Skip to main content

Cult or slavery? Israel watches the strange case of Goel Ratzon

A court is soon expected to deliver its verdict on Goel Ratzon, who is accused of holding dozens of women and children in slavery and committing sexual offenses against them.
Goel Ratzon (R) sits in the dock at Tel Aviv's Magistrate's court during a hearing on extension of remand February 7, 2010. Israeli police detained last month the 60-year-old self-styled Jewish sage on suspicion of incest and abuse of women and children they allege he kept like slaves in various homes around Tel Aviv. REUTERS/Amir Cohen (ISRAEL - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTR29X9W

Next week, in mid-September, one of the strangest affairs that ever took place in Israel will come to an end. Tel Aviv’s district court will render a verdict regarding a man who created a very unconventional life for himself. A sort of a harem perhaps, or maybe a cult. This man lived in several apartments in southern Tel Aviv, apartments which barely accommodated more than 30 women and about 80 children they bore for him over the years. The district court will decide if the women and children lived under slavery conditions and if they were victim to severe sexual offenses. This is the first time in the history of the state that a court deals with people living under slavery.

The affair has stirred up the country, especially because of the deviant nature of the charges. In the middle of the night five years ago, in January 2010, scores of policemen broke into the compound in which Goel Ratzon lived with his wives and dozens of children. The ensuing spectacle that appeared on television screens shocked everyone: one after another, women were taken out while holding their babies and children. After them trailed a middle-aged man who introduced himself as the father of the family. He claimed that he did not understand why he was being arrested. Ratzon, with long white hair that reached his shoulders and a well-tended white beard, expressed his surprise at the dead-of-the-night break-in to the journalists who had surrounded the house. “These are my wives and these are my children, what crime have I committed?” he asked.

When he was forced into a police patrol car, several of Ratzon’s wives burst into loud tears while others tried to defend Ratzon and attacked the policemen to prevent the arrest. Even the children, young and old alike, sobbed to see their father under arrest. On that same morning, the women were sent with their children to a shelter for battered wives. The Welfare Ministry was tasked with treating the women, with the objective of severing them from the lifestyle in which they had lived.

Many of the residents in the Hatikva neighborhood, one of Tel Aviv's poorest areas, were aware of the harem that had sprung up under their very noses. They did not find any flaw in it and felt no reason to report it to the authorities. For years, Ratzon “collected” women in crisis and extended his patronage to them. Woman after woman, they left their houses and families and went to live in Ratzon’s apartments. The secret of his powers was not clear, but the women were captivated by him and totally subjugated themselves to his desires. They did whatever he wanted them to do. Some of them tattooed his image on parts of their bodies, and, as if that weren’t enough — they fought each other for the privilege of having his children. Each baby was given “Goel” as a middle name.

The rumor spread by word of mouth. Women who found themselves living in the margins of life looked for a remedy to their distress by knocking on the door of his house. Five years ago, a bit before his arrest, more than 30 women crowded together under his roof. According to police estimates, Ratzon begat between 60 and 80 children. He claimed to have 32 wives and 89 children. He was never officially married to a single one of them.

When the affair was publicized, the public was astounded at the sight of the band of women and children. Although no one could say with any certainty what was right and wrong about such a situation, it was clear that something had gone wrong in Israel in 2010. How can a man live in such super polygamy, under conditions of a closed cult, without anyone being held accountable for it? What made the whole affair even more complicated was that not one of the many women had previously submitted a complaint of violence or abuse. The members of the cult lived in a kind of cooperative and did not try to hide its existence. The women worked during the day, the children were sent to school. All of them had one father, and no one took the trouble to investigate how dozens of children bore the name of the same father.

“I was not his wife, I was his slave,” Maayan Smidi, who had spent 12 years with Ratzon told the local press. “I hope that he sits in jail under the same conditions he held us. Something closed in on us. Call it power, magic, hypnotism. My body functioned but without a soul. We were women who lived the lives of robots.” Another woman, Yael Fefer, was part of the cult for 15 years and bore Ratzon eight children. She said that she felt like “being caged in ‘psychological captivity.’” Maayan and Yael wrote books about their lives with Ratzon and described in detail the radical lifestyle that was conducted, undisturbed, in the south of Israel’s largest city. Both women hurried to remove the tattoos on their bodies via laser treatments, and both said that it took them years to treat their post-trauma symptoms.

Ratzon has been under arrest for some four years. He is 64 years old and to this day he contends that he doesn’t understand why his wives and children were taken from him. A three-member district court will go public in the coming days with its precedent-setting verdict. No one in Israel has ever been indicted before for imposing a “life of slavery.” And if this isn't enough, in Ratzon’s case, the charges are of alleged slavery, not under physical coercion. If he is cleared of this charge, the chances are high that he will be convicted for polygamy, acts of rape and other sexual offenses toward his wives. He will also be sued for sexual relations he had with his daughters. Several of his wives testified that on several occasions he demanded to have sexual relations with them near or with his daughters.

Thus, the anticipated verdict will bring to an end a bleak affair that took place right under the nose of the state, one which undoubtedly brought nothing but shame on it.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial