Standing on Principle Even When it Hurts – How to Deal with Avi Yemini

During the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Avi Yemini, a son of Zephaniah Waks and one of the brothers of Manny Waks, released a video levelling accusations against his father. He alleged that his father beat his children with belts and was generally emotionally abusive toward them. He then went on to challenge the legitimacy of the Royal Commission, and the testimony given by his brother, Manny Waks, and his father, Zephaniah Waks. According to Avi, Zephaniah’s claims about being ostracized by Chabad were fabricated. Avi has since gone on to defend Rabbi Glick, and Chabad in general, who have been accused of being complicit in the covering up sexual abuse, minimizing the experience of survivors, and ostracizing Zephaniah Waks after he and Manny went public regarding the sexual abuse suffered by Manny.

These allegations put the survivor community in a very difficult position, especially those of us who are active in the fight against sexual abuse and coverups in the religious Jewish community. On the one hand, we have Zephaniah Waks, who was undoubtedly ostracized by the Chabad community. This has been proven by the Royal Commission. Zephaniah has spent the past two years fighting along with his son, Manny—both of whom who have suffered for this cause—to put an end to the culture of silence and stigma around sexual abuse, not only in Australia but around the world. On the other hand, we have Avi Yemini, Zephaniah’s son, who is claiming that one of the men we’ve been holding up as a martyr for our cause, abused him physically and emotionally as a child.

There are a few points that need to be addressed there.

 

  • What Avi Yemini wanted to say to the royal commission regarding Zephaniah was in no way relevant to what they were investigating. They were not investigating the personal lives of Manny and Zephaniah Waks—they were investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Whether or not Zephaniah abused Avi is irrelevant to that investigation. More to the point, whether or not Zephaniah deserved shunning for allegedly physically abusing Avi, that is not why Chabad shunned him. They shunned him for aiding Manny in his fight against Chabad for covering up sexual abuse.

 

  • Avi Yemini can defend Chabad and call the claims a farce until he is blue in the face, but The Royal Commission has already proven that there was a coverup; they’ve already proven that the community shunned Zephaniah because he dared challenge them on that coverup; they’ve already proven that Chabad of Australia cultivated a culture of silence, coverup, stigma, and denial surrounding sexual abuse, and that Chabad cared more about its reputation than the children in their care.

 

  • Manny Waks has nothing to do with the allegations Avi Yemini is levelling against Zephaniah Waks, and is in no way tarnished by the claims against Zephaniah. I have the greatest respect for Manny and his accomplishments.

 

  • At the core of the statements Avi Yemini has made, underneath the defenses of Chabad, the claims that his father and brother exaggerated or fabricated their experiences, is his claim that he was abused by his father.

 

To me this presents the biggest challenge we face as a community of activists. Bigger than Agudah, Satmar, Chabad, Skverr, Torah Temima, Lakewood, or any others. With all of those institutions we stand firm on the moral high ground taking aim at people we know are wrong, people whose coverups accomplish nothing but hurting children, and perpetuating an environment in which children are placed in constant jeopardy. There is no righteousness in their denials and refusals to change. There is only opportunism, cruelty, vanity, and perhaps, if we’re charitable, willful ignorance.

I’ve been discussing this with some people, and their general sentiment has been that the potential damage that will be done by acknowledging the allegations Avi is making against Zephaniah may outweigh our moral obligation to give every abuse claim equal time and consideration. Hence, the silence thus far from the activist community regarding the claims against Zephaniah Waks was, perhaps, in the interest of protecting children, an ostensibly righteous excuse, but an excuse with which I disagree. Some people have said that this is an unfair conflation of two issues which have nothing to do with each other, or whose severities are not equal—physical abuse vs sexual abuse. Others have said that their reluctance in addressing these issues publicly is that it will give ammunition to Chabad who will use it to dismiss the findings of the Royal Commission, and by extension the claims of our entire cause. Being that Avi so densely interspersed his allegations against Zephaniah with claims that the Royal Commission was a farce, they argue that it may be impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This subject has been weighing heavily on my mind since I was made aware of it, and I’ve decided, regardless of any objections by my friends or colleagues, to make a public statement about this in the form of this blog post. My reasoning is as follows.

We hold the people and institutions we’re trying to change to a very high standard. We demand absolute transparency, we demand that they be free of any taint of abuse, and we challenge them every time they give us an excuse for not acknowledging the claims of a survivor. Moreover, we object every time they disregard the claims of a survivor who may no longer be religious, or is addicted to drugs, on psychiatric medicine, or in psychological treatment, since the survivor is clearly mentally disturbed, or clearly has an axe to grind being that he or she is no longer religious; we point out that the very reasons they are claiming they’re entitled to deny the allegations are in fact effects of the abuse and coverups, not the cause of the complaint. That’s the way I see Avi’s claims. A kernel of truth surrounded by untruths, brought on by the pain of his claims being ignored.

How can we not hold ourselves to the same standard just because we find it inconvenient and potentially harmful to our cause. How can we demand, for example, that Agudah support the Markey bill, which would open yeshivos to potentially crippling litigation, and criticize them when they actively fight against such legislation, when we ourselves aren’t willing to bleed a little for our cause.

Yes, Chabad may use this article may be used as ammunition, even though it clearly states that they are guilty of everything they have been accused of. Yes, this may be touted by our opponents, or by people on the fence who are desperately seeking any means by which they can maintain their cognitive dissonance, as an excuse to dismiss our cause. But if we wish to see our cause succeed, if we wish to see the change we’re asking of these institutions implemented, then we need to be pristine in our record of handling similar situations. We can have no blemishes against us which they could later use to call us hypocritical. We need to be a light unto the communities, and stand as a perfect, shining example of what we would like to see—a world in which abuse is universally acknowledged, and dealt with in a lawful manner that encourages prosecution of abusers and support of survivors.

If we claim to care about children, then we have no business equivocating with different kinds of abuse. Abuse is abuse and no form of it is tolerable. No coverup of abuse is tolerable. No tacit denial of abuse allegations is tolerable, regardless of against whom they are levelled and what the consequences may be. In being the perfect example of the change we wish to see in this world, we will get closer to fulfilling our dreams.

The claims that Avi Yemini has made against the Royal Commission, and the claims he makes against Manny and Zephaniah regarding their ostracism and the coverup of their allegations—which have already been proven by the royal commission—are not to be taken seriously. He’s already been proven wrong. The issue we must discuss is the allegation of physical and emotional abuse he has levelled against Zephania Waks. Avi’s claims deserve the same attention we would give to any other survivor who came forward with an allegation, even if his allegation puts us in an uncomfortable position.

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