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Israeli women chime in on #MeToo campaign

The avalanche of sexual abuse scandals in the United States has empowered prominent Israeli women to come forward about their stories of sexual harassment and assault.
Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav (C) arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, to hear the verdict of his appeal on a rape conviction, November 10, 2011. Katsav had denied charges he twice raped an aide when he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s, and molested or sexually harassed two other women who worked for him during his 2000-2007 term as president.       REUTERS/Nir Elias (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) - GM1E7BA16NM01

The Weinstein effect is spreading. The American actresses who have gone public with their stories about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein over the past month undoubtedly inspired Israeli women to speak openly to the media about the men who harassed and assaulted them. There have been dozens of recent headlines about sexual harassment and assault in Israel. One common denominator among so many of them is that the women sharing their stories are well-known, influential figures at the top of their professions.

For the past few years, most of the stories that have come out about sexual assault have featured perpetrators in positions of power over their victims. Senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers were accused of assault, such as retired general and former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Ofek Buchris and Liran Hajbi, and major political figures including former President Moshe Katsav, former ministers Haim Ramon and Silvan Shalom, Knesset member Yinon Magal and highly regarded actor Moshe Ivgy.

Each of the brave women who filed complaints showed immense courage by standing up to such wealthy and influential men, although most of them were identified in the media only by the first letter of their names. This last wave, however, is different. The women telling their stories occupy prominent public and professional positions, including top journalists and senior politicians.

Oshrat Kotler, a highly regarded senior anchor on Channel 10 News, admitted during a live broadcast on Nov. 2 that at the start of her career, she was propositioned by Alex Gilady, the president of Keshet Broadcasting, which operates Channel 12. Gilady is one of the most powerful people in the Israeli television industry. Kotler’s account was chilling not only because of the identities of the people involved, but also because of Kotler's public persona as a strong, even combative woman. Nevertheless, like so many women who are targets of sexual harassment, she was afraid to tell her story for years. "It's too bad I wasn't brave enough 15 years ago. I would have spared a lot of women the misery," she said.

Kotler's confession had a snowball effect. Neri Livneh, a journalist with Haaretz, spoke out about a sexual assault that took place at Gilady’s home. The incident followed the same pattern, with the offer of a job on condition that she "spend time" with him. Livneh is famous for being a sharp and opinionated journalist. Nevertheless, it took her years to reveal her story. Gilady responded, "Neri's remarks are largely correct," but denied Kotler's allegations. He has decided to step down from Keshet temporarily.

A few hours later, veteran journalist Sylvie Keshet released a statement that former Justice Minister Yosef Lapid tried to rape her in London 50 years earlier, when he was still a journalist. Lapid, who died in 2008, is the father of Yair Lapid, the chair of Yesh Atid. The younger Lapid responded to the claims by saying, "It saddens and pains me. … I have no way of knowing if the story is true or not. I can't ask my father. If he were here, he would have something to say about it."

On Nov. 4, former Health Minister Yael German, from Lapid's own party, mustered the courage to admit that her gynecologist had sexually assaulted her. In German's case, too, some people find it hard to process the dissonance between her being such a strong and successful woman and having said nothing about being a victim of sexual assault until now.

The same is true of Dana Weiss, a political correspondent for Channel 2 News and one of Israel's top journalists. This week, she revealed that the belligerent radio host Gabi Gazit tried to kiss her against her will 15 years ago.

November has become a turning point in the fight against sexual harassment in Israel. These have been very formative days in which awareness of sexual harassment has gathered momentum to become a revolution. It all started with small steps 20 years ago, when the Knesset passed a law meant to prevent sexual harassment. Now the dam has burst, and what happened before can no longer continue.

When the law was passed in 1998 under pressure from women's rights groups, it was considered very progressive, even when compared to other countries. It was the first time that sexual harassment in the workplace was recognized as a serious social issue and a crime. Nevertheless, the law's strength was also its weakness. Many women who were sexually harassed were discouraged by the emotional costs of submitting a complaint to the police, so many serial sex offenders continued their behavior without interference.

For example, the case of Mordechai remained an open secret for years while none of the women he harassed or assaulted complained to the police. Many media outlets tried to investigate Mordechai, since it was widely known that he habitually harassed women under his command in the IDF and later as a politician. It was only in 2000, when a clerk at the Ministry of Transportation complained to the police about an indecent act, that the story blew wide open. He was eventually convicted of two counts of sexual misconduct.

After the breakthrough legislation of 1998, the social network revolution was the next major turning point in the struggle against sexual harassment and assault. Social media gave women the opportunity to take action in the public space without needing to go through the exhausting and often painful process of filing a complaint with the police or giving testimony in court. Magal resigned from the Knesset on Nov. 2, 2015, after a female journalist he worked with at Walla wrote a Facebook post about him. This new, open atmosphere also led to the resignation of Shalom and forced Ivgy to step out of the public eye.

In the long struggle against sexual assault, we are now witnessing the final collapse of the old order. Women are being freed from having to not only endure these kinds of attacks but also to remain quiet about them. That is a real victory.

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