There wasn’t even a term in Hebrew for sexual harassment before Israel’s Knesset passed a law making it a criminal offense in 1999. Soon after the law went into effect, the case of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai went to trial, and his conviction in 2001 marked the first time in Israel that a political figure of major stature was convicted of sexual assault and harassment.
Experts say the case marked a change in the public’s and the court’s attitudes toward sexual crimes against women in Israel.
Now it’s President Moshe Katsav topping Israel’s headlines after police recommended he be charged with rape and sexual assault.
Katsav, who is at the tail end of a seven-year term, has repeatedly denied the accusations and has told Israeli media that political foes orchestrated the complaints against him.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is expected to decide whether to indict Katsav in the next few weeks. If found guilty, Katsav could face up to 16 years in prison.
“What this shows is that the law is applicable for everyone. That is an important message, that even if you are the president of the state you can be brought to court,” said Rachel Elior, who is chairwoman of the Hebrew University’s Department of Jewish Thought and an adviser to the university president on gender issues. “No one can think they can get away with it, because it’s a criminal offense.”
After years when sexual innuendo often crossed the line into harassment and even assault — especially in institutions such as government and the army — Israeli women seem to be speaking out more since the sexual harassment law went into effect.
The accuser no longer has to prove that force was used in the case of a rape accusation; for legal purposes, it’s sufficient to prove full sexual intercourse without consent.
The Katsav scandal was soon followed by news this summer that Justice Minister Haim Ramon kissed a young soldier without her consent; his trial started Tuesday. The two cases have put the issue of sexual harassment at the center of discussion in Israel.
The Israeli rumor mill long has been full of gossip about senior politicians and army officers having affairs, but none ever was charged with a serious sex crime.
Dana Dror, legal adviser to the Israel Women’s Network oversees a hotline where women can call for free legal advice.
In the months following the revelations against Katsav and Ramon, there has been a significant jump in the number of calls the hotline receives from women describing situations where they were sexually harassed, usually in the workplace, she said.
The image of women taking even the most powerful men to court has had an impact, Dror said.
“It shows a real social change, of which the law was the beginning. But it’s a long process,” she said.
Dror said recent comments by older male Israeli political figures, who have said they don’t think Ramon should be prosecuted for a kiss, seem outdated.
“I think men today see things differently and realize that they cannot speak or act as they once did. There is more awareness that a woman has her own dignity and cannot be treated as a sexual object,” she said.
But Avigail Mor isn’t convinced.
“There is an advancement in the way women view the issue but not nearly enough progress in the attitude of men,” said Mor, a psychologist who heads the Women’s Studies Department at Tel Chai College. She researches violence against women in Israel and public attitude toward it.
Mor said her research has not found a dramatic shift in social attitudes. Although the sexual harassment law has encouraged women to come forward in higher numbers, many of them find the process a harrowing one when they do reach the courts, she said.
“Many women have such terrible experiences with the legal system. Sometimes they’re accused of inviting the harassment and don’t have the case brought to trial,” she said.
“With Katsav or Ramon it’s a different case because here the legal system has an interest in visibility, in tackling the questions. But when it comes to private citizens it’s really still pretty terrible,” Mor said.
Ariella Friedman, a psychology professor specializing in women and gender and who formerly taught at Tel Aviv University, said the fact that the Katsav and Ramon cases were propelled by the system, not the lobbying of feminist organizations, is in itself a sign of dramatic change.
“I think that 10 years ago we would not have seen these cases come to public view. The women would not have had the support, and the consensus that this behavior is inappropriate would not have been there. Today the system is working to recognize that harassment is forbidden, that even if violence or force was not used it is still a serious matter,” she said.
Friedman said the new legal framework has changed the playing field.
“There’s a new attitude toward what’s appropriate, whereas in past, if you were the president or general, there was a sense that if such things happened it wasn’t a big deal,” she said.
Police have recommend to the attorney general that Katsav be tried on charges of raping two women, committing indecent acts by force, committing indecent acts without consent and sexual harassment.
Police say evidence also was found that Katsav listened to his staff’s telephone conversations. According to press reports, police also have said there’s evidence he committed fraud and breach of trust, harassed a witness and obstructed the course of justice, but the investigation continues and no recommendation on whether to indict on those charges has been made.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.