Sexual harassment taints campus life

We would like to imagine that the apparent current lackadaisical attitude on the part of Israeli universities could be transformed into pioneering arrangements that would liberate women academics.

sexual harassment 88 (photo credit: )
sexual harassment 88
(photo credit: )
Odds are Eyal Ben-Ari will never be charged, much less convicted, with outright sexual assault. Ben-Ari is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Sociology and Anthropology professor who was arrested after an anonymous letter claimed that he serially extorted sex from female doctoral candidates. Police have barred him from campus for 30 days. Yet so far they have managed to convince only three students to testify against him and these corroborated allegations are of sexual harassment, not rape and assault as the unsigned letter charges. To be sure, Ben-Ari is hardly the only Hebrew University faculty member to be the subject of such continual innuendo. And the rumor mill has also been generating allegations at other Israeli institutions of higher learning. The higher women students climb on the academic ladder, the more they can be at the mercy of their personal dissertation advisers. Prof. Orit Kamir, a specialist in feminist jurisprudence who drafted a sexual harassment bill that was adopted into law by the Knesset a decade ago, explains that women graduate students "fall into inbuilt structural traps," which sometimes render them as timid as battered wives. Identifying advisers willing to take time away from their own research, writing and teaching is never easy. So graduate students who have invested years of hard work find themselves dependent on the goodwill of a lone academic mentor theoretically capable of sabotaging their professional futures. For instance, professors can dissuade colleagues from taking "rebellious" students under their wings, prevent grants from coming their way, and effectively thwart publication or participation in international conferences, and foil appointments or job offers. Such destructive powers are underscored by the travails of women in Israeli academia. The Hebrew University's entire Committee on Gender Issues resigned last week to protest institutional discrimination, evident in the fact that annually half of PhD graduates are women, yet they reportedly account for only 11% of recent senior faculty appointments. The persistent buzz on campus intensifies the suspicion that where there is so much smoke, there must be at least some fire. The situation in Israel's halls of academe isn't unlike what was whispered for decades in the IDF about the pressure for sexual favors imposed by officers on young women recruits. Over time a norm of exploitation and degradation was uncovered. Stricter enforcement of rules has by no means rooted out all abuse of authority, but it has reduced it considerably and empowered women soldiers to stand up for their rights and complain. THE TIME has come for female graduate students, part of our intellectual elite and therefore people presumed to be aware and relatively self-assured, to assert themselves. The trouble is that, as things stand, professor-protégé relations are entirely unregulated on Israeli campuses. As distinct from the situation in many foreign universities, there aren't even explicit rules here that prohibit sexual relations between teacher and student. Legal restrictions obviously constitute no actual barrier to untoward demands, but they at least put both predator and victim on notice that rights are being infringed upon. This newspaper therefore fully supports the initiative of MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and 22 women's rights groups who have called upon the education minister to champion legal protection for women students. Women activists are justified in maintaining that by not explicitly forbidding dubious relations, higher education institutions are indirectly complicit in the sexual exploitation of female students. Next, creative - indeed innovative - thinking to free doctoral candidates of dependency on a single adviser is in order. Ways could be devised to involve more than one person of authority in essentially making or breaking a young woman's academic career. We would like to imagine that the apparent current lackadaisical attitude on the part of Israeli universities could be transformed into pioneering arrangements that would liberate women academics. Ben-Ari is innocent until proven guilty. But no matter the legal outcome of the his case, it may turn into a blessing in disguise - if for no other reason than to have illuminated what was hitherto a dark reality. "Sunlight," as US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "is the best disinfectant."