Focus on Issues: Israeli Law Defies Sexist Culture, Gets Tough on Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment hit the Israeli headlines with a tragic twist this week when an accused victimizer committed suicide while in police custody.

Yehuda Naveh, head of the Tel Aviv branch of Kupat Holim, the largest health fund in Israel, hanged himself Monday in his jail cell after being arrested at his office a day earlier.

The arrest came after a senior female employee in Naveh’s office filed a complaint last week alleging a long series of sexual attacks.

In the course of their investigation, police secretly filmed a video that allegedly showed Naveh making explicit sexual advances, holding her paycheck in one hand and fonding her with the other, and persuading her not to cry out as he assaulted her.

At the request of Naveh’s family, a Tel Aviv judge has ordered an investigation into the suicide.

This bombshell hit as the country awaits the results of a police investigation into sexual harassment charges against Transportation Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Last month, a young female employee in Mordechai’s office accused the veteran army general and former candidate for prime minister of repeatedly assaulting her and making sexual propositions.

While headlines around the world focused at the time on possible breakthroughs in the peace process, the Mordechai scandal monopolized the Israeli media. Radio stations broadcast verbatim the accuser’s replies during her lie detector test, including explicit details of the alleged sexual attacks.

Several other women have since come forward to add their accusations about improper advances allegedly made by Mordechai during his long career in the army.

If indicted, Mordechai will be tried under the far-reaching 1998 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, considered the most progressive in the world.

The law encompasses every sector of Israeli society — the workplace, military, educational and health systems — and provides for imprisonment, fines and punitive compensation for sexual harassment. It also allows civil suits for damages.

The law defines sexual harassment in the widest terms: as sexual contact, repeated unwanted sexual speech, propositions or innuendo, sexual blackmail or debasing references to a person’s gender.

In cases involving minors, patients and where the harasser is in a position of direct authority over the victim, the conduct is prohibited even if consensual.

The law is gender neutral, and has been applied against educators in cases of same-sex harassment involving pupils.

Because it places liability not only upon the harasser but the institution where it takes place, the law’s power is exponentially increased.

Every employer and institution is obliged to disseminate the law, to appoint a person responsible for complaints and to promptly investigate them. If not, they are as liable as the person implicated.

It is no secret that the Israeli military is a hothouse for exploitative sexual relationships, according to Dafna Izraeli, head of a new program in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University.

It has been common for pretty young female soldiers to become “trophies” of the commanders, Izraeli says, who adds that an aura of permissive license has traditionally permeated the military.

Last year, in a case that attracted intense attention, the Supreme Court blocked the army’s promotion of Brig. Gen. Nir Galili, who had been accused by a 19-year-old recruit of engaging in intimate sexual relations with her while he was commander of her base.

The Galili verdict sent out a strong message that prompted the head of the military police to complain, “We’ve reached a state where I can’t kiss a woman soldier on the cheek when she’s discharged.”

But recalling similar incidents that were never revealed, one female veteran said sadly, “There are dozens of Galilis.”

Similar instances of coercion are believed prevalent in the workplace, which is overwhelmingly dominated by male managers.

The Israel Women’s Network, which maintains a hotline and provides legal assistance, estimates that only one in 10 cases is reported.

Women in certain segments of society are especially vulnerable to unwanted advances.

Russian immigrants “absolutely desperate to keep their jobs would not dare to say no,” says sociologist Larissa Remennick. “If there is a new law, it has made no difference to them. Foreign workers, with even less status, are the easiest prey.”

Religious women are considered another easy target. They fear that filing a complain would lead to the possibility of jeopardizing their children’s chances for marriage.

Arab women fear that raising the issue could backfire under their society’s honor code. Criminologist Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian says that if Arab women complain, they put their lives on the line.

Esther Sivan, the Israel Women’s Network’s legal adviser, stresses that going public may damage the complainant’s reputation and expose her to ridicule, she says.

May Tzabor, an attorney for the women’s organization Na’amat, agrees.

“Women still pay the price,” she says. “Employers fail to protect women after they have spoken up. They are seen as troublemakers and themselves turn into the accused.”

Despite such fears, the current social atmosphere contributes to judges’ readiness to convict, according to Wafa Zoubi Fahoum, a Haifa lawyer whose practice includes defending those accused of harassment.

Ahuva Oren-Pines, administrator at the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center, said there is “no doubt that the law makes men nervous. But the prevalence of harassment in society made it imperative that something be done.”

At the very least, writer Atara Ofek said last week, “sexual power games will have to be a lot more sophisticated from now on.”

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