Israeli women battle a culture of harassment

Times Staff Writer

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.

A separate study of women in one army unit in 2004 showed that 55% had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their two-year service, despite efforts by the military, perhaps more than any other major institution in the last decade, to curb the practice.

Israelis tracking these numbers are not surprised that sexual harassment is so deeply ingrained here.

The militarization of Israeli society in the wake of wars with Arab neighbors has shaped the country's male-dominated character. It is reinforced by belittling messages about women by Orthodox Jewish leaders, who have a powerful sway over civil affairs, and a strong dose of denial about the prevalence of abuse, activists say.

Miri Schler, head of Tel Aviv's rape crisis center, said: "There's a myth that we have a higher ethical standard -- you know, Jews don't rape Jews."

Adding to the impunity with which men in authority commit abuses has been a collective reluctance by the Israeli media to probe the private lives of the powerful.

"Hundreds of people, including the most prominent journalists, knew of this 'hobby' of Katsav's" before he was elected president, Ehud Asheri, an editor of the Haaretz newspaper, wrote recently of his decision in 2000 not to publish accounts of alleged sexual abuse by the candidate. "Why did they all keep silent? Because this knowledge was based on rumor and gossip."

In the end, Katsav brought the scandal on himself. Apparently confident that the legal system would back him, he complained to the attorney general that a former secretary was trying to blackmail him. The woman countered with a criminal complaint that the 60-year-old president, a married father of five, had forced her to have sex under threat of dismissal.

After other women came forward with similar stories, police said in October they had evidence that the president, a figurehead leader whose role is to serve as a unifying force and set a moral tone, committed rape, aggravated sexual assault, indecent acts and sexual harassment.

The attorney general is expected to decide soon whether to indict Katsav, who denies the allegations.

To women's advocates, the public drama is a double-edged sword. While highlighting the alleged misdeeds of powerful men, the Israeli media have echoed a chorus of complaints that the fight against harassment has overreached.

Yair Lapid, a popular TV talk show host, wrote in a widely quoted column that he no longer paid compliments to women because they can "tear my life into shreds." Sassy Gez, a lawyer who defends men in harassment cases, said: "You cannot turn every crummy suitor into a criminal offender."

More seriously, attorneys for Katsav and Ramon have waged a media campaign to portray their clients' chief accusers as manipulative women with unsavory private lives or political motives.

The young Tel Aviv woman who was harassed by her company's finance manager knows what Israeli women can face when they use the law in their defense, an ordeal that discourages most victims from coming forward. The woman, Miri, remains so fearful of her tormentor that she agreed to talk about her experience only on condition that her full name be withheld.

Miri was the 27-year-old human resources manager for a Tel Aviv company with 300 employees six years ago when she caught the eye of the finance manager, a married man then in his early 60s who far outranked her.

In court papers, she said he repeatedly made suggestive remarks, including descriptions of his sexual fantasies about her, groped her several times and once tried to force himself on her in his office, in each case over her objections.

The harassment went on for six months, until her rejection of the finance manager finally sank in.

What followed, she said, was worse: For the next six months, she said, he maneuvered to have her shunned by colleagues as a troublemaker, and eventually she was fired in what was officially called a company downsizing.

"Everyone was afraid to take my side or even talk to me," she said.

"It was emotionally exhausting. I threw up each day I had to come to work."

After her dismissal, she went to the police. It took nearly three years for the case to work its way through the justice system. "Every time I retold the story, it was like experiencing it again," she said.

The defendant was convicted of sexual harassment and indecent acts, but the latter charge was overturned on appeal and he ended up with a fine of less than $400.

"I left the courtroom and cried," Miri said. "I felt I had lost. But it was worth it. I had to close the circle, do everything I could."

She does not believe her case made things better for anyone else.

"Too many women in Israel have stories like mine," she said. "Some day, I'm sure, this will happen to my daughter."

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