Awareness of Sexual Harassment Moves Ahead in Israel

Last year a new immigrant from the States was completing an internship at one of Tel Aviv’s largest law firms. One evening the chief partner squeezed her behind and said. “Do you know what I love most about this country? I can do this and get away with it.” Unfortunately, many Israelis, including the young lawyer in this story, find this true. Sexual harassment in the Israeli workplace is nothing new, but learning how to deal with it effectively is taking the country some time.

“The awareness of sexual harassment is growing all the time, but we need much more,” said Rachel Benzimen, Legal Advocate for the Israel Women’s Network (an organization which works to protect and advance the rights of women in Israel). “Women need to believe more in themselves.”

This, however, is not so easy to do in a society which generally ignores women’s complaints and usually sides with the man in the position of power.

“Women don’t speak out for a number of reasons,” Benzimen said. “They are afraid to come out because of what society will say. Many are vulnerable because they are single parents and need the income, or they are simply afraid to lose their jobs.”

The Equal Opportunities Employment law against discrimination in the workplace, which includes a clause on sexual harassment, was passed in 1988. Since then, no sexual harassment cases have been settled in court. There are a number of cases that were settled out of court, but many of them resulted in the resignation of the complainant due to embarrassment and the creation of an uncomfortable situation.

“Amendments need to be made to make the law more user friendly,” said Miriam Itharow of the Israel Women’s Network, which, together with MK Yael Dayan, is lobbying in the Knes set for improvements. Specifically, they want to extend the six month statute of limitations and expand the law to include people in services such as law, psychology, and medicine, where the professional is in a position of power over the client. The new legislation hopes to make sexual harassment in the service sector a civil offense, allowing the victim to claim damages.

Last year in an unprecedented case. Dr. Ellie Falach, a psychologist, was convicted of having sex with his female patients as part of their treatment. His appeal was not accepted and he is spending four years in jail. Successful cases like these are exactly what women need to come forward, Benzimen said.

The legislation has met some opposition from people who are worried that the sexual harassment issue will become obtrusive to the basic friendliness of Israeli culture, leading to “Americanization” of the issue. But Dayan is quick to quell these fears. “Israel is a friendly, informal society and we don’t want to stop this. People should be allowed to say ‘honey’ or engage in innocent courting at work. I’m talking about situations where women make their case clear and are threatened with the loss of their job.”

What about reverse sexual harassment? The legislation is worded in both gender’s. But as of yet no men have come forward. Nili Nimiod, from the Red Crisis Woman’s Center in Tel Aviv, gives two reasons: women aren’t in power positions as much; and sexual advances are less threatening to men.

But the laws are useless if women are afraid to come forward. According to Dayan. education is needed now more than legislation. Women don’t feel safe enough to complain. The Israel Women’s Network is trying to change this by implementing anonymous hotlines for people on the receiving end of sexual harassment. The hotline is open on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and slowly the number of calls are increasing. In 1994 the center received almost 200 calls, up from 64 calls in 1993. “There is not suddenly more sexual harassment, women just have more awareness,” Itharow said. The center also produces literature and works to educate the police, army, and employers.

“We need employers to feel it’s their problem. At this time there are no (sexual harassment] policies in Israeli companies.” Benzimen feels this will come only if employees are shaken into action. “We need some kind of Clarence Thomas procedure to bring it into the news.”

One woman is trying to shake employers into action offering workshops on sexual harassment. Rocky Feldsman, an immigrant from the US, started offering her programs almost two years ago and has given workshops in Israel for 2000 people. Her clients include the Police, The Jewish Agency, the Israeli Management Institute (a government consulting agency) and universities, to name a few. Before moving to Israel, she gave the same workshops in the US, and programs like hers are in use in 54% of US companies. Why then, in Israel, have no private companies agreed yet to take it? “They are scared to take it,” Feldsman said. “They admit there’s sexual harassment but are to scared to do anything about it. Israeli society rarely works on a preventive outlook. They work very short term and are not adept at seeing that if you have a happy labor force, you will be more productive and everyone gets more money.”

Still, the lack of private companies participating in the workshop remains a disappointment to Feldsman. “The idea of the workshop is to build a framework enabling the company to receive sexual harassment complaints and deal with them and the harasser. This is far more effective that the victim going to the police,” Feldsman said.

The Israeli definition of harassment refers to the harassment of an employee by a manager. It hasn’t yet adopted the broader definition of the US, where harassment occurs between colleagues. According to Feldsman, the management workshop takes a very long time because the whole idea is so new. “The idea that workers don’t take such behavior as a compliment is alien to the men here. Awareness is in it’s infant stages.”