Overcome abuse? Yes we can

So anyway, I want to tell you about two encounters I had this week with the community. Encounters that don't seem to be related, but are.

The first came in the middle of last week. I was invited to visit Finchley Synagogue. You know, Kinloss. The event was a fundraiser for Morasha - the new school being planned. I spoke, of course, but more profitably I listened and watched the plans being unveiled.

The amount of money raised was impressive, and the architect's drawing looked exciting. I was moved by the whole event. The community seemed so purposeful and dynamic. I have no doubt that before long the school will be erecting its new building.

Then, a couple of days later, I read a report that had been sent to me by a journalist friend. Someone I admire, rather than someone I know well. And I was moved again. But in a different way.

You and I both know at least one Jewish person who has been abused

The report he had sent me was from Jewish Women's Aid, the one covered in last week's JC, and he said he felt I ought to read it. He was right. It concerned the incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community and it told a very sad, depressing story. Actually, more than one sad, depressing story.

You see, if you asked me whether domestic violence was as prevalent in the Jewish community as outside I would probably have answered yes, just in case. But I wouldn't have believed it. Not really. Would you, deep inside you, believe it? Because although in cold hard logic I know we're like anyone else, a bit of me feels that, no, we're Jews and we're different and domestic violence isn't us. It seems too angry, and too physical and, well, unJewish.

What the report does is exactly what Emma Bell, the executive director of Jewish Women's Aid, hoped it would. It robs me of my little secret hope. It strips me of my illusion. For, in a survey of more than 800 women, JWA's researchers found one in four who had experienced domestic violence. The same proportion that the British Crime Survey found when conducting research on the population at large.

And what that means is that you and I both know someone - at least one Jewish person - who has been subjected to abuse.

The stories related about experience of domestic violence were illuminating, too. Because abuse and violence do not have to be directly physical to be terrifying. Many of the stories involved black eyes, heads smashed in cupboards, broken bones and bruises. But many other accounts, and oddly the most impactful ones, featured verbal abuse and terrible, controlling behaviour.

Sometimes the warning signs had been there right from the beginning and the women had misinterpreted them as flattering male attention. But in many other cases the problems had begun only when the couple had children. Forced to compete for attention with their own baby, the men reacted badly.

It's very difficult for women to talk about domestic abuse. Fear comes into it, of course, but so do other more complicated emotions. There's embarrassment, for instance and, oddly, loyalty too. And there is a desire to protect the children from the consequences of family breakdown. Which is why it was depressing to read that, when women had finally reached the end of their tether and reached out to family or the community to help them, they often didn't get the reaction they were hoping for.

One of the worst stories in the report came from a woman who had deliberately worn a short-sleeved dress to a family gathering, so that relatives could see her bruised arms. It was her silent way of communicating her ordeal. Her sister-in-law noticed and turned on her brother. For goodness sake, she remonstrated, "be careful not to hurt her where people can see".

Not all the stories are like that. The JWA itself provides amazing assistance to those who reach out to it. And the report tells of a sympathetic rabbi and of tough, sensible policing. But the overall impression is that many abused Jewish women feel very alone. And that they don't feel as though the community supports them. They feel as if we are silent about abuse, as if we don't want it to spoil our idealised view of who we are as Jews.

Why is it connected to the wonderful evening I had at Kinloss? Because that evening showed what we can do. When our community wants, it can move mountains. Achieve great things. Change things. Help people. We can tackle domestic abuse in our community if we want to.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

    Last updated: 10:25am, March 21 2011