Monday, 14 July 2008

For the times they are a-changin'

" Come senators, congressmen…Please heed the call/ There's a battle
outside/ And it is ragin'./ It'll soon shake your windows/ And rattle your walls/ For the times they are a-changin'" Bob Dylan

Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, is about to be indicted on charges of rape and sexual assault as well as fraud, illegal wiretapping, bribery and obstruction of justice. That’s quite an impressive charge list against someone who is supposed to be the symbolic moral beacon of the state. His indictment follows that of Justice Minister, Haim Ramon who was recently convicted of forcing a French kiss on a 21-year-old female soldier. Some will remember how, in March 2001, former Israeli defence minister, Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted of sexually assaulting and harassing two women. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence. There are plenty of other such case studies in Israel currently. And it makes for rather depressing reading.

So what does all this tell us about Israel? Does it, for example, highlight the prowess of Israeli men in the bedroom? Does it suggest that the country is suffering an acute breakdown in morality? Is this a problem that has beset Israel just recently?
The charges against these high-profile politicians reflect an altogether different problem in Israel. As Bob Dylan succinctly put it: the times they are a-changing. And, clearly, some of the old guards are having difficulties keeping up with the times.

"Israelis are starting to understand that nobody, no matter how powerful, is immune from punishment for sexual harassment," says law professor Orit Kamir of the Hebrew University. Kamir helped draft the 1998 legislation making sexual harassment a criminal offence. The legislation means that offenders can face up to four years imprisonment, making it the world's most far-reaching sexual harassment law to date. Even in the United States, sexual harassment charges are generally pursued in civil rather than criminal courts. "But this is a learning process that will require repetitive lessons," warns Kamir. Evidently, some are slow learners.

Many Israelis who have done military service will remember their senior officer, often a married man, bragging about his sexual exploits with his secretary, ordinarily a woman no older than 19. It was as common as eating bamba. And just as easy to obtain.

I did my military service in the airforce. At the time, I was dating a woman who held a coveted post in the same military base. She had a commander whom she despised. He used to make sexual innuendoes and pinch her bottom. He thought it was funny and flirtatious; she thought it was demeaning and embarrassing. Why not make a formal complaint, I once asked her. "You kidding?" she rebutted, "as soon as he hears of it, he will get rid of me and I will lose this job". There were also subtle threats of kitchen duties or weekend shifts for anyone ‘giving him any nonsense’. And so, for two years she endured his sexist remarks and offensive pinching. But hey, times they are a-changing.

And now, Israeli politicians, army commanders, business executives, teachers and other men in authority who considered sexual favours by female subordinates as an undisputed right, will need to think again. Because they will be held accountable for their words and deeds. Yes, even you, Mr President.

Alas, there is still a long way to go. According to psychologist Avigail Moor, head of the Women's Studies Program at Tel-Hai College in Israel, over the last two years some 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.

Nine years after it was criminalised in Israel, sexual harassment is still rampant in offices, universities and military institutions. But now the perpetrators can expect the law to catch up with them; shake their windows and rattle their walls. For the times they are a-changin'

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