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03.13.16 5:01 AM ET

Israel’s Cult Crackdown Could Snare Yoga, Rabbis, and Meditation

A radical new law is more about right-wing nationalism than protecting Israelis from dangerous religious leaders.

Amid all the turmoil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—most recently, last week’s horrific stabbing of 10 civilians, including one American citizen—the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has found time to introduce a strange “anti-cult law” meant to combat New Age sects in the Jewish state, but which could also impact yoga ashrams, controversial rabbis, and meditation groups.

Contrary to appearances, the conflict and the cults are closely related to one another.

The bill, proposed by Israel’s nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party and supported by the conservative governing coalition, would provide an additional charge for any spiritual leader charged with other crimes: leading a “harmful cult.”

A harmful cult is defined elliptically in the bill as any group that “rallies around a person or an idea, in a way that there is exploitation, dependency, authority, or emotional distress experienced by one or more members, uses methods of mind control or controlling patterns of behavior, and operates in an organized, systematic, and sustained fashion, while committing crimes under Israeli law that are felonies or sexual offenses or serious violence.”

If a spiritual leader is charged with another crime—kidnapping, say, or embezzlement, or fraud—this additional crime could be added onto it.

The consequences are severe, not just for the cult leader, but for followers as well. Once a “harmful cult” has been established, the state could appoint custodians to make decisions on the members’ behalf, even if they are adults who have have freely consented to take part. Such a custodian could implement forced deprogramming sessions, take control over finances, and actions that would otherwise constitute kidnapping, like holding or institutionalizing members for re-education.

Now, if any of this sounds like a throwback to the “Satanic Panics” of 1970s and 1980s America, that’s no coincidence. Several groups of Israeli and European religion scholars have sharply criticized the bill for being outdated and vague. Tomer Persico, a researcher at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute and co-author of a letter opposing the bill, told The Daily Beast that “thought control” simply “does not exist.” Said Persico, “Theories of ‘brainwashing’ have abounded in since the 1950s, but any attempt base a criminal case using them, or even simply to verify them, have so far failed. Such theories have been rejected by experts worldwide, and in 1987 by the American Psychological Association. To put them in the Israeli law book would be an act of foolishness.”

Even the word “cult” has been discarded in academic circles as being, essentially, a slur. The term scholars have used for decades now is “new religious movements.”

Ironically, the anti-cult bill defines “harmful cult” so broadly that it could easily include several Hasidic sects. Consider the messianic Chabad-Lubavitch sect, which rallies around their dead rebbe as messiah, demands significant temporal and financial contributions from members, uses methods of behavior control (including specific interpretations of Jewish law), and operates in an organized, systemic, and sustained fashion.

All it would take is one Lubavitch rabbi to be charged with sexual abuse, or fraud, or any other crime, and the largest Hasidic sect in the world could, legally, qualify as a “harmful cult.” Of course, that’s not going to happen, but it shows how overly broad the language of the bill is.

Criticisms aside, though, why is this law being proposed in the first place?

Well, for one thing, Israel really does have a lot of new religious movements and sects. The “Israeli Center for Cult Victims,” which actually exists, estimates over 100 such sects active in Israel today, with up to 20,000 adults participating in them.

That’s equivalent to over 900,000 Americans, proportionally speaking.

There are many reasons why are “cults” so popular in Israel.

First, only strict Orthodox Judaism is recognized by the state of Israel (the Orthodox rabbinate has a monopoly on weddings, funerals, conversions, and other such events), so that leaves a huge gap where progressive religion would normally reside, driving many spiritual seekers to more fringe alternatives. That’s especially true because Israelis have a love affair with India and the Far East, trekking there on their gap years between the army and college, and sometimes never returning. Among Sephardic Jews, belief in magic, spiritual healing, amulets, and mysticism are far more common than among Ashenazim. That’s why Israel produces a steady stream of Kabbalists imbued with magical powers and rabbis venerated as saints.

