European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom

Israeli anti-cult bill under fire

Written the Tuesday, February 16th 2016 à 17:13

Article read 1826 times

A new law proposal on the handling of "harmful cults" is currently ongoing its legislative process at Knesset (Israel). This proposal is strongly criticized by Israeli scholars but also by international scholars and lawyers who wrote to the Knesset and the Israeli government these last days. Here are some of these letters:

MEIDA Center's Position Paper on the Law Proposal for the Handling of Harmful Cults - 2015

MEIDA (17.01.2016) - The Law Proposal defines what is a "Harmful Cult", makes it an offense to lead a Harmful Cult, and offers a mechanism of confiscation of property of the head of the cult. In addition, the proposal initiates a data base on Harmful Cults and an infrastructure of mental treatment for the victims of the Cults and their family members. Finally, the proposal makes it possible to appoint a custodian to a person who is under the influence of a Harmful Cult. As delineated below, it is MEIDA Center's position that this law proposal is in discord with current academic research and with the positions of legislative bodies and courts in Israel and abroad, may cause unnecessarily harm to the personal autonomy and rights of individuals, and is not needed.
The proposal defines a Harmful Cult as a group using "methods of control over thought processes and behavioral patterns". This definition relies on the theory of Mind Control, which is not accepted in the academic research and was rejected by legislative bodies and supreme courts in Israel and abroad. Moreover, this concept negates the belief in the personal autonomy and responsibility of individuals and their accountability for their actions (the Israeli Supreme Court dealt extensively in the case of the followers of Elior Hen).
Article 6 of the proposal allows for a custodian to be appointed to a legal adult who is under the influence of a Harmful Cult. Appointing a custodian to a legal adult who has chosen freely to join a group, even if a harmful one, is a disproportionate violation of individual autonomy, without any proper academic and psychological backing.
Our position is that the existing laws in the Israeli legal corpus are sufficient, and the new law is unnecessary. The State of Israel has no difficulty to indict cult leaders, and is equipped with a variety of fitting criminal offenses, as can be learned from the case of Goel Ratzon (who was sentenced to thirty years in prison) and D.A. (sentenced to twenty-six years in prison).
Therefore, MEIDA Center recommends not accepting the law proposal as it currently stands.
We will be happy to supply further information, provide references to the legislative state of affairs in Israel and abroad as well as to academic research on the subject, participate in meetings, and answer any question.
Cordially yours,
Prof. Boaz Huss, Dr. Rachel Werczberger, Dr. Tomer Persico, Dr. Adam Klin-Oron, Dr. Marianna Ruah-Midbar, adv. Masua Sagiv - members of the Board of Directors of MEIDA Center.
MEIDA Center at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute collects reliable and objective information on contemporary religious groups in Israel, with the aim of providing it for the service of the State's organs and the public at large. The Center is operated by qualified researchers in the field, using scientific tools and maintaining strict academic standards.
For further details: Prof. Boaz Huss, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, +972 (0)52-3757614

Israeli Anti-Cult Law: Jim Richardson' letter to Minister of Justice Shaked

To Minister of Justice Shaked:

I am Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno, NV, where I have directed for 30 years a graduate degree program for trial judges in conjunction with the National Judicial College, which is headquartered on our campus (see ). I have done research for several decades on New Religious Movements (NRMs), focusing on recruitment and conversion, as well as other aspects of minority religious groups. I recently completed a term as President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which is the largest interdisciplinary organization studying religion in the world. The organization publishes a major journal in the field of scientific studies of religion, a journal in which I have published a number of articles. I was a visitor in Israel in 1999 having been invited to present some of my research at a closed conference jointly sponsored by Israeli Security and the United States FBI. I later published that presentation in a German academic journal.

Much of my research and scholarly writings have dealt with the concept of “brainwashing,” which is, as you may know, a pseudo-scientific concept used as an ideological weapon against unpopular minority religious groups. The concept has no basis in scientific explanations of why people participate in religious groups, as I have demonstrated in many of my writings. I attach one of those writings for your review, but can furnish more. These writings and those of some of my colleagues in America have convinced the courts to disallow such pseudo-scientific evidence in civil actions, and also disallow such claims as a defense in criminal cases as well. I can send another recent paper that summarizes these legal battles if you wish.

