Equality Soldiers on in Israel

Protecting women from sex slavery and harassment

In a country usually fixated on survival, people in Israel this spring were busy speculating about sex. If, when and how, they wanted to know, did a Cabinet minister fondle subordinates and young job seekers? Would he be made to pay for it? They were jolted out of complacency to hear that Amnesty International had targeted Israel as a major center where thousands of women are lured into the country to find themselves imprisoned as sex slaves.

Sexual exploitation in Israel is not new. What is news is that the seamy underside of sex revealed itself this year to bombard Israeli headlines and preoccupy the public.

One aspect, sexual harassment, exemplifies the inroads that strong legislation can make in tackling an endemic problem. On another side, this summer saw an effort to create adequate laws to stop the lucrative scourge of trafficking in women, which has flourished in the underworld of the Holy Land.

For decades, sexual exploitation of women in the military, the workplace, the political arena and indeed in any public or private forum was viewed as a fact of life. Israeli women knew that they could expect to be accosted by their bosses, that army jeeps were dangerous venues, that professors had wide license to make intrusive remarks, that hospital nurses were fair game for anybody wearing a white coat.

How did they cope? In the vast majority of cases by silence, by shame, by keeping a low profile, and sometimes by playing the very game they had been unwillingly drafted into. One mature Jerusalem attorney recalls that when she was a young lawyer a senior jurist repeatedly put his hand on her thigh. Complaining seemed out of the question: “What could I do?” asks the woman who until today is too nervous about the man’s power to name him. “I was just a nobody, and he was a leader of the profession.”

The sweeping 1998 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law is considered the most progressive legislation of its kind in the world. Harassment is now a crime bringing with it imprisonment, fines and punitive compensation in addition to allowing parallel civil remedies for damages. Sexual harassment is defined in the widest terms: sexual contact, repeated unwanted sexual speech, propositions or innuendo, sexual blackmail, or debasing reference to someone’s gender. Consent is no defense if the harasser is in a position of direct authority over the victim or when minors or patients are involved.

Opponents of the bill predicted the new law would open the floodgates, but in fact 1999 saw only 27 criminal files opened in the civil service, following 23 military indictments in 1998.

Not everybody takes the law seriously. In March a young female employee filed a police complaint against veteran army general and current government minister Yitzhak Mordechai. His reply—”I don’t deal with nonsense!”— was a telling throwback to the old Israeli attitude. By the next week Mordechai had taken a leave of absence. When the police recommended indictment he resigned from the Knesset, which stripped him of parliamentary immunity. He is now awaiting trial on charges of committing an indecent act using force and sexual harassment.

How did this sea change come about? Starting with the Women’s Rights Law of 1988, Israel has enacted a string of legislation promoting equality. These laws include the 1993 law appointing women to the boards of directors of government corporations, a 1995 affirmative action amendment to the Civil Service Law, and in 2000 a change in the Military Service Law stipulating, albeit with some qualifications, access to equal tasks for both men and women in the army. An amendment this year to the original Women’s Rights Law contains a broad declaration of a woman’s equal rights in all areas of work and social welfare and over her body “except as prohibited by law” (e.g. abortion).

But according to sociology professor Dafna Izraeli, resources are not allocated for enforcement, so there is very little implementation of legislative mandates. “Anything can pass as long as it doesn’t cost money,” says Izraeli. Furthermore, the grassroots agencies charged with translating the law into reality may be reluctant to act when their own norms lag behind the legal prescriptive. Yet, continues Izraeli, at least the laws have empowered women to be more assertive in making their claims; a supportive atmosphere in the Labor and Supreme courts makes their probability of success greater.

In a landmark 1999 decision the Supreme Court blocked promotion of a general accused of having sexual relations with a 19-year-old recruit while he was commander of her base. This spring alone complaints by several court clerks against a judge in Tiberias caused him to take a leave of absence. Police considered charges against the Israeli manager of Continental Airlines for harassment. When a regional head of the country’s largest health fund was arrested for investigation into harassment, the case took a tragic turn; the man committed suicide in police custody.

The harassment law subjects employers, including the army and civil service, to penalties as well, mandating maintaining an environment discouraging this behavior, posting the law and appointing an individual as the address for complaints.

But the lower down on the socio-economic scale one goes, the less likely that legal remedies will be pursued. There are ethnic differences as well. Arab or ultra-Orthodox women know that making an accusation may cause repercussions within their own insular communities. Jerusalem criminologist Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian asserts that complaining Arab women put their lives on the line. An Orthodox woman who complains may lessen her own children’s prospects for marriage.

Even worse off are new immigrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union, so desperate for work that they are likely to cling to their jobs no matter how much harassment they face. Bar Ilan University sociologist Larissa Remennick dismisses the laws as irrelevant to them. Lower still are the thousands of foreign workers whose continued stay in the country is at the absolute discretion of their employers. And at the very bottom are the foreign workers without valid permits who have no rights under the legal system except the right to be deported at their own expense.

This latter group bears the brunt of another social ill recently blown open in Israel: trafficking in women. An unknown number of women—perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands— are lured into the country annually with promise of employment only to find themselves forced into prostitution.

When the Israel Women’s Network published its comprehensive report on trafficking in women in 1997, its allegations made few waves except on women’s web sites and listserves. Only when Amnesty International reiterated the findings this May did the authorities in Israel snap to attention.

Amnesty charges that hundreds of young women are bought and sold for large sums of money by organized crime, that they are held in conditions of debt bondage, locked in apartments, brothels or massage parlors. In addition to being forced to work as prostitutes, many are beaten or raped by their captors. Their passports are often confiscated. Since they are illegal aliens, their only remedy is to be deported back to their home countries, where they and their families risk retaliation by the criminal elements which procured them. Israel, however, lacks any asylum procedure, and indeed the victims themselves are “effectively treated as criminals.” When police raid the brothels, the women are “detained” in prison for long periods while waiting for deportation. Sometimes their incarceration is prolonged to force them to testify in criminal cases— testimony that can boomerang into further violence against them. But the women are given no choice. Amnesty holds the Israeli government responsible as having “failed to take adequate measures to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish human rights abuses committed against trafficked women.”

This spring there was a conference on trafficking in Tel Aviv sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. A Jerusalem protest rally in June was shown on national TV and the press printed pictures of a demonstrator who lay symbolically bound and blindfolded upon the sidewalk. Suddenly a spate of newspaper articles covered escaped sex slaves whose complaints have resulted in arrest of their captors. In the past three years only 136 such files had gone to trial.

Whereas pimping and solicitation are crimes in Israel, prostitution per se is not illegal. Neither was trafficking in human beings or slavery. But since the Amnesty report, a bill that had been lingering in Knesset committee for years was revived. In July it passed the Knesset to become part of the penal code, imposing a penalty of up to 16 years imprisonment for anyone who traffics in women. Knesset member Yael Dayan also initiated provisions, which passed, that stipulate a 10-year sentence for forcing any individual to leave her country for the purposes of prostitution, and that stiffen penalties for those convicted of exploiting juveniles under 14.

Esther Sivan, Legal Adviser of the Israel Women’s Network, calls the law a very significant victory, but cautions that only time will tell if the statute will change the police’s heretofore laissez-faire attitude and step up prosecutions.

Trafficking in women is sexual harassment in its most extreme form. But if this is the worst of times, the signal is that better may be coming. The headlines, the courts and the actions of the Knesset imply an awakening to the injustices rampant against women, and signal mainstream interest in forcing change.

Helen Scliary Motroan American writer and attorney living in Israel and New York, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and fiction editor of WIN Internet magazine.