Now that the euphoria that greeted the rape conviction of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav has started to subside, it is worthwhile to ask the question: Why was this such a big deal? Historically speaking, there are enough reasons to consider this a significant event: the worst crime for which an Israeli official has been tried, the first time an Israeli president has been found guilty of anything and the only time I can recall that a former head of state anywhere has been convicted of rape.
Certainly for Israeli women who have been victims of sexual abuse and violence, the message that this conviction sends was long awaited. Sexual violence against women remains widespread. And the Israeli legal system, in which laws meant to protect victims are often ignored — such as prohibitions against revealing victims’ identities or probing into their sexual lives — has hardly been a beacon of hope.
The Katsav affair marks an important turning point in the relationship between victims of sexual violence and the legal system. The message is that victims can now be heard and heeded even if the road is treacherous, and even if the person doing the victimizing is powerful. (Katsav’s conviction comes on the heels of allegations of sexual assault that derailed a ranking officer’s candidacy to be Israel’s next police chief.) Victims of violence do not have to be dismissed, disregarded and discarded. They can be protected by the legal system and by society.
But the emotional impact of Katsav’s conviction goes beyond victims of sexual violence to the rest of Israel society. Katsav is in some ways the poster child for corruption and criminality in government. His conviction is a victory for everyday Israelis against the rot and impunity that has taken hold in their country’s political class.
We cannot overestimate the impact of governmental malfeasance on Israeli morale. One minister after another has been investigated, indicted or convicted. Several standing officials have ongoing investigations against them, one leading politician was appointed to serve as vice premier after being convicted of indecent assault, and another has emerged from his prison stint ready to start a new political party (which, tellingly, is looking more attractive to some voters than existing ones). Former prime minister Ehud Olmert has had no fewer than six investigations against him.
Olmert’s time in office, in particular, brought Israelis’ faith in their political system to an all-time low, from which we have not recovered. I will never forget the feeling of 200,000 citizens gathering in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War to demand that Olmert step down. There was a clear consensus that the man had no business being prime minister, that his incompetence had cost lives and that he was completely corrupt. But the protest had no effect whatsoever. In Israel’s system of protekzia, Olmert answered not to the citizens but to other politicians who kept him in office. The powerlessness and apathy that took hold of the people remained, and has kept Israelis perpetually depressed.
The Katsav trial, then, has revived a certain optimism. There has been nothing short of a society-wide celebration at his conviction. Cheers and proclamations that “the system works” have been sounded across the spectrum, right and left, north and south, religious and secular, women and men. But only by understanding how badly Israelis have lost faith in the system can one appreciate the significance of this outpouring.
The Katsav trial gives hope that justice can be rendered, that the average citizen can have a voice, and that there are still a few people in the government — even if only three judges and a prosecutor — who are committed to that which is good and right. Israelis have been desperate to hear that. It is a message that comes not a moment too soon.
Elana Maryles Sztokman writes for the Forward’s Sisterhood blog. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” due to be published later this year by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.