I have also participated in a number of legislative and legal action dealing with participation in NRMs and other minority religions of various kinds, including testifying in American courts and state legislatures, in the High Court in London, is a major case in Moscow, Russia, and I have consulted on similar cases in New Zealand and Australia. In all of those matters I have presented, either through amicus briefs or direct testimony, sound research results indicating the “brainwashing” and “mind control” are not scientific concepts. Virtually all participants in NRMs or other minority faiths do so of their own volition, exercised as adults.

I also have written critiques of the very negatively connoted term “cult”, and suggested that its usage is as an ideological weapon to use against unpopular minority faiths, and that the term should be disallowed in any legal or legislative setting. I attach one such writing for your review, in which I stress the subject nature of the term, and that it has no legal definition. The proposed legislation that your committee is reviewing is very similar to such efforts made several decades ago in America, all of which failed on constitutional and definitional grounds. (I can send some articles about such efforts if you desire.)

The term “cult” cannot be defined in a manner that passes evidentiary tests; such terms can be and are subjectively applied to unpopular groups, and have been in America and many other countries. Similar efforts to pass legislation banning “cults” and setting up institutional structures to deal with these alleged harmful groups have been made in a number of other countries, as well, and most have not passed muster when thorough scientific research and reasoning were applied to the concept by the legislatures and the courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, on which I have done considerable research. I can furnish some of the research if you want.

I urge you not to support the proposed legislation. It has very little relationship to the reality of people participating in minority religions.

If I can be of any assistance to you in this matter, please let me know.

Respectfully submitted,

James T. Richardson

James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D.
Foundation Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies
Director, Judicial Studies Program
Mail Stop 311
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, NV 89557

Letter from the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FoB)

To the kind attention of:
• Minister of Welfare and Social Services
• Members of the Ministers Committee on Legislative Matters • Legal Advisor to the Knesset
• Legal Advisor to the Government
• The Knesset Members
• Knesset’s Information Center

Dear Sirs:

My name is Raffaella di Marzio and I’m a researcher in Psychology of Religion in Italy and the Secretary of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief. Since 1994 I have been studying, from a psychological and educational point of view, minority religions, also named New Religious Movements, and very often called “sects” or “cults”, a derogatory word, usually used for stigmatizing religious minorities.
I am attaching my Curriculum to this letter for your reference.
It was brought to my attention that a law proposal against “harmful cults” is about to be voted upon in the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset)
This law proposal is presented as a wish to protect individuals from harmful treatments allegedly taking place inside “cults”, but, according to my experience and my studies in this field, such a law proposal is posing a real threat to the free exercise of the fundamental rights of individuals and families belonging to religious minorities.
In particular, I wanted to draw your attention on an idea which is repeated many times in the law proposal – the idea that “cults” perpetrate psychological abuses, or the so called “mind control” crime.
Unfortunately, badly influenced by media and the propaganda of “anti-cult” groups, some European governments set up courts of inquiry, parliamentary commissions, anti-cult squads and approved even laws against “cults”, or, in other words, against the alleged “mind control crime” that “dangerous cults” would perpetrate against their followers, especially against children.

I have carried out extensive research about this matter for about 20 years and summarized results of my studies in my book "Nuove religioni e sette. La psicologia di fronte alle nuove forme di culto”, (New religions and cults. Psychology facing the new cults) published in 2010. I discovered that the theory of “mind control” or “brainwashing”, or “persuasive coercion” as applied to “sects” has no scientific basis. I would like to cite the most important professional Association of psychologists, who published official statements about this matter.

The official position of APA (American Psychological Association)

1987 - On February 10th, 1987, the APA joined other parties in submitting an Amicus Curiae brief in the Molko case, pending before the California Supreme Court, involving issues of brainwashing and coercive persuasion with respect to the Unification Church. The brief stated that, as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion “is not accepted in the scientific community” and that the relevant methodology “has been repudiated by the scientific community”. To state such a position with greater clarity would be very difficult indeed. The brief also implied that, when applied to new religious movements, very often called “sects” or “cults”, theories of mind control were uniformly regarded as “not accepted in the scientific community”, be they referred to as “brainwashing”, “mind control”, or coercive persuasion”.

