make independent purchases or to leave doors to their rooms closed because Ratzon may come in and out at will and search rooms at any time. Many women also work off the books as cleaners and day-care assistants, and all their earnings go to Ratzon, who also makes over 80,000 NIS (about $20,000) a year off of National Insurance payments. Some of the women were found to tattooed with Ratzon’s name or likeness.

In an interview in Friday’s Yediot Aharonot, Ratzon explains how he managed to entice women to stay, apparently without any physical coercion. “None of the women came against her will…. All the women, thank God, love each other, look after each other, complement each other, support each other, and encourage each other. I do, too. If I sleep with one, I won’t neglect the others. Other men don’t know how to be with two women at one time. I do. Like King Solomon.”

He is probably right that the women’s support network enticed women to come and stay. An expert on the case interviewed last week said that when Ratzon would bring women home, the fact that so many women were already there and seemed “happy” made a strong argument for them to stay. Combined with where the women came from —mostly broken homes with dysfunctional histories — made commune life very attractive. The truth is, though, throughout history, women living in enslavement have found happiness through the comfort of other women. It’s a model of female empowerment within conditions of oppression — and it’s a potent model.

This idyllic portrait, however, belies the details of the case. One woman who escaped and became an informant — on grounds of going into a protection program because she fears for her life — talked about cruel bitterness between women, neglected children, strict hierarchies among women between “queens” and “concubines,” and a life revolving entirely around the needs and whims of one man. Perhaps most shocking is the revelation that one woman was so intent on ascending the rung that she “gave” Ratzon her 14-year-old daughter for sex. Ratzon only partially denied the accusation. “I didn’t sleep with her until she was 18,” he said. There are unconfirmed reports that this incestuous relationship led to offspring, which has led some media to dub Ratzon “the Israeli Fritzl.

Still, as troubling as this whole story is, the part that seems so puzzling to many observers and commentators is that so many women stayed — and continue to defend him. “This [arrest] is an act of vengeance against the family,” one wife said this week. “He’s the messiah,” another woman said. “He taught us to liberate ourselves from jealousy,” another said with awed admiration.

Neighbors describe his “hypnotic charisma,” and in fact the undercover detective who posed as an interested wife explained that when he stared straight into her eyes, she found her will weakening. Less mysteriously, social service providers cite the vulnerability of the women he lures, how he chooses women who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Even with these explanations, the idea that women claim to choose this life still seems incredulous.

University of Chicago Law Professor Martha Nussbaum, a leading feminist scholar and author of 13 books, and a critical thinker combining social policy, gender, economics and philosophy, offers a brilliant analysis of the complexity of women’s choice in her book Women and Human Development (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Nussbaum spent many years trying to improve the lives of traditional Indian women in some of the poorest villages in the world. In her work with the United Nations and women’s organizations, she helped bring women running water, medicine, and education. Yet, she often encountered women who claimed not to want change, or help — women who saw her as a threat to their traditional lifestyle and whose husbands considered her an outright menace.

Nussbaum concludes that the concept of “choice” is not enough of a determining factor in deciding whether women need intervention

Although at least one scholar, writing on Yediot, has suggested leaving the harem alone, in the name of pluralism, Nussbaum strongly decries policies of turning one’s back when oppressed women say, “But I’m happy.” She says that it is society’s moral duty to help ensure that all human beings are provided with the means to achieve their human capabilities — including bodily integrity, health, emotions, life, and affiliation. Nussbaum also argues for intervention that respects women’s cultures and traditions. It’s not about throwing out women’s heritage, but about giving women tools and education for their own empowerment.

Introducing social change among oppressed women living in enslavement in traditional religious settings – even women who claim to be “happy” or to have made a “choice”— is clearly complex.

But Nussbaum’s approach, which seeks to respect religious traditions while alleviating practices that deny some people their full capabilities, offers an important framework for understanding why we have to continue to fight for women’s freedom, whether those women are living in a harem or relegated to the back of the bus. We must not give up on the women — even when they are incapable of acknowledging their own oppression.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Martha Nussbaum, Harem, Goel Ratzon, Oppression

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Myrna Greenfield Tue. Jan 19, 2010

What troubles me is Nussbaum's contention that oppressed women who claim to be happy should be "helped" anyway, that intervention is required by those who know better. Who knows better? No, we do not give up on women needing help. We ought to give these women options. More than that is tyranny.

elana Wed. Jan 20, 2010

Myrna --

You make an excellent point. Actually, Nussbaum addresses that in her book, and spends an entire chapter talking about the balance between choice and paternalism. Either extreme is problematic, for sure. But there IS a way to help women while respecting them, even if they don't understand at the time what you're doing. Nussbaum spent years in India working with indigenous women and has come up with what I think is really a beautiful, caring, respectful method for intervention. And the fact that she is working with religious women whose lives need improvement but who want to hang on to their traditions -- I think that this makes it a potent model for Orthodox women and change.

elana Wed. Jan 20, 2010

Watch an interview with one of Razton's wives: age 32, she has been in the house since she was 19. Today she says, "I feel liberated.... like I was living in a movie". She is looking forward to starting a new life. Fascinating

elana Thu. Jan 21, 2010

More important follow up from today's Ynet:

Today, some of Ratzon's wives -- the ones who just a week ago were singing his praises -- told the police that they want to remove their tattoos of his face from their bodies. Women are also asking to see their families. Police report that women are "sobering up" and opening up.,7340,L-3837909,00.html

Will some liberal academics (read, men) still argue that we should have left them all alone in the name of pluralism?

Adina Tue. Jan 26, 2010

Elana,you make an excellent point. Members of cults have often professed happiness even as they're being starved and abused. Pluralism and tolerance are wonderful, unless they tolerate abuse. It's a bizarre 1984-like scenario where getting people to say the right thing, and even convince themselves of it, overrides their basic right to human dignity.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.