Israel has been rocked for some weeks by an intense debate on sexual harassment in the media. The Emmanuel Rosen affair is not just another high profile tale of sexual misconduct by a public figure (in the mode of former President Moshe Katzav, former Minister of Defense Yitzhak Mordechai or ex-Minister Haim Ramon). It is much more: it relates to how the media, responsible for bringing such matters to the attention of the public, deals with its own offenders and thereby frames the issue in general.

Over forty testimonies were posted on a special Facebook page launched by the Association of Women Journalists accusing the senior political commentator and television personality of persistent acts of sexual harassment for over three decades. The manner in which the story came to light, the serial nature of the purported offenses, the discourse that has emerged and the aftershocks involving other journalists all make this particular case a potential turning point in the treatment of this most delicate and intimate of topics on the national agenda.

Sexual harassment is the point where private relations come into contact with the public domain. For many years, there has been a consensus that there is a collective responsibility to protect citizens from attacks on their person based on gender or sexual orientation. But these safeguards require that public spaces provide security for all. The current controversy is aimed at pushing Israel to release itself from the confines of gendered power relations and to finally ensure that essential safety measures are entrenched in the country for the benefit of men and women alike. This is a very profound collective obligation indeed.

In 1998, Israel became one of the first countries to adopt a comprehensive bill to prevent sexual harassment in the country. This trailblazing legislation explicitly defines sexual harassment as consisting not only of blackmail on sexual grounds or lurid behavior, but, notably, as recurrent sexual suggestions or references to a person without his or her consent, or disparaging remarks on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. When these occur in a situation of institutionalized power relations, such as in the workplace, in the framework of compulsory service or in educational institutions, then such acts are prohibited even if the individual involved did not openly thwart these gestures.

To guarantee that instances of sexual harassment be dealt with expeditiously, the law provides for minimum penalties for those found guilty of its various forms. More significantly, it lays out three avenues of recourse for those who have undergone this intrusive kind of humiliation. The first entails legal action, through the filing of complaints with the police and – if justified – indictment on criminal charges. The second enables the opening of a civil action and the receipt of monetary damages. The third – and innovative – method consists of tribunals in the workplace. Every employer and public institution is required to post a code of behavior on sexual relations, to appoint an advisor on sexual harassment and to deal with complaints either through referral to the authorities or through disciplinary action. These multiple paths were constituted not only to deal effectively with matters of sexual harassment, but also to educate towards a society-wide harassment-free organizational climate which would allow every person to operate without threats of this sort.

Research presented to the Knesset at the time of the vote on the Law to Prevent Sexual Harassment showed that over forty percent of Israeli women experienced one (if not more) forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. Recent studies suggest that the percentage is even higher, as increasingly women are speaking out on harassment during military service, in their academic studies and in years of pointed innuendoes that they have had to rebuff (and in many cases conceal) during their careers. But the number of actual complaints filed has been infinitesimal. This is hardly surprising: women who have had the courage to press charges have often been pilloried for their loose morals, accused of hating men and generally blamed for behavior that brought about their harassment. In effect, the gendered structure of the public sphere perpetuated the practice of sexual harassment and – with several notable exceptions – kept it outside the realm of public discourse.

Emmanuel Rosen (Photo: Nati Shohat / Flash90)

Emmanuel Rosen (Photo: Nati Shohat / Flash90)

The brouhaha around Emmanuel Rosen defies this fifteen year-old pattern. The evolution of social media enabled those who underwent his unwelcome overtures to speak out for the first time. The sheer number who have come forth is staggering. The fact that these women did so without initially revealing his identity (this happened only when the story broke in the print media) is indicative both of the extent and durability of the behavior involved and of the importance of providing alternative outlets for bringing the most intimate of experiences into the public purview. This is particularly true since the formal media could hardly be expected to break a story involving one of their own key personalities.

Especially telling in this regard is that the compulsive nature of Rosen’s actions was known to many of his colleagues. With the notable exception of Gadi Sukenik, a former TV anchor, few male colleagues have spoken out on behalf of the harassed women. Hiding behind the letter of part of the law – but surely not behind its detailed provisions or its spirit – they demanded that the distressed women file formal complaints with police. On one level, this request is a bit odd: only recently, Channel 2, Rosen’s formal employer, released him from his contract because of disciplinary action on the grounds of sexual harassment.

On another level, this call is not astonishing at all. By exhorting women to work through formal channels, an effort is being made to keep them within the confines of what is still a dominantly male system. Through this process, the purpose is to maintain sexual harassment within the comfort zone of male-female confrontation. But the women (and the few men) who have pushed the issue into the public sphere are transmitting a profound message: they are saying that this is a societal issue and that responsibility for its rectification lies with all citizens – including the media.

Sexual harassment is public business. It is not a question of gender wars but of molding new social norms. A shift in power relations is the best way of aligning private experience with public values. The decision of the Israeli police to open a criminal investigation against Emmanuel Rosen on charges of sexual harassment without a specific complaint (and the subsequent revelation of possible offenses by at least two other media stars) may, perhaps, be the harbinger of a new order which truly provides security for all.