New Israel law provides sexual harassment protection

JERUSALEM — Advocates for women's rights have high hopes for a groundbreaking new law against sexual harassment, which went into effect on Rosh Hashanah.

At a special session Na'amat Women organized last month to examine the implications of the new law, the organization's legal adviser, Etti Pilpel, hailed the legislation as "a tool by which women can preserve their dignity" and "a step in the long process of changing the norms of Israeli society to those in which a refusal to a proposition is taken at face value."

While the law prohibits sexual harassment in all settings and by all sexes, its greatest impact is expected to be on women in the workplace who suffer from suggestive remarks, unwanted physical contact, or threats of punishment if they do not respond positively to sexual advances.

Attorney Michal Bar-On, who is responsible for workplace issues at Na'amat, says that the law will strengthen the ability of women in these situations to take action, since it squarely places the responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment on their employers.

The law spells out specific steps that a company must take within a prescribed timetable whenever a complaint of sexual harassment is made. If such steps are not taken, the company is considered as guilty of harassment as the individual accused of committing the action.

"Until now, there were some public institutions that have had a process in place for dealing with complaints, but the business and private sector chose to ignore them," Bar-On said.

She also noted that the new law, for the first time, makes the act of sexual harassment a crime and specifically spells out the type of behavior that is considered sexual harassment. The new law also requires employers to inform and educate their employees as to the new code of behavior expected of them. Every company must post government-suggested guidelines in a visible spot and is encouraged to hold seminars and training sessions on the subject.

Na'amat chairwoman Hedva Almog said that her organization would be meeting with employers and workers committees to explain and discuss the new law. Na'amat, the women's arm of Israel's trade union Histadrut, has developed educational materials for that purpose.

Despite the general atmosphere of optimism regarding the law, some speakers at the seminar warned that not all problems of sexual harassment will be solved instantly. They said it will take time — and several legal precedents — before societal norms catch up to this ground-breaking legislation.

Sharon Margaliot, a law lecturer at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, warned that it is important that "we do not represent this law as a weapon to be wielded by women against men. It has to be understood that this legislation is part of a mutual fight by women and men for a fairer, more just and more dignified society."