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.