To combat increasingly brazen cases of sexual harassment against female Hebrew University students by young Arabs living near their French Hill dormitories, two student organizations are collaborating to offer self-defense and empowerment courses.
The initiative, spearheaded by the university-affiliated Yerushalmiot (Women of Jerusalem) and Hitorerut (Awakening on Campus), was created following a series complaints by Arab and Jewish female students of unwanted and crude advances by young Palestinian men.
“On a daily basis both Palestinian and Jewish women are being harassed by these young Arab [residents] living near the French Hill neighborhood,” said Eitan Mamrud, chairman of Hitorerut. “It’s a major issue, and while I don’t know the number of complaints, it’s just getting worse, so we want to provide a holistic solution.”
Mamrud said the majority of incidents had occurred at night, while the students were walking from campus to the dormitories, 10-15 minutes away.
“It can be a small thing, like a car following them and [its occupants] shouting crude comments to scare them, or having their breasts groped,” he said. “It’s not safe and it’s not supposed to be like this. It’s wrong.”
To empower the women, Mamrud said his organization had joined forces with Yerushalmiot to face the problem head-on by setting up two classes to address the students’ concerns and teach them how to respond.
The first session, which took place Sunday on campus, was primarily theoretical and discussed different types of aggression.
The second class, on Monday, will instruct women how to physically defend themselves.
Mamrud said if the classes are successful, he hopes to hold sessions more frequently throughout the year.
“This provides them with tools that go beyond French Hill to help make them safe and strong,” he said.
Indeed, Einav Cahaner, a 26-year-old freshman who attended the first class with roughly 30 other women, said that although she doesn’t live in the dormitories she hopes to use the training to stay safe anywhere.
“I heard about people who are afraid to go by themselves to French Hill, and I share the same fears living in the center of the city,” she said Tuesday.
While Cahaner said she did not know any women who had been physically attacked, she has heard about several frightening encounters from Jewish and Arab students accosted by young Palestinian men living near the dorms.
“I heard about this one girl who was walking down the street near there, and someone came up to her and asked a question and kept following her,” she said. “When she asked him to leave he refused, and even though he didn’t attack her it was still very scary.”
Cahaner said the fear engendered by the stories led her to feel the need to limit her movements, which has negatively affected her quality of life.
“In Israel you grow up thinking you can safely go anywhere at any time, and suddenly there are people who make you scared to walk somewhere because you know something bad might happen,” she said.
At the initial class, Cahaner said self-defense experts from El Halev, which specifically trains women, addressed the participants’ collective concerns.
“Many of the girls said they are afraid to walk to the dorms but are scared to do something about it,” she said. “They talked to us about why we should protect ourselves and not be afraid.”
Cahaner said the initial discussion focused on self-empowerment and then delineated various threatening scenarios, as well as proactive measures the women can take to protect themselves.
“They talked to us about ‘doing,’ and I really agree with that,” she said. “They said we can’t just sit and wait for these things to happen, but [need to] protect ourselves. That’s why the program is so great, because it gives us the power to know we can do something and teaches us how to do it.”
While Cahaner conceded that the self-defense course was not a “perfect solution,” she said it was an invaluable tool to harness confidence.
“It’s a beginning to help women believe in themselves,” she said.
Lili Pergamenikov, head of Yerushalmiot, said she lived in French Hill during her first year as a student but decided to move to Rehavia because she was uncomfortable walking near Arab neighborhoods, particularly at night.
“When you get near Palestinian areas, a lot of cars pull up next to you and people proposition you,” she said. “But girls have talked about much more serious things, like people stopping them, touching them and holding them.”
According to Pergamenikov, who is also taking the courses, the young Arabs have become markedly more aggressive during the past year, going so far as to throw rocks at the students and steal their phones.
“Things have gotten more severe, so the whole idea of the program is to try to take self-control back,” she said.
“We try to make women feel like they are powerful and can do anything they put their minds to.”
Pergamenikov emphasized that the program was in no way political.
“This is not just Jews versus Arabs,” she said. “The issue is that we have men of various ages who think they can do whatever they like. It’s not about the Right or Left. It’s much bigger than that.”
Asked to comment on the situation, national police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that while police were actively patrolling and making arrests in the Arab community of Isawiya, located near the university, the French Hill dormitories were overseen by private security.
Still, he said any cases of sexual abuse should be reported right away to police.
“If we get a report we will respond immediately,” he said.