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Focus on Issues: T-shirts Blowing on Clotheslines Focus Attention on Rape in Israel


There are T-shirts hanging on clotheslines across Israel these days that differ from the usual assortment seen on cords crisscrossing behind apartment building and villas.

These T-shirts, part of The Israel Clothesline Project, were created by women who have been raped, sexually abused or otherwise assaulted by their husbands, boyfriends and family members.

They are being displayed in a variety of venues — from the Knesset to a university to a concert hall — to raise consciousness about the damage done to women by assault.

On one T-shirt, hands cut from cloth cover the face of a golden-haired woman who is standing next to a bed. The artist’s feelings are emphatic: “You invaded my personal space. Jerry, I hate you!” it reads is Hebrew.

Another creator drew a heart and then tore a hole out of its center, along with a large male figure holding a stick over a smaller, female image.

Her words are drawn on it like a poem, each Hebrew clause give its own line: “We’re the punching bag of our father, our brother, our uncle, our neighbor, anyone who wants to hit us.”

Two of the T-shirts have Arabic written on them, one is in Spanish, a few are in English and most are in Hebrew.

Nili Nimrod, the organizer of The Israel Clothesline Project, is devoted to bringing public attention to the issue of violence against women.

She described the project during a recent visit here. While in the United States, she attended a Washington, D.C., rally protesting cuts in government funding to programs serving women.

The rally included the display of many of the 260 clothesline projects from across the United States. Israel was the only foreign country to participate, Nimrod said.

As director of Israel’s Association of Rape Crisis Centers, Nimrod also lobbies for legislation beneficial to women, runs educational seminars and fund raises for her projects.

Seven centers, from Eilat to Haifa, are part of the association. Israel’s newest rape crisis center, in Kiryat Shmona, is in the process of joining, she said.

A ninth center, tailored to the needs of fervently Orthodox women and based at Jerusalem’s Shaarei Tzedek hospital, does not belong because it obtained rabbinic permission to be a resource for these women on the condition that the founders not join any organization that is connected with non-religious women, Nimrod said.

The first hanging of Israel’s 115 T-shirts took place in the Knesset last November and attracted the attention of all the country’s parliamentarians. Soon after, it was displayed at Tzavta, a popular Tel Aviv concert hall, and at Bar Ilan University, which serves primarily Orthodox students, during a week devoted to assault awareness.

Nimrod said she plans to take the project into the middle of Israel’s public spaces, where it will be seen by Israelis from all walks of life.

About 5,000 victims of rape, incest and other types of sexual assault — an average of 12 women each day — reported the assaults to the Israeli police and rape crisis centers last year, Nimrod said.

An estimated 80 to 90 percent of victims do not report their assault, said Nimrod, which means that between 60 to 120 women are sexually assaulted each day in Israel.

“And this is supposed to be `The Holy Land,'” she said sardonically.

Several characteristics of sexual assault are unique to Israeli society and culture, Nimrod said.

Harassment and minor assaults are common on crowded public transportation, just as they are in Japan, she said.

And in fervently Orthodox or Arab cultures, “sexual assault is most likely to come from family members, doctors and teachers,” she said.

“Date rape is less likely,” since people in those cultures do not generally spend time with members of the opposite sex without a chaperson, she said.

“They are also closed, traditional societies” in which women and children may not feel the right to speak up about being sexually assaulted, she said. “How aware are they that these things are inappropriate?”

Another uniquely Israeli aspect of the problem is the large proportion of incest that takes place in families who survived the Holocaust, she said.

In Holocaust survivor families there is often “a sacred quality” to such secrets, she said.

“Interest is the personal Shoah,” she said, using the unique Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

She said there has been an increasing openness over the last few years for Israelis to consider the issue of sexual assault.

Support groups for survivors of rape and incest began four years ago in Tel Aviv and in Haifa two years ago.

Five years ago, the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center initiated a hot line for male victims of sexual assault. In 1994, that hot line received more than 300 calls from men who were usually assaulted as children or teens, Nimrod said.

Eighty percent of the time their assailants were male; the female assailants are usually mothers or aunts, she said.

Aided by the staff and volunteers of rape crisis centers, Nimrod has begun conducting seminars on sexual harassment and assault at high schools and Israel Defense Force bases.

With the Ministry of Education, she is preparing a handbook on the topic for use by teachers. About 200 schools invited her staff to give seminars last year, but schools generally only call “if something happens,” said Nimrod.

Although there has been a seminar on the topic for women in the army’s basic training for the last five years, a pilot program about issues of sexual harassment and assault is about to be launched for both genders as part of the training course for officers.

“Until recently, crisis intervention was the emphasis but now we consider prevention just as important,” Nimrod said.

Funding, however, is a problem, she said. The association’s annual budget runs about $70,000, she said, nearly all of which is raised from non-Israeli foundations, including U.S.-Israel: Women to Women and the New Israel Fund.

The rape crisis centers themselves range from tiny Ra’anana’s $10,000 budget, which funds a single, one-third-time worker who fielded more than 500 calls last year, to those in Tel Aviv and Haifa, which have budgets of about $250,000 each.

About 6 percent of the money comes from Israel’s national government, and another 12 percent from the local municipalities, said Nimrod. In contrast, she said, similar American services receive, on average, about 65 percent of their funding from government sources.

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