What constitutes a cult and what is a legitimate social group or organization? It’s a question that has long plagued liberal democracies who have tried to balance the rights of religious freedom and free association on the one hand with the need to protect citizens from abusive cults on the other.
MK Orly Levy-Abekasis is looking to give the answer. The Yisrael Beitenu MK has drafted a bill in conjunction with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud that would define dangerous cults and empower the state to take drastic actions to break them up.
This is not the first time such legislation has been proposed. Isaac Herzog, now leader of the Israeli Labor Party, proposed such a measure while serving as Welfare Minister, with previous legislative attempts to clamp down on cults going back to the 1980s.
Nothing came of these earlier proposals, but Levy-Abekasis is confident her bill will be adopted. It was approved yesterday by a ministerial committee and has won support of Haredi MKs.
The earlier bills failed, she argues, because they were too broad and could have been used to target religious groups or political movements. “There was a need to sharpen the definition of what is a dangerous cult,” explained Levy-Abekasis.
Yet it is unclear how effective this new legislation will be in distinguishing cults from other groups and organizations. Levy-Abekasis laid out the basis of the legal distinction, defining dangerous cults as any group of people organizing around a person and idea where members are dependent on the central figure, or where the central figure’s authority includes control over members’ behavior or thought control.
The bill would give judges the discretion to apply this definition to any group or organization, seize their assets, and refer members to psychological counseling.
When asked whether the law could be applied to Hasidic movements centered around a Rebbe or revered spiritual leader, Levy-Abekasis responded that any movement exhibiting the traits laid out by the bill could be brought to court.