This week, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women will be marked in Israel — as in other parts of the globe — in the midst of a massive outpouring of testimonies of widespread sexual harassment. The local version of the #MeToo phenomenon (#GamAni) that is sweeping the country has enabled many to expose incidents of abuse — and even outright violence — which they have kept pent up for years. They, like their counterparts elsewhere, have had the courage to expose offenders, detail violations, name names and seek justice. They have been met with a mixture of astonishment, empathy, identification, disbelief, derision and even contempt. All too often, the victims have been transformed into aggressors, denounced for everything from fueling women’s resistance to the dissemination of dangerous lies.
Amidst the constant media attention and the high-profile outings, not enough has been done to assure that sexual harassers are duly punished and that a new consensus develops against gender-based abuses. This can only be achieved if the voices now raised in protest and pain be offered the tools to bring their violators to trial and that the promises of protection against gender-based violence become an inviolable norm. Both women and men, acting in concert, can ensure that this time Israeli society makes this long-needed transformation.
Sexual harassment has, for many years, been an integral (and dark) part of Israeli life. For far too long, the public was willing to condone the sexual exploits of their war heroes (notably Rehav’am “Gandhi” Ze’evi, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann) or to forgive highly acclaimed actors and performers (Moshe Ivgy, Eyal Golan), university professors and literati, politicians (such as Haim Ramon and Silvan Shalom) and senior officers in the military and the police (Ophir Bucharis or Gadi Ritman). Even when charges against the high and mighty ended in convictions (President Moshe Katsav, for one), little was done — despite a forward-looking law against sexual harassment passed almost two decade ago — to actively eliminate the phenomenon by calling out the perpetrators. Thus, while the police dragged its feet in pursuing complaints against some of its own (five top commanders were accused of harassment in the past two years alone), the commissioner himself instructed that no anonymous charges of any sort be investigated in the future.
Time and again, women who came forward to tell about their experiences were berated, those who pressed charges suffered undue humiliation and many who kept their traumas to themselves for too long found that they were stripped of legal recourse. Nothing much changed after a full 90 percent of female Members of the Knesset confessed to having been sexually harassed. Nor were steps taken when it was revealed that 40% of Israeli women between the ages of 16-48 have been subjected to sexual violence in the workplace or when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) published figures that indicated that one of every six female soldiers complained of sexual harassment during their compulsory service.
The latest revelations against media personalities Alex Gilady, Gabi Gazit, Haim Yavin and many more are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, they continue that very rich and notorious list that has accumulated over the years. And the message will continue to be the same as long as the harassers are allowed to pursue their escapades with impunity. When perpetrators constantly go unpunished or their sentences are reduced, their successors will continue, secure in the knowledge that they can get away with it — or even humiliate their accusers in the process — with the backing of the power they hold, the male-chauvinist mores that dominate the public sphere and the blessing of the religious establishment. Sexual harassment is as pervasive in Israel as the inability to deal with its manifestations.
Attempts to grapple with rampant sexual abuse not only at the top, but in all quarters of Israeli society, have failed to date. Now, when awareness is exceptionally high and claims of ignorance are no longer believable, it is not possible to avoid confronting this scourge. The first step is to encourage victims to come forward. At this time, many charges of sexual harassment are dismissed because of the statute of limitations. Its extension to 20 years or more could go a long way towards bringing more incidents to light — even when the ability to corroborate allegations in some instances may become more complicated.
The second step is to grant greater protection to those who have been brave enough to complain (according to figures provided by the Center for Assistance to Victims of Sexual Abuse, barely 13% of victims actually file charges). Those who do, find themselves under intense scrutiny by the police and the prosecution. They are often given the feeling that they are to blame for their situation and are subjected to intimate and frequently accusatory cross-examination in the courts. Obviously, a complete overhaul of the structure of the systems responsible for receiving and investigating sexual harassment complaints and of their operating guidelines is needed.
The third measure involves changes in legislation. At the moment, even though gender-based abuses no longer require corroborating evidence, it has been possible to use legal means to belittle the plaintiffs and diminish their claims. Just last week, the court instructed Sari Golan, the key victim in a rape trial against real estate dealer and socialite Alon Kastiel, to hand over all her psychological files to the attorneys for the defense. The Israel Psychologist’s Association, The Psychologists’ Council and the Chief Psychologist in the Ministry of Health published a joint statement objecting to this demand and claiming that “it undermines the foundation for constructive therapy.” The trial is due to reopen again tomorrow. Without clear prohibitions against such requests in law, once again the outcome may deter other women from coming forward. In fact, it may go so far as to once again gag those who are exercising their newfound agency by mustering the will to tag their abusers.
The fourth stage, then, must lead to further shifts not only in the rules of evidence and in how proceedings involving sexual harassment are conducted, but also in the punishments they entail. Too many plea bargains and verdicts involving “community service” have resulted in perpetuating unseemly conduct and muzzling those suffering from abuse. Consistent and severe sentences could transmit a totally different message.
Finally, therefore, the real breakthrough can only occur when all Israelis, men and women alike, accept the fact that sexual harassment is a societal issue and requires a categorical collective response. Those who have been exposed to sexual offenses — of all colors, origins, walks of life and genders — deserve to be safeguarded and see their abusers marginalized. This means that employers act swiftly on charges of harassment in the workplace, that universities pay attention to student and junior faculty complaints, that the police deal efficaciously with charges against superiors, that woman in the military be rewarded for speaking out against commanders who allow themselves untold freedoms and that up and coming journalists and performers are protected from demands for sexual pay-offs.
Paying lip-service to the battle against sexually-based harassment does not pass muster if nobody takes responsibility for exorcising their perpetrators. Just as society has enabled their actions in the past, it has the power and capacity to thwart them in the future by establishing and implementing new norms in this sphere. Those who cry out must know that their call comes together with a communal agreement to try and punish those who caused their abuse.