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Second, there’s the intense spiritual activity in the Holy Land: Christian pilgrims, Christian missionaries, Christian Arabs, Muslim calls to prayer five times a day, American Jews “rediscovering” themselves. There’s even a documented pathology called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” in which visitors to the city believe themselves to be the messiah, and wander about muttering prophecies.

But it’s not just the number of cults that’s inspiring the new bill—it’s what they represent.

First, many cults are, indeed, extreme. In 2010, for example, Israeli authorities arrested Goel Ratzon, a sect leader with 21 wives and 49 children, on charges of rape, sodomy, and incest. His wives were kept in a closed compound, tattooed his name and image on their bodies, and surrendered total financial and material control to the leader, whose name means, roughly, “Messiah of Sex.” (Ratzon, which means “will,” is a euphemism for the sex drive. Goel means “redeemer.”) In 2014, Ratzon was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

And just last month, the Times of Israel published an account of a devotee of a Hare Krishna community near Haifa. She described the typical blend of paranoia, isolation, and shady conduct on the part of sect leaders.

Jewish groups are not immune. In 2006, for example, the New Age group Bayit Chadash (“New Home”) folded when it was revealed that its leader, a rabbi who goes by the names Marc Winiarz, Mordechai Winiarz, Mordechai Gafni, and Marc Gafni, was sleeping with multiple community members. (Gafni has since resurfaced and is now the guru of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.)

Other Jewish offenders include the Kabbalah Centre (busted for defrauding a woman dying of cancer into giving them all her money) and Rabbi Aharon Ramati, whose ultra-orthodox girls’ seminary has been busted by religious and state authorities for cult-like activities including isolating girls from their families and treating the rabbi’s every command as holy—but which has resurfaced yet again, and is one of the direct inspirations for the current bill.

But there is a second reason why this bill is coming forward at this time: Jewish identity politics.

One of the leading anti-cult groups in Israel, for example, is called Yad L’Achim (“A Hand to Brothers”) and is run by Orthodox rabbis. (Tagline: “We don’t give up on a single Jew!”) Yad L’Achim’s mission includes fighting not only “cults” but also Christian missionaries, intermarriage, and “assimilation.”

In America, anti-cult activity is about preserving individual autonomy against predators like the “Church” of Scientology. But in Israel, it’s about preventing Jews from leaving the fold.

Notice that the anti-cult law, as currently proposed, actually decreases rather than increases personal autonomy. If someone is involved in a “harmful cult,” the state, not the individual, makes the judgment as to whether one’s personal and spiritual choices are good and bad.  Persico, from the Hartman Institute, said that the law “will have fully functioning and happy adults considered ‘controlled’ by their spiritual teachers simply because their parents or neighbors think they are doing something too weird for comfort, and then sent under legal guardianship by the state.”

That makes no sense if the problem of cults is taking away personal autonomy. But it makes plenty of sense if the problem is that they entice Jews away from Judaism.

And remember, that state has an official religion and an official, strictly Orthodox hierarchy in charge of administering it. It’s easy to foresee the law being used against benign meditation groups, hippie festivals, and other non-Jewish spiritual groups of which the rabbis and the state may not approve. (And, to be fair, fringe Jewish organizations like Ramati’s). The anti-cult law is not neutral; it’s about Jewish identity.

And that, finally, is how the Israel/Palestine conflict is related to the anti-cult law. Israel’s right-wing government has proposed a rash of anti-democratic, identity-oriented laws in the past few years: loyalty oaths to the Jewish state, penalties for speaking in favor of boycotting Israel (i.e. exercising free speech), observing Israeli independence day by mourning (i.e. exercising free assembly), and now this. It has also proposed laws limiting the activities of NGOs, making the Supreme Court accountable to the legislature, and a host of other anti-democratic acts. The government includes parties that believe the West Bank is divinely promised to Jews, and that only strong Jewish nationalism can prevail against intractable Arab enemies.

This is the most Jewishly nationalistic government in Israel’s history, and both its policies toward the Palestinians and its embrace of the anti-cult law are part of that overall ideology. The anti-cult law may seem like some random, weird throwback, but in fact it is one more way in which the avowed “Jewish and democratic state” is becoming more Jewish, and less democratic.