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The Israeli Military's Open Secret

COLUMN ONE

Sexual harassment, long a taboo topic, is now being publicly discussed. Some victims are even suing--and winning.

December 01, 1999|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL HASHOMER, Israel — Now that she is no longer a soldier in the Israeli army, and only now, can Michal talk about it.

The trouble began mildly enough. First, Michal's commanding officer made a few remarks about her appearance. Next, she ventured into his office looking for a stapler. She says the commander unzipped his pants and responded with the Hebrew equivalent of "Here, come and get it."

Then things only got worse. As she was driving with him to a military award ceremony, Michal says, the commander bragged about his sexual conquests, about cheating on his wife and about the professional perks that female soldiers who slept with him were privileged to receive. When he caressed Michal's thigh and proposed that they skip the medal-pinning and head for the nearest motel, she was stunned.

And when she said no, more trouble started. In the weeks that followed, she says, she was transferred, marginalized and humiliated. Her military career was finished.

In Israel, shaped by wars and historically surrounded by enemies, no institution is more vaunted than the army. Military service is a natural and rarely questioned part of life, a duty, a rite of passage, a formative experience that the vast majority of citizens undergoes.

Israel is also one of the few countries where women are drafted into mandatory service alongside men. More than two-thirds of all Jewish Israeli women have completed military duty.

It is fertile ground, say activists and senior military officers, for widespread sexual harassment: young, impressionable women thrust into the macho and obedient culture of the army, highly dependent on mostly male commanders.

Long a taboo topic, or dismissed as something women simply had to put up with, sexual harassment in the military is now openly discussed in Israel, thanks to high-profile cases, new rules and a handful of crusading activists.

More and more women are coming forward to denounce abuse. Some are going to court--and winning. After downplaying the problem for decades, the army in the past year has dismissed an unprecedented number of officers over sexual harassment.

But, for women, fear and shame persist.

"We are training women to be more assertive, to demand their rights and not stand to one side," said Brig. Gen. Orit Adato, the highest-ranking woman in the Israeli army and head of its Women's Corps. "Sexual harassment has existed as long as men and women were together. It is very, very hard to combat."

Criticism of the army, an institution crucial to Israel's existence, is often seen as unpatriotic blasphemy. And while attitudes within the service are changing, it remains a close-knit center of power that is the principal channel for getting ahead in society. As such, it is the purveyor of opportunities for men far more than for women.

In the military, men make connections that serve them for the rest of their lives. It is no accident that most of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's trusted advisors in government also served alongside him in the army's elite all-male Sayeret Matkal commando unit. For women, the army both reflects and perpetuates the secondary status that society at large gives them.

Michal, who left the army three months ago as a corporal but does not want her real name used because she fears reprisals, pressed charges against her former commander. The details of her treatment told in this story are her version. According to a military investigation, the commander--an up-and-coming major in his early 30s--was subjected to a disciplinary hearing during which he denied the allegations against him. He was convicted on two counts of improper conduct and acquitted on two others. He resigned from the army.

One Accused Claims He's a Scapegoat

In an interview, the major said the accusations were made by a vindictive young woman unhappy with her own professional shortcomings and his attempts to discipline her. He said he became the victim of a witch hunt conducted by overzealous prosecutors looking for a scapegoat.

The story told by Michal is by no means unique. Ten women interviewed for this story, some of whom served years ago and the others still in the military, recounted personal experiences of sexual harassment, from groping and innuendo to assault.

The army says it recognizes the problem, is taking concrete steps to fight it and is leagues ahead of Israeli business, academia and other civilian arenas in doing so. Female soldiers have for some time been given instruction on sexual harassment; male soldiers now receive training on the topic as well.

Maj. Ayelet Harel, who oversees basic training for about 7,000 young female soldiers each year, said instructors make it clear to women that they can and should resist unwanted sexual overtures--from anyone--and seek help. Recruits are given a list of counselors and women commanders to whom they can turn.

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