Sexual harassment is still prevalent in the IDF

Victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence must know and trust that we are here to support them.

Rape victim (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Rape victim
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Just last week the media carried the following news item: a senior IDF officer, who was convicted of molesting three female soldiers, was sentenced to only 40 days of community service. He would not have to serve any time in prison and his rank was only reduced to Major, so that he could hold on to his high pension.
It is outrageous that a commanding officer who sexually assaulted three female soldiers who were under his command was given such a light sentence.
This could cause serious damage to the ongoing struggle for gender equality and to efforts to create an atmosphere in the IDF that is devoid of sexual violence and harassment.
I turned to IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz and requested that he urgently take the necessary steps to make sure that these kinds of actions cease to occur in the IDF and that they will not be treated as legitimate occurrences by any military personnel.
Specifically, I requested that military courts begin recognizing the severity of sexual assault and sexual harassment of female soldiers, and that this recognition be reflected in their legal decisions.
But even if justice is served with this particular officer, this scenario is all too common and this widespread phenomenon is unfortunately all too common in Israeli society. Women are all too often sexually exploited, especially women who are in positions or jobs which make it hard for them to stand up for themselves.
For example, young female soldiers and policewomen who are subordinate to male commanding officers, or women seeking assistance from municipal or other public employees, and even young women who admire rich and famous music stars who are decades older than they are, fall victim to systematic sexual exploitation.
The current ongoing trial in the case of Major-General Nissim Shaham, the former Jerusalem district police commander, who is accused of sexually harassing and molesting a number of junior policewomen, is another example of the same phenomenon.
In the midst of his interrogation, Shaham stated that sexual relations between police officers and their subordinates were extremely common.
Although this sounds like an excuse made by someone who’s trying to get away with something, it is important to understand the significance of this statement.
What this means is that the Israel Police and the IDF have not yet begun enforcing relatively new laws that were lobbied for and passed by Israeli citizens.
Cases like these were my impetus for initiating the law that passed a few weeks ago in its final reading, which holds civil servants responsible for sexually harassing women over whom they have authority. This law, like other feminist laws, had many supporters, but also many vehement detractors.
Opponents love to claim that this law is a romance killer, and that feminists are trying to get rid of courtship.
But the truth is that there is absolutely nothing romantic about sexual harassment, and it’s not considered courtship if one of the sides is hurt or harassed and if the victim has to suffer from serious emotional distress for years after the event.
Israeli women should not – and are no longer willing to – feel threatened in their workplace or anywhere else.
It’s important to mention in this context that passing laws in the Knesset and holding people responsible for their actions in the courthouse are an important step in the fight against sexual harassment and sexual violence, but they are not the be-all and end-all. Some types of behavior might not be technically illegal, but they still should never be considered acceptable behavior and we should be shocked when we hear about them happening.
Sexual exploitation, which is based on inequality, hierarchy and unfair power relationships, is one such behavior that we must denounce – not only in the courts or with legislation, but in the Israeli education system and in the media. We must show by example that Israeli society is dealing with all actions on the wide spectrum of sexual exploitation.
And equally important: victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence must know and trust that we are here to support them.
In light of the most recent cases in which we dismally failed to protect young women in the army, police, on the street, in markets and at work, I for one promise that I will continue fighting this uphill battle until we are all properly protected.
The author is a Knesset Member for Meretz.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.