1987 - On May 11th, 1987 another very important step in this matter was APA’s refusal to approve the DIMPAC (Report of the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control), submitted by the psychologist Margaret Singer and other five scholars. The APA rejected the report in a Memorandum of May 11, 1987 because it “lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur”. The APA stated in 1987 that brainwashing or coercive persuasion theories, when applied to new religious movements, are not scientific.

There have been further, similar affirmations of these statements in later years as well.

This law proposal calls for the introduction of a provision in the Criminal Code for a criminal offense making the abuse of psychological and/or physical weakness a criminal offense. The fact is that this kind of “crime” has no scientific basis and it is a danger for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

In Italy we had such a law. It happened in 1930, under Mussolini’s Fascist regime: the “plagio” law (article 603), that was the criminal offense of putting someone in a “complete state of subjugation”. The meaning of the Italian expression “plagio” [plagium in Latin] is the English word “brainwashing”. These days, the propaganda of some anti-cult groups and the media makes use of some synonymous like “mind manipulation”, “mind control”, and so on ... but the meaning is the same: they affirm that a person can be subjected to “plagio” by “dangerous cults” or “sects”.

This law proposal asserts that “The gamut of possible injuries stemming from membership in a harmful cult is wide, and includes mental harm, physical harm, sexual harm, social harm and financial harm. In light of this, there is a need to formulate legislative policy on this subject.”

Being quite an expert on psychological and educational matters, as well as the subject of Freedom of Religion or Belief and religious minorities, I can tell you, supported by the scientific community, that this idea is not based on scientific data or empirical research. It is only the expression of an intolerant ideology of specific anti-cult groups that has already created tremendous harm to children and parents belonging to religious minorities in many countries, like Italy. I can confirm that in Italy, over the last 30 years, members of religious minorities, especially children, have suffered discrimination and isolation in different ways.


In conclusion, it is my belief that to approve repressive laws to combat the crime of “mental manipulation”, as suggested by this law proposal, is not only useless, but also very dangerous for freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and democracy in general.
Would you have any question feel free to contact me. Best regards,

Raffaella Di Marzio
Secretary of The European Federation for Freedom of Belief Rome (Italy)
cell. +39 – 3488299499

Raffaella Di Marzio, a PhD Candidate in Psychology of Religion at Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, in 2001 set up a Centre of Information on Cults, New Religious Movements, Cult-Watching and Anti-cult Groups: the Online Center http://
She is the secretary of the Executive Committee of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), member of the managing board of SIPR (Italian Society of Psychology of Religion) and of Editorial Board of Psychology of Religion e-Journal (PRej).
She is also a member of the International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR), and ICSA Today’s News Co-Correspondent for Italy.
She has published more than 100 articles about cults, mind control, New Religious Movements and anti-cult groups, is a contributor to CESNUR’s Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy(2013) and to Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, 6 vol., ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara [California] 2010), J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann Editors.
Raffaella Di Marzio has B.A. degrees in Psychology (University “La Sapienza” of Rome, 1981), Educational Science (Pontifical Salesian University, 1981) and History of Religions (University “La Sapienza” of Rome, 2003) and Religious Science (Institute for Religious Studies Ecclesia Mater, linked to the faculty of theology of Pontifical Lateran University, 1986).
She is a Catholic religion teacher in a senior high school in Rome since 1981 and she has been Professor of Psychology of Religion at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences “Auxilium” in Rome. She is regularly invited to lecture at pontifical and state Universities on Cults, New Religious Movements and topics regarding the Psychology of Religion in general.
She is in demand as a Cult and New Religious Movements expert for TV and radio shows, Conferences and Lectures widely.

Letter from Attorney Patricia Duval

Knowledge of religions | Religious Freedom | Events | Books and publications | Interfaith | EIFRF presentation