After seven years living as a Moslem in a village north of Ramallah, and seven months in a battered women’s shelter in Israel, Efrat (not her real name) is returning to Judaism, bringing her three young children back into the fold with her. She is one of four women who escaped from the Palestinian Authority (PA) a few weeks ago.
I was introduced to Efrat by Anat Gopstein of Lehava, an organization working to rescue women like Efrat. Lehava’s assistance does not end once the woman is back in Israel. In coordination with Lehava, attorneys Revaya Naor and Eli Cohen are helping her work through the complex legal battles involving the Sharia and the family court systems. Lehava also provides Efrat with financial and emotional support as she rebuilds her life and recovers from the traumatic events that defy the ability of most of us to comprehend.
Efrat agreed to meet with me at the rabbinic court as she waited with Gopstein for her turn to enter the court chamber to plead her case before the dayanim [religious court judges]. We found a bench in an exposed but empty space in the hall and as we began talking, the rest of the world disappeared and I was totally engaged with the story she so openly shared with me.
I was surprised that the dayanim did not immediately convert her back into Judaism but after some reflection, the reason became clear to me. More about that later. First, let me let Efrat tell the harrowing story of her escape from the PA.
I was hospitalized at Hadassah Medical Center at Mount Scopus for a month. I couldn’t just leave my husband while I was in the hospital because my children were in the village. I was supposed to be released on Friday morning. Thursday night at midnight, I suddenly braced myself: my husband said he was in Ramallah.
Instead of leaving at 8 on Friday morning, I left at midnight on Thursday, in my car that was parked at the hospital the whole time I was there, and I drove to my village. I didn’t plan this in advance. I called the police along the way.
I passed all the checkpoints alone. I told the police and soldiers that I am on my way to the village to extract my children. I asked them to wait for me at Jab’a checkpoint because he might chase after me.
I was crying and screaming because my children were in the village. I said that I would burn myself alive if they were not with me. If they are taken back to the PA, I will never ever see them again.
My husband kept saying to me that if he has to kill me and the children, he will, because they will not grow up as Jews.
I didn’t return home. I took the children from their daycare. They were in a daycare where if you paid 50 NIS they could sleep there. So they were in that daycare the whole time and they were severely neglected while I was away. A month without baths. All the time leading up to the day I escaped, the daycare teacher talked to me. She knew what I was going through. She was on my side.
I took them, a few bags of their belongings, and I fled. My luck is that nobody saw me because they would have shot me on the spot. I was shaking and I made the drive in a few minutes.
From the hospital to the daycare took ten minutes at the speed I was driving. I took the children and raced straight to the police station in Geva Binyamin. It was a drive of only a few minutes at a speed at which they wouldn’t be able to catch up with me. The kids were screaming the whole time in the car. They had no food or water. The police were waiting for me at the checkpoint.
At the police station, I was in shock, and I still didn’t really understand that I had made it. I didn’t get that I had escaped from there with the children. We were stuck at the police station until 3 or 4 in the morning. The police treated us well. They knew that I am a Jew and that my place is not in the PA.
What was it like for you living with your husband in the PA?
Before we married I saw signs of problems but I thought that once we got married, he would change and it would be okay. As soon as we married, it really began. He would rape me and beat me; there were threats, extramarital affairs, drugs, weapons. There were times I sat without food in the house and he went to Tel Aviv for two weeks.
His family told me they would not interfere – they did whatever he told them to do. He is one of two sisters and 5 brothers. His sisters didn’t help me – on the contrary. I was alone in the village, without anyone.
The first year he didn’t let me out of the house. The second year, I put up a fuss. I wasn’t prepared for my children to be without food or anything, without clothes. I made a huge fuss to his father and him and they finally said, okay, go work, but you have to wear a head covering. I also had on long clothes. Perfume is forbidden, Make-up is forbidden. It is forbidden to look at anyone, God forbid!
He controlled me. He would come check if I was at work. I made it up to a managerial position in the butchery section of a supermarket.
My aunt kept telling me to get out of there, that he would murder me. I was able to keep in touch with my aunt and with my first husband and his mother. His mother also told me to get out of there. You are a Jew, you don’t have to be there, she would say. I talked with them once every few months.
Last March, I was hospitalized between life and death. One of my coworkers was the only one who came to visit me in the hospital. He would bring me cigarettes.
When my husband said that our daughter would marry his sister’s son when she is 14 years old, here I got up and said, enough! It’s over. And that’s what made me escape. For my children.
What do you want for yourself?
It is hard to think of the future because I still don’t know how this will turn out.
I want to have a home, to put a roof over my children’s heads. I don’t ever want another man in my life. Not a Jew and not an Arab. I don’t trust anyone.
There is no person in this world that I trust. Maybe my aunt. She supports me in everything. She went through a lot in her life – from her first husband and her second husband. He sat many years in jail and she raised her children alone. She understands what I am going through and she’s also very angry at me for what I did. But she also curses my parents since it's because of them it happened.
Can you tell me about that?
My mother lives in the United States. For 30 years.
I was born in America. My mother left me when I was three months old. My father threatened her, put a gun to her head, abused her physically and sexually. He forced her to declare in court that she doesn’t want me. I can’t call her ‘mother’ because if someone would tell me that they were coming to take my children I would never give them up.
