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Two stories are, as the old clich goes, "the talk of the town," or rather, of the countries where I live and work: Italy and Israel.
The first involves former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, who wrote an article for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last Wednesday in which she asked her husband "to publicly excuse himself" after he flirted with two women, saying to one: "If I weren't already married, I would marry you right now," and to the other, "With you I would go anywhere."
The second is the ruling against former minister of justice Haim Ramon, handed down on the same day, in the case by "Heh," the woman who accused Ramon of "forcibly kissing her" at the Prime Minister's Office on July 12, 2006. While the two cases are undoubtedly different, they have been the dominant topics of heated discussion everywhere I've turned since.
Both incidents lead us to ponder these questions: What is the proper conduct by public figures? What behaviors are "acceptable" in relations between men and women? What acts, in fact, constitute sexual harassment?
And, last but not least: Are the public condemnations that the Israeli soldier and Mrs. Berlusconi achieved last week victories for women?
MY ANSWER is a flat no, which my American friends dismiss as "a reflection of my years spent in Europe." However, I assure them, while defending my views, it has less to do with "my time in Europe" than with what I deem as "good old womanly common sense."
I cannot shake the recurring image of a young queen (Miss Heh) and an old queen (Mrs. Berlusconi) seated at a table, each with venom in her eyes and vendetta in her heart.
Why did young "Heh," after being "forcibly kissed" by Ramon, proceed to give him her telephone number? Was she mad that he never called her back and did she, as a result, determine to seek revenge and destroy his political career?
In terms of Berlusconi's wife of 27 years, couldn't she have just told him at home that she was miffed by his comments, rather than publish a rebuke on the front page of the center-left newspaper that has lambasted her husband right, left and center for over a decade? Isn't she aware, after years of standing behind one of Italy's foremost business tycoons-turned- politicians, of what being the wife of a public figure entails?
Alas, even Veronica's mother was pulled into the fray. Interviewed in the Italian press, she declared that her daughter was "right to defend herself."
While I agree that it is right for a woman to defend her standing with her man, I find this a decisively private matter between them and not open to public debate.
But as I've been unwittingly thrown into this debate umpteen times over the course of the last few days, here's my take.
Perhaps Berlusconi, known as a gallant Italian man, crossed the line without knowing it, as he said last week. Surprisingly (not really), men aren't always as refined and subtle as women. However, Veronica forgot that marriage is fundamentally a very difficult and delicate endeavor, constantly negotiated, respectably, at home and not in public.
In terms of the 55-year-old Ramon, well, look - men who aren't sexual perverts usually only attempt to kiss a woman when they have been given signals that they may be able to do so successfully. Ramon, who has no previous sexual harassment precedents, was most likely titillated by flirtatious advances from "Heh," leading him to believe he could make the pass.
This begs the question, what's wrong with women? Chiara Di Segni Shilat, a consultant on social projects involving battered women, said it best: "The greatness of women is not only their patience, but also their ability to see things in perspective. The subtleness of women has always been giving men the benefit of the doubt, knowing when they aren't violated physically that they don't need courts or an article in the newspaper, but a strong or even indifferent no."
As women we, first and foremost, set the standard in how men interact with us. We set the limits. That said, I don't appreciate my evening dinner parties being devoted to women who have chosen to play either "the diva," as in the case of Veronica Lario, or "the victim," like the young Israeli soldier. At this start of the 21st century, men are already afraid enough of women as it is. I thus offer no thanks - no toda or grazie - to "Heh" or Veronica for adding to the already prevalent nuttiness and confusion that currently exists between the sexes.
Hmm... I guess there still is a weaker sex!
Amy K. Rosenthal is a writer for Italy's conservative daily Il Foglio, who lives in Rome and Jerusalem.
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