Israeli sexual harassers face tough laws, lenient society

JERUSALEM — Sexual harassment hit the Israeli headlines with a tragic twist this week when an accused victimizer committed suicide while in police custody.

Yehuda Naveh, head of the Tel Aviv branch of Kupat Holim, the largest health fund in Israel, hanged himself Monday in his jail cell after being arrested a day earlier.

The arrest came after a senior female employee in Naveh's office filed a complaint last week alleging a long series of sexual attacks.

In the course of their investigation, police secretly filmed a video that allegedly showed Naveh making explicit sexual advances, holding her paycheck in one hand and fondling her with the other, and persuading her not to cry out as he assaulted her.

This bombshell hit as the country awaits the results of a police investigation into sexual harassment charges against Transportation Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Last month, a young female employee in Mordechai's office accused the veteran army general and former candidate for prime minister of repeatedly assaulting her and making sexual propositions.

Several other women have since come forward to add their accusations about improper advances allegedly made by Mordechai during his long career in the army.

If indicted, Mordechai will be tried under the far-reaching 1998 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, considered the most progressive in the world.

The law encompasses every sector of Israeli society — the workplace, military, educational and health systems — and provides for imprisonment, fines and punitive compensation for sexual harassment. It also allows civil suits for damages.

The law defines sexual harassment in the widest terms: as sexual contact, repeated unwanted sexual speech, propositions or innuendo, sexual blackmail or debasing references to a person's gender.

Because it places liability not only upon the harasser but the institution where it takes place, the law's power is exponentially increased.

It is no secret that the Israeli military is a hothouse for exploitative sexual relationships, according to Dafna Izraeli, head of a new program in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University.

It has been common for pretty young female soldiers to become "trophies" of the commanders, Izraeli says, who adds that an aura of permissive license has traditionally permeated the military.

The Israel Women's Network, which maintains a hotline and provides legal assistance, estimates that only one in 10 cases is reported.

Women in certain segments of society are especially vulnerable to unwanted advances.

Russian immigrants "absolutely desperate to keep their jobs would not dare to say no," says sociologist Larissa Remennick. "If there is a new law, it has made no difference to them. Foreign workers, with even less status, are the easiest prey."

Religious women are considered another easy target. They fear that filing a complaint would lead to the possibility of jeopardizing their children's chances for marriage.

Arab women fear that raising the issue could backfire under their society's honor code. Criminologist Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian says that if Arab women complain, they put their lives on the line.