In what was a palpable atmosphere of outrage and combative determination, some 20,000 people piled into Kikar Rabin on Saturday night to protest the plea bargain reached Thursday between the state and President Moshe Katsav. Chanting "We will not accept this," and "We will not give up," the protestors cheered as speaker after speaker, mostly media personalities associated with women's rights, as well as several left-wing MKs, spoke about the "injustice" caused to the complainants in the Katsav sexual abuse case, after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz dropped rape charges against the president. The women's rights groups said they planned to file a petition on Sunday with the High Court of Justice to have the plea bargain annulled. There were no right-wing or religious Knesset members in attendance.
High Court petition targets Katsav deal
Women's groups, along with the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, called for justice and equality, and expressed anger at the dramatic development. Such was the surprise at the amount of people in attendance, that several women's groups vied to get their spokespeople on the stage to address the crowd, with at least one group not able to enter a speaker onto the roster. The turnout for the event was unexpectedly large, said Miriam Shler, one of the organizers of the rally.
Under banners including "Katsav is a rapist," and "Mazuz, resign," Sarit Arbel, Israel director of WIZO, the Women's International Zionist Organization, told The Jerusalem Post she was pleasantly surprised by how many people showed up at the demonstration.
"We did not expect so many people to show up here tonight, but this proves that there has been a serious breakdown of justice," she said.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor), the highest ranking Knesset member in attendance, called on the High Court of Justice to annul the plea bargain and allow the affair to go to trial.
"We demand a trial - a trial of truth," Tamir said to thunderous applause. Tamir called the plea bargain "immoral" and a "stain on Israel." She said that no one, no matter how prominent or wealthy, should be beyond the bounds of the law.
"That the Number One person in the State of Israel has been let off sends a shameful educational and cultural message to everyone in the younger generation," commented Rina Bar Tal, director of the Israel Women's Network (IWN). "It says that rapists and those guilty of sexual assault are allowed to do what they want without punishment."
Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, an outspoken women's rights advocate who has championed the cause of "the second Aleph," the woman who accused Katsav of rape, addressed the "three Alephs" - women who had brought complaints against Katsav - who, she said were in attendance at the rally Saturday night.
"You have been put through the seven rings of hell by a battery of the best lawyers and public relations professionals around. But we believe you. The investigators from the police believed you. The state prosecution believed you. Even the attorney-general believed you - then. And I say to you now, we believe you, and everybody in this crowd believes you. You are the true heroes of this entire struggle against sexual violence," she said, adding that she was happy to see so many men amongst the protestors. Yacimovich sarcastically thanked Mazuz for "helping make this case the turning point in the struggle against sex abuse."
The mixed crowd carried signs reading "You're not alone," "Katsav to jail" and "Sex offender in power." Some called on Mazuz to resign.
"We're here not only because of the issue of the president, but also to stand against the moral corruption of the Israeli government," said Avi Alfia, one of thousands of men who attended the rally. "I identify with the victims who are obliged to do things against their will. Not only women are victims of sexual abuse," he said.
Labor MK Nadia Hilou told The Jerusalem Post the turnout at the protest was "historic."
Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On was also in attendance.
"Today, this square is in honor of all women who are insisting on justice," journalist and former Knesset member Yael Dayan cried out to the crowd. "Women's values are decreased by decreasing the president's punishment."
Attorney Kinneret Barashi, the lawyer of "the second Aleph" who worked at Beit Hanassi, said it was "unthinkable that Mazuz would give the president such a deal. The case should have been transferred to the court."
Television host Merav Michaeli, speaking at the demonstration, thanked Mazuz for referring to Katsav as a "repeat sex offender" in an interview to Channel 2. Michaeli also said, though, that decisions such as Mazuz's were the reason many women refrain from reporting sexual assaults.
"We won't stop reporting [rape]," Michaeli vowed. "The crowd in this square proves there's a gap between Mazuz's reality and the public feeling," she said.
Aliza Amar, a native Israeli living in the United States, came back to Israel two years ago to break her 37 years of silence about being a victim of sexual abuse.
"We don't want women's rights to go back 100 years," Amar demanded. "We, as women, do not want to be hidden behind veils. We want to be heard."
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.â€¢