My father brought me back to Israel. He was married six times. My grandmother raised me.When my father would come for lunch at my grandmother’s house, he would hit me, and he sexually abused me, he hit my head against the wall, brutally beat me.
How is it to talk with me about all of this?
It’s difficult. Things I don’t want to remember.
But you don’t tell me to stop.
I don’t. Because I want other girls to hear what I went through so they won’t make this same mistake.
You mentioned that you were married before and have other children.
I married when I was 20, after my army service. I was in the infantry in Gaza. I have full high school matriculation, and I speak 7 languages: Russian, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Caucasian (language)- and Arabic, which was added when I lived in the PA.
My first husband was a classmate’s brother. I met him when I was 15. His mother would mistreat me. She cursed me, treated me badly, interfered in everything. She interfered before we married but after we married it became too obsessive. My husband was a momma’s boy. He didn’t work. I would work at four jobs so my kids would lack for nothing.
We separated and I lived with my grandmother and our daughter, who is now almost ten years old, and he lived at his mother’s home with our son, who is now 12 years old. I worked at a supermarket and there I met my second husband. We went out for two years and then I divorced my first husband and married the second.
What did you find in your second husband that made you think you could make a life with him?
I fell in love with him. His protectiveness over me, his warmth. I felt this was someone who will take care of me, who loves me. He would fight with others because of me so that nobody would talk to me or look at me. He would tell me, if you won’t be with me you won’t be with anyone else, I’ll throw acid on your face. I felt there was someone who is jealous and cares about me and loves me.
What could have prevented you from falling for this, helped you see that that was abuse and not love?
If I had a family, someone supporting me. I had nobody with me and I thought he would be my family.
What did you learn from the entire journey?
That it is not good for a Jew to go with Arabs. It is not good to enter the PA. Every Jew has to live in her own place.
If I was an Arab woman, he would not have treated me as he did. The Arab woman has a family, someone looking after her. If the husband does anything unacceptable, her brothers and uncles would come to him. I had nobody who could come on my behalf. He could do whatever he wanted.
What does the Arab man get out of a relationship like this?
Nothing. It’s just evil. For them it is a matter of pride to convert another Jew to Islam. But in the village, I always said I was Christian, so they wouldn’t know I was a Jew and to reduce the chance of them hurting me.
I was in a place that was not my own, I was afraid. I was afraid to say I was Jewish. It doesn’t matter that I converted to Islam. In my blood, I am a Jew. My luck is that I speak Russian and they thought I was Russian.
Were there other women in the village like you?
Yes, but they aren’t prepared to leave. All of them have almost the same story as me.
In general, they grab the women who have no family, nobody supporting them. Even if they grab someone with parents, the parents abandon them, don’t want to hear or know about them as soon as they go with an Arab.
I think in time, they will also want to get out. After all, the mentality is different. Everything is different. I think one day they will understand the mistake they made. But they tell me that I should come back. They tell me that he won’t let his children go and that he won’t let me be with anyone else. I think they say that out of fear.
There’s more of a problem with daughters. They guard the girls. In their eyes, the girls are whores. Jewish women are whores to them.
My husband’s family are Hebronites and the Hebronites are very strict. At the age of 14, they marry the girls off and at 15 they are already mothers, like his own sisters. It’s not the same in all the different clans. The clans speak differently from each other, have different customs.
How does your first husband react to all this?
He says we are going to do everything by court decree, saying that in the past I would see them and disappear, see them and disappear. My ex wants it to be consistent so that I won’t hurt them. He is a loving father, always was, always took care of them. The only ones helping him are his mother and sister. He lives off disability insurance.
My daughter still looks for me, still wants me. She has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder and has developmental problems, speech problems.
My son is okay. But he will not call me ‘mother;’ he doesn’t want to know me. He says, “You are an Arab’s whore. You went with Arabs.” There was intense estrangement on the part of his father and grandmother. To him, I died. But I did keep in touch with my ex and his mother every few months and his mother told me get out of there. She is supportive of me now.
Next week, I will be seeing the kids at a contact center with a social worker supervising the visit.
Can I ask you again about the future? After all, you are educated, with full matriculation. You speak seven languages. You were a department manager in a supermarket. You have potential.
I want to work in the future. Right now I can’t work because I am on disability. But I want to. It is hard for me to sit at home.
I have 100% disability because of my mental state. My children as well. They are being treated with strong medications and I take a number of pills each day. I suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder and have problems with concentration. From all the traumas I suffered from a very young age and then the added traumas of my life in the PA.
Now we come back to the question why the dayanim did not immediately return Efrat to the Jewish People.
I was in the courtroom with Efrat and I saw how they spoke to her with respect and were most friendly in their behavior toward her. At the same time, they were adamant that she had to prove that she was serious about leaving Islam.
Like social workers working with women experiencing domestic violence, the judges seem also familiar with the phenomenon that it can take several attempts to break free before actually succeeding and they did not want to be part of a revolving door syndrome.
In fact, Efrat had also been on the teeter-totter in the past:
I was constantly in contact with Lehava and Lehava took me to the battered women’s shelter before, and yet I went back to the PA. I told myself my husband will change. Something pulled me back there.
According to Anat Gopstein, this time is different. As difficult as the road ahead is, she believes that this time Efrat is ready to leave the abuse behind and build a new life for herself and her children.