Not In Our Community - A Reflection

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 Content warning: family violence, coercive control and gett refusal.


“It is both a common falsehood and an aspiration for the future,” said Cassandra Barrett, Program Manager of Healthy Communities at Jewish Care Victoria, to a virtual crowd of over 180 attendees.

She was referencing the title of the webinar, Not in Our Community – Not in Any Community, which was held on Monday 7 December, in a collaboration between Jewish Care Victoria and Unchain My Heart. The event sought to raise awareness about the critical issue of coercive control, a largely invisible form of family violence often referred to as ‘intimate terrorism’.

Two guest speakers presented throughout the night, including investigative journalist Jess Hill, author of the award-winning See What You Made Me Do, and lawyer and gett refusal expert Joanne Greenaway, CEO of the London School of Jewish Studies. Intertwining personal stories and powerful statistics, both women expertly undercut the common belief that family violence does not occur in the Jewish community and relayed the vital importance of preventing its harm and impact.

The event was held in support of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a global initiative of the United Nations, which this year responded to the exacerbation of family violence prompted by COVID-19. In Australia alone, one in ten women who were in a relationship reported experiencing physical or sexual violence during the pandemic, according to findings from the Australian Institute of Criminology. Perhaps even more alarmingly – one in five women experienced coercive control.

Violence takes many different forms, and does not always look the way we imagine. Coercive control is one such form – as Jess Hill explained, “it is the most dangerous and misunderstood form of domestic abuse… that reduces the independence and access to human rights that women and children should have [at] birth.”

Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression used to instill fear and degrade and humiliate victim-survivors. Its invisibility increases its threat, with common tactics used by abusers including stalking; frequent and targeted insults; limiting access to money and other resources; monitoring communications, particularly through phone tapping and other forms of electronic surveillance; restricting contact with loved ones; and controlling day-to-day activities. According to Hill, coercive control is frequently masked initially as a type of caregiving and it often takes a long time for the victim-survivor to recognise the actions of their partner as abuse.

Of the women that have sought help for family violence, Hill explained that 60 to 80 percent had been subjected to coercive control. And while the repercussions for the victim-survivor alone are damaging, it is as rife for children living in these environments, who are witness to ongoing patterns of destructive behaviour and harmful messages at a vital point in their development.

“We are only just beginning to understand and describe what the family violence sector has seen for decades. It is so predictable that victim-survivors are shocked by how common their experiences are. They say it is like their perpetrators have been reading the same handbook,” continued Hill.

Coercive control is far more prevalent than we believe and nobody is immune to its impacts. And for the Jewish community especially, as Joanne Greenaway discussed, it has a particular intersection with another culturally-based form of family violence: gett refusal.

A gett is a document in Jewish law which effects a divorce between a couple. For a separation to be considered valid, a gett must be freely granted by the man in the relationship. Without this permission, women are forced to remain married against their own interest and will, conveying upon them the status of agunah – a chained woman.

This imbalance of power and control is felt by Jewish women across the world who must contend with strict consequences, including not being able to remarry within the religious community, implications for their future children, as well as public humiliation and shame until the gett is granted – which in some cases, can take a lifetime.

“To me, gett refusal is coercive control and a way of holding somebody to not be able to move on,” said Greenaway. “Ultimately you cannot force someone to give a gett; you can do everything to encourage them, even including putting them in prison in Israel, but [even] that won’t [necessarily] secure the result you are seeking.” 

The problem of gett refusal and abuse does not solely lie within Orthodox communities; many women who are not observant will nonetheless seek a divorce that is recognised under Jewish law – whether to enable future re-marriage, or simply to be free of their former relationship. According to Greenaway, gett refusal often dovetails with an array of other forms of abuse that occur within relationships.

“It is very difficult for women in relationships where they have suffered to feel strong enough to take these kinds of actions… There are many [people] who are waiting for a gett that don’t feel like that they can stomach going to the courts. It is our responsibility to strengthen women to enable them to feel that they can address this with support,” she continued. 

Both speakers emphasised the role of communities and the importance of raising awareness and encouraging conversations, both with the victim-survivor and the wider community - for example, educating young people, especially those soon to be married, about healthy and respectful behaviours within relationships. Noting red flags is also important, including common tactics used by perpetrators such as the use of flattery to ‘charm’ victim-survivors, and exercising caregiving and over-protective behaviours.  

For loved ones that you believe to be experiencing family violence, patient and consistent support is key, as well as a focus on safety. It may not be easy to understand what they are going through, but framing your responses in a kind, open and non-judgmental way, as well as reminding them that you are always available to talk, is a great step in building trust.

As Greenaway summarised, “part of the awareness raising this evening and the work that [we] do, is so people are able to lean on the rest of the community and do not have to suffer on their own.”

If something doesn’t feel right in your relationship, please reach out. You are not alone.

Jewish Care - 8517 5999

1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732

Safe Steps – 1800 015 188

With Respect – 1800 LGBTIQ

Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491 (for men who use violence and want to change)

For support with gett refusal, contact [email protected]