Israel Pulse

Is Israeli media changing its tone on sexual harassment?

Article Summary
Contrary to past cases of famous Israeli figures suspected of sexual harassment, in the case of Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris, both the media and social networks are in no hurry to declare that Buchris is guilty.

“The blood of Brigadier General Ofek Buchris, a decorated hero of Israel and recipient of the Chief of Staff’s Medal, has been forfeited and plundered without any trial. Buchris is under attack and being sullied by the media. In this fight, we’re with him!”

This demonstration of overwhelming support figures prominently on the Facebook page “Supporters of Brigadier General Ofek Buchris.” The page first appeared at the beginning of March, as early reports in the media claimed that the highly regarded senior officer was suspected of raping a female soldier, who served under him, and of sexually harassing another female soldier.

Almost 7,000 people have already joined the page in support of Buchris. That is, undoubtedly, a lot of people. What is most unusual, however, is that his supporters include quite a few women, who are openly backing a suspected rapist. The photo on the page’s banner features Buchris standing beside former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz at some military briefing or other. Alongside it is the promise, “We will not allow a kangaroo court to rule against our commander, Brigadier General Ofek Buchris.”

Buchris’ many supporters have also appeared openly in the established media, giving on-record interviews in which they sing his praises and list his many qualities as a commander and person with values. In addition to officers who served with him in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) combat units, female officers who served beside him also figure prominently in these interviews. News stations have been highlighting the testimony of his senior adjutant, Capt. Or Parmon, who posted a moving appeal to the public on her Facebook page. In it, she called on people not to judge Buchris until the investigation has exhausted itself.

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Parmon also claims that her former commander’s blood is being spilled by social networks and the media. “I cannot ignore the behavior of the media and the social networks. What has become of us?!” she wrote. “What we have to remember is that behind every officer in the IDF is a family.” According to her, “All we have now are accusations, and these stand against the military career of a man who devoted his entire life to the safety and security of the State of Israel. Those aren’t accusations. Those are facts.”

Nevertheless, despite her claims, the media has really been fair to Buchris. It did not spill his blood. On the contrary, the coverage by traditional media of the incident since it broke March 2 has been generally restrained, not aggressive. In addition, even the social networks haven’t set up their gallows in their virtual town square (not lynching him virtually). Another example of the current mood can be seen in the surprising support that Buchris received from Knesset member Merav Ben Ari of Kulanu, who once served under him. Ben Ari came to his defense in an emotional Facebook post, which drew considerable criticism from women’s groups. Yaron Mazuz, a deputy minister from the Likud Party, took his support a step further, by visiting Buchris at home.

Over the past few months, there have been three separate instances of famous and powerful people who were accused of various degrees of sexual harassment: former Knesset member Yinon Magal, former Minister Silvan Shalom and the highly regarded actor Moshe Ivgy. No rape charges were filed against any of them, and in the case of Magal and Shalom, complaints weren’t even lodged with the police. Nevertheless, all three of them found themselves under massive public and media pressure, much of it propelled by social media, and all three of them resigned their positions in a matter of days. Ivgy canceled his on-stage performances. Coverage of their particular cases was unequivocal and decisive. In no case did any women who worked with them stand by their side so openly. No masses of women rose to their defense.

While Buchris’ friends and supporters contend that media coverage of the incident is one-sided and favors the plaintiffs, there is no real basis for this contention. On the contrary, in this particular case alone, Buchris is not being judged by the media. Perhaps the reason is that he has become a national icon of courage and bravery. Harsh descriptions of what happened by his alleged victim and her father are accompanied by thorough accounts of all of Buchris’ good traits. It is repeated again and again that he was severely wounded in Nablus during the second intifada, while arresting suspects, and that he was awarded the Chief of Staff’s Medal for that while serving as commander of the Golani Brigade. Despite his serious injury, Buchris underwent complete rehabilitation so that he could return to the most senior field positions in the IDF. He was certainly destined for greatness.

The investigation of Buchris is well underway, but very few tidbits of information have leaked from the interrogation rooms. While it is known that both Buchris and the plaintiff underwent a polygraph test, practically nothing is known about the results. Even the decision by Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot to cancel Buchris' appointment as head of the Operations Division was not described by the media as proof of his guilt. It was simply explained as a necessary step, since Eizenkot could not wait any longer before manning one of the most sensitive posts in the IDF.

In that sense, it seems as if the media is, for the most part, acting responsibly in the Buchris case. It is not sweepingly siding with the plaintiff, and the discussion in social networks is not one-sided either. Even there, Buchris is presumed innocent. As for the Chief of Staff, he may find the case particularly troubling (Buchris is thought to be held in high regard by Eizenkot), but his businesslike approach to the matter is well worth noting. It is also worth recalling the March 8 statement by Minister of Defense of Moshe Ya’alon reflecting and leading a tough approach to violence against women.

The campaign against sexual harassment in Israel has gained a high profile in the established media recently, and even more in social media. It seems, at least, that not a week goes by without some new scandal popping up. Since last weekend, the media has not only been dealing with the Buchris case, but also with reports that Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked is planning to recommend pardoning former President Moshe Katzav, who is serving time in jail for serious sex crimes, including rape. The emotional debate concerning the possibility of his early release, even if he never admitted to the rapes nor regretted them, provoked a public outcry. The reaction is intense in spite of his five years of jail time.

While this new high visibility of the battle against sexual harassment is certainly a positive change, there must be rules to it. This battle cannot be unrestricted or wild, and it must not be unilateral, especially if the legal process is still underway. In the Buchris case, the media and public have both shown considerable maturity. The question that remains is whether this marks the start of a new trend. Alternately, is the coverage being toned down because the subject is a highly respected officer and the thousands of people who served under him refuse to believe that there is another side to his personality, one that is violent and ugly?

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Found in: women's issues, sexual harassment, rape, nablus, moshe 'bogie' ya'alon, idf, gadi eizenkot, benny gantz

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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