Knesset turns to sexual harassment

MKs address behavior at work and in the security forces.

The Knesset put the week’s burning diplomatic issues on hold for a few hours Tuesday to focus instead on raising awareness regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, with dozens of MKs participating in the first-ever workshop designed to prevent sexual harassment in the Knesset
A number of key committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Education Committee and the Immigration and Absorption Committee all held hearings on aspects of the widespread problem.
Twenty-five MKs, both male and female, participated in the afternoon workshop, which was initiated by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin with the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.
In addition to the MKs, opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni (Kadima), Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Israel Beiteinu) all participated in the workshop.
“Many workplaces fear holding this type of workshop because they are worried that people will say that the phenomenon occurs there,” said Rivlin during the workshop.
“We, in the Knesset, are not afraid. The Knesset’s role is to bring topics to the public agenda, especially this subject which is not addressed, despite laws requiring it to be.
“We as legislators and as employers must act to carry out the law, and signal to other workplaces that they should carry out similar workshops and thus uphold the law.” Livni said that such workshops were important, but not sufficient.
“It is important that we respect the body of every person and explain to children what the boundaries are so that their adult relationships will be appropriate,” she added.
Aharonovitch confirmed that there had been a rise in complaints to police concerning sexual harassment, as awareness of the problem increases. Complainants, he said, were now less afraid of putting their claims on record.
Aharonovitch expressed his disappointment, however, that of 900 sexual harassment files that were opened last year, only 37 ever reached the courtroom.
Earlier Tuesday, the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of the Woman joined up with the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to examine the level of sexual harassment in the army and other security forces.
Among the data shared with the committee were figures on the number of sexual harassment complaints lodged by the IDF, the Israel Police and the Prisons Service.
According to Brig.-Gen. Galia Kalifi-Amir, adviser to the chief of General Staff on women’s issues, during 2009 there were 445 reports of sexual harassment in the army. Forty-eight percent of the complaints lodged were related to physical harassment, 28% to verbal and 13% concerned visual harassment or “peeking” of a sexual nature.
Out of the 445 reports, roughly half (47%) were investigated by the central command and the rest were looked into by immediate unit command.
In addition to the reports of sexual harassment within the army ranks, some 109 women reported sexual incidents from civilians, including 50 rapes or attempted rapes.
“The army carries out integral and continual activities to raise awareness and deal with these incidents,” Kalifi-Amir told the committee.
Hannah Keller of the Internal Security Ministry shocked the committee by declaring that in 2009 only nine complaints of sexual harassment had been received by the Israel Police, with only three considered grave. In the Prisons Service, the there were only three complaints of sexual harassment.
“There seems to be a large disparity between the number of sexual harassment reports being lodged and the actual number of cases that surely take place each year,” commented MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of the Woman.
“We need to make sure that such issues are treated properly so that victims are encouraged to come forward,” she continued.
“It is important to find an alternative way for women to lodge complaints so they do not feel prevented both psychologically and socially from coming forward.” MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima), chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, added: “[the IDF] does have the capability to deal with this phenomenon but it is important that female soldiers are given the opportunity to call an anonymous hotline to report on incidents of this nature.
“It is also important that we find a suitable punishment so that the message is clear: no one has the right to sexually harass soldiers,” he said.
“In a closed organization, the ability of the IDF to oversee such incidents should be much more effective,” said MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who was one of eight lawmakers from across the political spectrum that joined the debate. “One-third of those who report sexual harassment crimes chose not to pursue it and we need to find a better instrument to protect them and encourage them to seek justice.”
MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) added: “I am disturbed by the numbers from the Israel Police and the IPS [Israel Prisons Service], it is not possible that these reflect the numbers in reality. It is important to make sure that those who lodge complaints know that they will not be hurt or punished for making these claims.”