February 18, 2020

It’s Our ‘Duty to Rescue’ Domestic Abuse Victims

Photo from Pixababy

When I was a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, domestic violence cases were always shunned. Prosecutors hated spending hours preparing a case only to have the victim drop the charges before the trial. And most judges believed that if we did not have the victim as a witness, we did not have a case.  

But even when a victim did not wish to proceed with prosecution, I would argue that we still had a case based on circumstantial evidence. In doing so, I relied on both my belief in state law and my understanding of Jewish responsibility. 

There is a clear mandate in Jewish law known as “the duty to rescue” (“You may not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed.” Leviticus 19:5) that served as my basis for prosecuting domestic violence cases.

Through those cases I learned that there was no “typical victim” — they came from all walks of life. And there was no difference between the victim and me — except that I was not emotionally or financially dependent on that abuser. I also learned that the abuser did have a typical personality — they were predictable, exhibiting a need for power and control that was not unique to the dynamics of a particular relationship. 

(Abusers employ a gradual process of isolation and brainwashing of the victim in a relationship of interdependency. Studies have shown that abusers cannot be rehabilitated. They will systematically victimize every subsequent partner. Victims are much like prisoners of war who have lost their will, experiencing something akin to Stockholm syndrome, as if transfixed in a cult of one. Although men can be victims of domestic violence, the vast majority of victims are women.) 

I understood that the abuser would try to use the victim as his agent to undermine the criminal justice system. My duty was to rescue her by removing the abuser, so that with time and therapy she could be “deprogrammed” and rehabilitated. 

Which is why, when a victim of domestic violence would come to my office to drop the charges — before she began to tell me that she had “lied” (she wasn’t hit with a baseball bat 17 times but tripped and fell down the stairs) — I would ask her: Do you believe in God? When she said yes (they all did), I would ask if she were capable of taking a razor blade and cutting up someone, and whether doing so was wrong in the eyes of God. At that moment, I could see that a window had opened in her mind. She understood that her abuser had not only committed a crime against her, but against a basic rule of law greater than any one person. 

“Domestic abuse is not a private matter; it is an assault against the community and God.”

I would tell her that I could not drop the charges because I represented the people of the state of New York and she was only one of those people. I would explain that she did not have the authority to drop charges because the abuser committed a crime against the state when he chose to assault her. The case would go away only if he pleaded guilty or went to trial. I would tell her to expect his phone call, despite a court order forbidding him to do so. I told her that when she got that call, she should hang up and call me. Generally, she would walk out feeling less burdened. After all, she would not be the one to send her husband or partner to jail, it would be me, the mean prosecutor, who would confront him.  Nonetheless, weeks later she would inform me that she would not cooperate. But in the interim, I would get an additional indictment against the abuser for witness tampering and use that charge as leverage to persuade him to plead guilty and serve some jail time.

In Jewish law, unlike almost all U.S. state laws, “duty to rescue” means it is a criminal act of omission for our community, or any one of us, to neglect an opportunity to rescue someone from harm, especially a victim of violent physical abuse. We cannot wait for her to be ready to sever ties after the first beating, because the violence will escalate in every subsequent cycle.  We cannot hope to empower her and give her options while she is still in the abuser’s control.

If someone is standing on the ledge of a building, about to commit suicide, do we not aggressively intervene despite the person’s statements that they want to jump? 

Domestic abuse is not a private matter; it is an assault against the community and God. Don’t stand by. Knock on that door. Call the police.

Esther Macner is the founder and director of Get Jewish Divorce Justice, a Los Angeles nonprofit whose mission is the prevention of abuse in the Jewish divorce process.