War on Harassment

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While reconsidering the draft, the Israel defense forces are also rethinking another army tradition: sexual harassment. The issue, long derided in macho Israeli society as an absurdity, has lately stirred public discussion after General (ret.) Yitzhak Mordechai, a cabinet minister who spent most of his career in the military, was charged with three counts of sexual assault and one of harassment after allegedly jumping and pawing three women, two of them soldiers, within the past eight years. Mordechai, who resigned as Transport Minister, has denied the charges.

Sexual harassment is particularly pronounced in the I.D.F. Unlike any other First World army, Israel's drafts women as well as men. Young female soldiers usually serve under older male commanders, who have enormous control over their subordinates' lives. Because Israel's is a fighting army, its mostly male warriors have an aura of potency and, often, a corresponding sense of entitlement. In the past, the equation produced what Carmela Menashe, military correspondent for the Voice of Israel, calls "rampant licentiousness."

The I.D.F. has been addressing the issue for years, but never as earnestly as now. Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz proclaimed a policy of zero tolerance in 1998. A year ago, the Knesset passed a strict law criminalizing sexual harassment and compelling employers to begin programs to combat it, prompting the I.D.F. to worry that under the new code, victimized soldiers will sue the army itself. For two years, all female conscripts have been put through a course defining harassment and specifying how to complain. A similar seminar is about to begin for male inductees. "Unfortunately, we don't have a program yet for generals," says one officer.

Last year, the I.D.F.. averaged one harassment complaint a day. Those found guilty—by a disciplinary officer or, in the worst cases, a military court—are subject to demotion and jail time. They can also be ejected from the army. In 1998 and 1999, 54 officers and non-commissioned officers were thrown out. Even consensual dating between commanders and soldiers is now forbidden, because of the inherent imbalance between the ranks. "Sexual harassment is a norm that we want to take out of the army," says Brigadier General Suzy Yogev, head of the Women's Corps.

High-profile cases like Mordechai's help improve awareness of the problem. Last year, the Supreme Court blocked the promotion of a high-ranking officer, Brigadier General Nir Galili, because the army had earlier found him guilty of misconduct in connection with a relationship with a female subordinate. "Every incident like this empowers women soldiers to complain," says Yogev. "Rank doesn't give you immunity." But do Israeli men "get it," as Americans say? "If they don't know it's wrong, I don't care," says Ya'el Dayan, the parliamentarian who initiated the tough new legislation and is the daughter of the late Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan. "If we've put the fear of God in them and this is the reason they don't do it, it's enough for me."

—By L.B. With reporting by Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv