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Israeli women battle a culture of harassment

It's easier to file charges, even against the powerful, but abuse is still rampant in schools, offices and the military.

December 24, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — When women began coming forward a few months ago to accuse Israel's president of sexually abusing them, a young mother in this city heard one lurid account on the radio while driving her daughter to kindergarten.

She had a nightmarish flashback: The groping in the finance manager's office. Her shock as she recoiled. The spurned man's revenge. Her ostracism at work and eventual dismissal.

"Oh my God," she said to herself, switching off the radio. "That's my story too."

The case against President Moshe Katsav and recent sex scandals involving other prominent men have stirred up memories of thousands of humiliating ordeals and illuminated one awkward truth: Eight years after it was criminalized by one of the toughest such laws in the world, sexual harassment is still rampant in Israeli offices, schools and military installations.

Trying to hold itself to a Western legal standard of behavior and gender equality, Israel has collided with its own mores as a militaristic, religiously conservative society.

Although the law has empowered women and helped expose misconduct, the scandals have caused a vigorous backlash by critics who say efforts to punish offenders have gone too far.

The debate over the proper boundaries between men and women has invaded living rooms, workplaces and television talk shows in a country where one in four women says she has been sexually assaulted.

Allegations that Katsav raped two female employees and harassed at least six others began surfacing days before Israel went to war in Lebanon in July. So did a criminal complaint that Justice Minister Haim Ramon had forced a kiss on a 21-year-old female soldier when the two were alone in a government office.

The scandals faded in wartime. But they burst back into the headlines soon after the 34-day conflict ended. Katsav is under investigation by the attorney general's office and is expected to lose his job. Ramon has resigned and is on trial.

"Israelis are starting to understand that nobody, no matter how powerful, is immune from punishment for sexual harassment," said Orit Kamir, a Hebrew University law professor who helped draft the 1998 legislation. "But this is a learning process that will require repetitive lessons."

There are plenty of other case studies in the news these days.

Renowned actor Hanan Goldblatt has been indicted on charges of raping or molesting women who sought his counseling for acting auditions. An Orthodox rabbi in Haifa, Mordechai Gafni, is accused of assaulting women during Torah lessons.

Such behavior rarely came to light before the late 1990s. Government leaders, army commanders, business executives, teachers and other men in authority often considered sexual favors by female subordinates as a seigniorial right.

The 1998 law, inspired in part by American legislation, made "intimidating or humiliating" sexual remarks and unwanted advances anywhere, in the workplace or in the street, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison and grounds for civil suit. It outlawed sexual advances and remarks by employers even when the subordinate to which they are directed does not resist.

A group of feminist lawmakers pushed the little-noticed measure through parliament before critics could mobilize effectively against it.

Since then, Kamir said, several thousand criminal complaints have gone to the police and the courts, or have been settled privately between the parties -- a lot for a small country but still a tiny fraction of the incidents of harassment reported in confidential surveys.

Many Israelis thought the new law was a turning point when retired Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, a prime ministerial hopeful, resigned as defense minister after his indictment in 2000 for sexual assault and harassment. He was convicted the following year and given an 18-month suspended sentence.

But women's advocates, lawyers and researchers say that although harassment is discussed more openly, they find no evidence that it has diminished significantly.

The number of new calls to the hotlines run by Israel's network of nine rape crisis centers has been increasing steadily in recent years, to 6,270 in the first nine months of 2006. One in eight of these callers reported being distraught over unwanted sexual advances and demeaning sexual remarks by employers and other superiors, said Naomi Schneiderman, a spokeswoman for the network.

"The law has changed and the rhetoric has changed, but this has not translated into real changes in attitudes and behavior," said Avigail Moor, a clinical psychologist and head of the women's studies program at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel.

A survey Moor has conducted over the last two years indicates that 90% of Israeli women have been verbally harassed in a sexual way, at least 40% have been physically harassed, and 25% have been sexually assaulted.

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