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Sanhedria Murchevet. (Wikipedia)

In the last few weeks, I have received a startling number of calls and emails regarding an ongoing crisis in Sanhedria Murchevet, a neighborhood in north Jerusalem where many—including some prominent rabbis and communal leaders—believe that an organized ring of criminals have been abusing, raping, and torturing Jewish children and have been doing so for a number of years. There is also widespread belief that the abuse is at least partially religiously motivated—that operating in the community’s midst is a cult, a ring of men and women who are subjecting the children to ritual torture.

Many of the people who have contacted me, however, did so because they believe that this is, at least to some degree, a case of mass hysteria; that a significant percentage (or even all) of the allegations, especially the most fantastic, may be unfounded; that innocent people may have been or will be accused; that an untold number of lives are being ruined; and that cases of actual molestation and/or abuse could potentially be obfuscated.

What is indisputable is that the community is in the grips of a devastating panic. The scope and severity of the allegations are continually increasing: More and more children are claiming (or are claimed) to have been abused; more and more people, including men and women in the neighborhood, are being accused of raping and abusing children. To those in the community, the influence and reach of the perpetrators seems terrifyingly limitless. The police are dismissed as inept at best, corrupt and/or complicit at worst.

I am here because I feel a responsibility to share some of what I learned when I spent more than a year investigating and reporting a similar and related case in a nearby Jerusalem neighborhood in 2012. I want to emphasize, from the outset, that I am not here to report the case; I am not here in any journalistic capacity. I have not conducted interviews. I have not done any significant reporting. I cannot make any firm claims about what is or is not going on in Sanhedria Murchevet—whether this is, in fact, a case of mass hysteria, on whether or not any of the allegations are founded.

But regardless of whether this is or is not a case of mass hysteria, those in the community (and beyond) must not ignore the lessons learned in past similar cases. The stakes cannot be higher. People died in the wake of what happened in Nachlaot. An 80-year-old woman was beaten with a crowbar and hospitalized, because she was believed to be a key member of a Christian missionary cult behind the abduction, torture, and rape of Jewish children. Many lives were destroyed. Children underwent corrective therapy for traumatic events that almost certainly did not happen—therapy that thereby created and reinforced that trauma. All these were needless tragedies born, ultimately, of misinformation.

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Before all else, it is critical to understand that hysteria is a very real and extremely well-documented phenomenon. In literally thousands of cases, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of children have reported abuse that did not happen. These cases have occurred in nearly every single industrialized country, and from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s was a veritable mania in the United States. Not once have any of the reports been substantiated.

It has happened so many times, in fact, that a model has been developed: Cases of hysteria have certain characteristics that differentiate them from “regular” cases of abuse. These include: The victims are far younger (ages 0-5) than in substantiated cases of molestation; the allegations include fantastic or impossible elements, like moving walls, elaborate tunnel systems, hallucinogenic drugs, bullets that bend around walls; the molestation being alleged is extraordinarily violent and sadistic, often involving tools, weapons, chemicals, and extreme torture; the torture/abuse is rarely one-to-one, but involves many perpetrators and many children and significant planning/logistics, often including transportation to and from sites of abuse; an outside religion/cult/order has allegedly infiltrated the community, intent on destroying from the inside; the cult is extremely sophisticated and often international in scope; the accused are often outsiders, such as converts, and include a very high fraction of females; and a huge percentage of the allegations include film/photography.

Many people resist or dismiss entirely the concept of hysteria because they cannot understand it: How could a child come to believe something that isn’t true? How could so many children corroborate a story that isn’t true? I encountered this stance literally hundreds of times in my reporting of the case of Nachlaot. But it is a misguided and dangerous perception.

