On an angle: Power and truth

Legislation has redefined rape and sexual harassment as an affront to women’s dignity, rather than to their chastity.

Demonstration 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Demonstration 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
HER EYES DOWNCAST, SHE opens the door to the bathroom stall at the mall, and stands aside, motioning to enter and use the toilet she has just spotlessly cleaned.
Diminutive, pretty and pale, her dyed-blond hair pinned back, wearing a drab, manpower company-issue blue uniform, she seems surprised that anyone even speaks to her. Her name, she answers in a low voice, is Irina.
She looks away and begins to furiously wipe the sink counters and polish the mirrors Did she hear the news about the former president, Moshe Katsav? Yes, she answers quietly, wiping and polishing even more furiously.
What does she think about it? She looks around the public bathroom.
Maybe she’s afraid that this is an inspection, and she will be punished if she wastes time in idle conversation. Maybe she wonders if it’s a trick. Maybe she doesn’t believe that anyone cares about what she thinks. Maybe she thinks I’m just weird.
Asked again, she answers, her Russian accent clearer now, “It’s good.”
And after a few seconds she adds, “Because if you can complain about the president doing these bad things, than you can complain about someone else, too.”
A few more seconds and she says, “Someone else… like my boss.”
Is her boss abusing her? She breathes deeply. “Yes. But he’s the boss, so what can I do about it?” You can complain, I tell her. There are laws in Israel that are meant to protect her and her dignity. The women who worked for Katsav didn’t have to take it; she doesn’t have to, either. It isn’t easy, but the law is on her side.
More forcefully now, she asks, “How do you make a complaint?” Volunteers from the rape crisis center have plastered info-stickers on the doors to the all the stalls. Irina wipes those doors several times a day, but seems to have been unable to notice the stickers. Now, she copies down the number on a page ripped from my reporter’s notebook.
She folds it carefully and puts it in her pocket.
Would she like to take my phone number, too? “No,” she says and resumes wiping the counters and cleaning the stalls. “Not yet.”
ON DECEMBER 30, A PANEL OF three judges convicted Israel’s eighth president, Moshe Katsav, of rape, sexual harassment, commission of an indecent act while using force, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice. The judges accepted the complainants’ testimony fully, and referred to Katsav as a bully, liar and serial sexual predator.
Like many Israelis, men and women, I took in the news with a confusing mixture of shame, satisfaction, relief, pride and hope. I am deeply ashamed of my country.
Even as accustomed as we are to lowly leaders, knowing that a panel of judges views our former president as a bald-faced predatory liar, who attempted to obstruct justice, takes us to a new low.
It is shameful to realize that a man who routinely raped, attacked and harassed women was able to progress meteorically from development town mayor, to member of Knesset, to minister to president. Katsav whirred through the political corridors propelled by the petty politics of powerful men, who, it seems, regarded his aggression little more than a minor aberration.
That’s not unique to Israel, of course. But that provides little comfort. It is grimly satisfying to watch the downfall of a man who is so supremely arrogant that he turned down a plea bargain that would have involved confessing to much lesser crimes. Did Katsav really think that the judges would think like he does – that women’s bodies, rights and dignity are of no consequence? Was he really so blinded by his own political success that, as King David, the psalmist, warns, “He dug a pit, hollowed it out, and fell into the ditch that he made” (Psalms 7: 16).
I feel grim satisfaction in knowing that Katsav will now take his place at the head of the inglorious, ignoble parade of local politicians who have abused their power, whether it was over the women who worked for them or over the public assets that were entrusted to them.
It’s a long parade. Yitzhak Mordechai, former general and defense minister and a serious contender for prime minister, was forced to resign from government in 2001, after he was convicted of sexual assault against several women who had worked for him. Aryeh Deri served a three-year jail sentence after he was convicted in 2000 of taking bribes while serving as Interior minister. Justice minister Haim Ramon was found guilty in 2007 of kissing a female soldier against her will. Finance minister Avraham Hirchson was convicted in 2008 of embezzling 1.8 million shekels ($500,000) from the National Workers Organization.
Former labor and welfare minister Shlomo Benizri was sent to jail – on the same day that Katsav’s trial began - for four years for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Uri Bar-Lev, a major general in the police force and top contender for the job of chief of the Israel Police, recently dropped out of the running after being accused of sexual assault.
And let’s not forget Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is likely to be indicted on a host of serious charges, including bribery, fraud in aggravated circumstances, breach of trust by a public official, obstruction of justice, harassing a witness and money-laundering.
And, winding up the marching band, none other than former prime minister Ehud Olmert, on trial for multiple corruption charges including fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records, receiving illicit benefits and tax evasion.
IAM RELIEVED THAT WE WILL NO longer have to watch these men as they parade in and out of courtrooms, accusing the press, the Ashkenazi political elite, the “overzealous” prosecution, the women – that is, everyone but themselves. And I am relieved that we will no longer have to watch Katsav’s wife, Gila, trying to perfect her stand-by-your-man role, even if she looks as though she might burst into tears at any moment.
I am proud of the women who took the chance and spoke truth to lecherous power. I am inspired by their courage, their integrity, their ability to withstand the public scrutiny and the defense lawyers’ tactics.
Maybe they can be an inspiration to us all, empowering more of us to speak truth to power and injustice, wherever they occur.
I am proud that our justice system provided recourse for at least some of the women that Katsav abused. Apanel of judges – two Jewish women and an Arab man – believed those women and convicted the president.
I am proud that Israel has a strong feminist movement that has brought a gendered discourse into the public arena. Over the past two decades, the women and men in this movement have produced legislation that has redefined rape and sexual harassment as an affront to women’s dignity, rather than to their chastity. Progressive and humane, these laws make it clear that women’s bodies are not the property of men.
It is these laws that enable women – whether they work for the president or clean public bathrooms – to say no.
The real feminist struggle is a struggle for equality for all; it’s not a fight against men but a call to all men and women to join together in trying to create a better, more equal world and to dismantle perverted power structures based on gender, rank, ethnicity or wealth.
And so, finally, I am cautiously hopeful.
Israeli society still has a long way to go towards social equality, and laws and trials don’t change social norms and behaviors. But it’s a start.
I don’t know if Irina will call the rape crisis center. I don’t know how long she will continue to be abused. I’ve gone back to that bathroom several times, but never found her.
She probably needs the paltry salary she gets, and a complaint would be risky. But at least, almost imperceptibly, for a brief moment, she thought of herself with dignity.