War on Harassment

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The man’s behavior, as alleged, was appalling by any standard. On one occasion, according to police charges, he drove his secretary to a deserted area, forced himself on top of her, kissed her upper body and repeatedly tried to plunge his tongue in her mouth while she struggled beneath his bulky frame.

On another, he allegedly took a woman seeking work to his apartment and, ignoring her protests, unzipped his pants, climbed on top of her and fondled her breasts. In his office, he is said to have jumped a woman employee, stroking her abdomen and behind before she managed to break free.

More shocking than the claims was the identity of the alleged perpetrator: Yitzhak Mordechai, an Israeli cabinet minister, retired general and former candidate for Prime Minister. He was charged last month with three counts of sexual assault and one of harassment, all of which he denies. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was that the accusations ever came to light in a macho society that has generally considered sexual misconduct, at least by men, a contradiction in terms. “The message today,” says Ya’el Dayan, a Knesset member, “is that even the highest and the mightiest is not going to get away with it anymore.”

In the early 1990s, when sexual harassment first became a hot topic in the U.S., Israelis tended to dismiss the issue as trifling if not absurd. Dayan, daughter of the late Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, was mocked as the “killer of romantics” when she introduced legislation criminalizing such behavior. But a year ago, the law was passed, prescribing jail terms of up to two years and restitution of up to $12,500. The legislation also compels employers to institute programs to combat harassment.

Surprisingly, the Israeli military is battling the scourge most aggressively. Unlike any other First World army, Israel’s drafts women as well as men. Young female soldiers usually serve under older, male commanders. Because Israel’s is a fighting army, its mostly male warriors have an aura of potency and, often, a corresponding sense of entitlement. To the Air Force slogan ‘The good guys—to piloting’ were added the words ‘The good girls—to the pilots.’

The atmosphere produced what Carmela Menashe, military correspondent for the Voice of Israel, calls “rampant licentiousness.”

Today, worried that under Dayan’s law a harassed soldier will one day sue the army itself, the military now puts all female conscripts through a two-and-a-half hour course defining harassment and specifying how to complain. A similar program for male conscripts is to begin next month. Last year, an average of one complaint a day was filed. Those found guilty of sexual harassment, whether by a military court or a disciplinary officer, face demotion as well as jail time. They can also be ejected from the army. In 1998 and 1999, 54 officers and non-commissioned officers met that fate. 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. The army, she hopes, will set an example for civilian society.

Since the accusations against General Mordechai were made public, complaints of harassment have increased. But do Israeli men really “get it,” as Americans say? “If they don’t know it’s wrong, I don’t care,” says Dayan. “If the law puts the fear of God in them and this is the reason they don’t do it, it’s enough for me.”

With reporting by Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv