Israel Pulse

How social media is changing Israel’s approach to sexual harassment

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Article Summary
After five years in prison for rape, former President Moshe Katsav has been released into a world where more Israeli women are ready to expose sexual harassment instead of hiding in fear and shame.

There was a certain lack of sensitivity in the way that the family and friends of former president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav celebrated his release from prison on Dec. 21. When he returned to his hometown of Kiryat Malachi, he was received with bouquets of flowers. Candy was thrown at him and there was singing and dancing. It was a display of joy completely out of sync with the enormous shift in Israeli attitudes toward sexual assault that has taken place over the last two years. Katsav's supporters seemed to ignor the fact that though his prison term was shortened from seven to five years, his release has several humiliating conditions. For instance, he is forbidden from taking any job that involves hierarchical relations with women.

Katsav was released back into a country very different from the one he left when he passed through the gates of Maasiyahu Prison in Ramle five years ago. Nowadays, such a celebration in honor of a rapist could easily turn into a public protest against him. It might even impact the conditions of his early release.

Under the current circumstances and public mood, it would be deemed unreasonable for it to take 10 months from the day that Katsav was first interrogated over accusations that he sexually harassed a young woman who worked with him until he signed a plea deal with the state attorney’s office and resigned from the presidency.

Throughout that time, Katzav refused to resign, even though the charges piling up against him soon included rape. Instead he waged a brutal public campaign against the women who brought charges against him, disgracing the institution of the presidency in Israel and around the world. At one point, Katsav withdrew from a plea deal, though he was eventually convicted of two counts of rape.

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His long refusal to resign could not happen today. It is highly doubtful that Katsav would survive a month in the president’s residence after his first interrogation. The influence of the social networks and their ability to speed up investigative processes have increased immeasurably over the past few years, even among the more conservative religious sector.

These changes can be seen in several prominent cases. The social networks played a major role in exposing high-ranking public figures accused of sexual harassment or assault. In these cases, the women who boldly came forward — and who outed themselves as victims — tended to be relatively young, in their early 20s.

The first whistleblower, the woman who became the symbol of the Facebook fight against sex crimes, was Israeli soldier May Fatal. Fatal submitted an official complaint that the commander of the Givati Brigade in which she served sexually harassed her and forced her to engage in indecent acts. She chose to reveal her identity on Facebook on April 27, 2015, after the details of a plea bargain reached between the military advocate general and the commander, Liran Hajbi, were reported in the media.

Fatal’s post went viral, prompting extensive protests across the internet. A veritable army of young women and mothers launched a campaign against the deal, and finally succeeded influencing the outcome of the affair. Hajbi was eventually not only punished, but also demoted and dishonorably discharged.

Another trailblazer in November that same year was religious journalist Rachel Rotner, who came out against one of the rising stars of the religious Zionist HaBayit HaYehudi, again through the medium of Facebook. She posted that the chairman of the party’s parliamentary faction, Knesset member Yinon Magal, sexually harassed her at his sendoff party when he left Walla! News. Before his election to the Knesset, Magal was the senior editor of the site, which meant that he was Rotner’s editor too.

Party leader Naftali Bennett summoned Magal for a talk that same day, and within a week, Magal resigned from the Knesset. It all happened without the involvement of law enforcement. Magal, who is also an internet personality, realized that in an age in which women’s struggles reverberate so extensively, he would have a hard time functioning as a public figure, especially in a religious party.

Considering how long Katsav was able to keep his job despite the serious charges he faced, and comparing that to the relatively low level of complaints against Magal, who submitted his resignation almost immediately, gives some indication of the intensity of the cultural shift that took place in Israeli society.

This trend continued into 2016. In February, there were reports of allegations of serious sexual crimes involving Birg. Gen. Ofek Buchris, one of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) most talented field officers and a man earmarked as a potential chief of staff. Buchris, one of the highest-ranking representatives of the religious Zionist sector in the IDF, tried like Katsav to hold on to his position. But the protests by women across the social networks were overwhelming. They would not let the incident drop off the public agenda. Within a short time, Buchris suspended himself.

The plea deal that Buchris signed Dec. 1 evoked considerable outrage, because the charge of rape was replaced by a charge of "forbidden intercourse with consent" (forbidden between soldiers and their commanders). For this, he received a suspended sentence and was demoted to the rank of colonel. Many people believed that he was not punished adequately, given the severity of his crimes, and they took to social networks to protest in a creative way. Hundreds if not thousands of Israelis posted to Twitter and Facebook about how they had been confined to base or even sent to military prison during their service for minor disciplinary violations, such as chewing gum during guard duty or returning late from leave. All of these accounts were tagged with the hashtag #morethanbuchris

That same day, Chagit Moriah-Gibor, a young religious woman active in HaBayit HaYehudi, posted on her Facebook page that a member of the party currently serving in the Knesset was also sexually harassing women. “I’ve known about an old case for years, and I’ve recently come across even more stories. And they are horrendous,” she wrote.

Within minutes, the post was shared with dozens of WhatsApp groups in an unstoppable snowball. Soon, even more instances of that Knesset member’s wrongdoing were posted online. In just days, it was revealed that the Knesset member was Nissan Slomiansky of HaBayit HaYehudi, and he has since suspended himself from chairing the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.

So, if there is anything good to remember about the day Katsav got out of prison after having his sentence reduced by two years, it is the significant advances made in dealing with sexual assault and the knowledge that he wouldn't be so lucky today.

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Found in: Social Media

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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