I cannot definitively explain how hysteria works, how the children have come to believe what they believe. In cases that involve dozens or hundreds of children, especially those in a close-knit and insular community, it’s impossible to trace how information is passed from child to child, from parent to child, from parent to parent, from therapist to child, from therapist to parent. We have some idea of how it works—young children are extraordinarily suggestible; and parents and therapists can be, even without realizing, extraordinarily suggestive—but far more important than understanding the mechanics is understanding that this a real phenomenon. This means that children, in thousands of past cases, have reported abuse that did not happen. In all of those cases the children corroborated each other. In all of those cases the children spoke about subjects—anything from sex to technology—that their parents hadn’t exposed them to. In all of those cases one or more children were believed to have made claims that were unprompted.

Again, this makes no claim that what the children are saying is false; it makes the claim that what the children are saying could be false, despite our intuitions and sympathies, and that we therefore cannot make any firm conclusions on the basis of children’s allegations. This remains the case no matter how impossible it might seem that the child could be saying anything but the truth—no matter how young the child is, no matter how insulated the child is believed to be, no matter how many other children are corroborating the story. While the allegations should of course be properly investigated, they must not be granted credibility without independent, reliable evidence—evidence that is not and does not rely on children’s testimonies.

When I began my investigation of the case in Nachlaot, I had no reason to doubt anything. I was horrified at the existence of this enormous pedophile ring, at the scope of the crime. But when I returned to New York and started to research, I began to speak with people who have seen thousands of similar cases, who have worked with the FBI for more than 25 years. And my perspective changed. It was an enormously trying experience, having my entire world inverted, going back to Israel, re-interviewing everyone. But the case in Nachlaot displayed every single characteristic of mass hysteria. For months, I pressed the people spearheading the efforts very hard for evidence I could use, for evidence that what the children were claiming really happened. But there was none.

I was forced to accept what is still one of the hardest lessons of that story: Children in cases like this are not reliable witnesses, no matter how difficult it is to understand why a child would say something not true, no matter how difficult it is to come to terms with how the child might have otherwise learned of such things.

Many assume that, given the scope and nature of the allegations and incidents, something must be going on, even if it’s not a cult, even if it’s not a full-out case of hysteria. While this, again, could be true, it is not necessarily true: Without proper evidence, nothing can be known with certainty. I am not claiming that molestation didn’t happen—again, I don’t know. Any allegations should be carefully investigated, without prejudice, by people who have been properly trained. But that understandable intuition that something must be going on, that where there’s smoke there’s fire, cannot be implicitly trusted in cases like this.

The trauma is likely real. Children in cases like this aren’t “lying”—they’re convinced that this happened. Psychological signs of trauma, such as bedwetting or nightmares or phobias, might only indicate that the children believe they were traumatized. Many of these children are sent to untrained therapists whose job, as they see it, is to coax the story out. I have heard accounts of what some of these therapy sessions are like, and they can be outrageously irresponsible. One of the many tragedies here is that it becomes harder and harder to get to the bottom of what really did and did not happen.

Much of what I am saying here will, I know, be dismissed by decision-makers in the community. But it is important to understand that I am not pushing a theory as to what happened—I am pleading for the community to take a more careful approach, for a sober and historically aware examination of what’s being presented as evidence, and for an honest and rational questioning of whether that evidence indicates the existence of a conspiracy, a cult, or any kind of organized effort.

If what is being alleged in Sanhedria Murchevet is true, if even a fraction of it is true, this would not only be unprecedented, it would be, by several magnitudes of order, the biggest conspiracy/crime in history. That this many people are involved, and for this long, and no admission, no adult witnesses, no film, and no website has emerged (despite extensive efforts) is cause for skepticism. And if these holes are explained by a growing conspiracy—involving the church, corrupt police, etc.—we should be on guard. There will be answers to any questions raised—computer experts, international syndicates, decades-long church conspiracies to rape and inculcate Jewish children. But when a conspiracy adapts, if any skepticism is countered by an ever-reaching plot, it is, again, cause for skepticism. Allegations in many past cases of mass hysteria involved comparably incredible conspiracies; the fantastical elements only reinforced the overwhelming unlikelihood of the existence of a cult.

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