Israeli Women Should Keep Sexual Assault on the Agenda

It is that time of year again. February is almost halfway over. The year, which was new not so long ago, is already in its second month. December’s stock-taking - if you go in for that sort of thing - seems like a distant memory. Our resolutions probably didn’t become manifest. We probably didn’t become better people. And, most probably, we didn’t make it to the gym.

Of course, by the time mid-January’s tedium really hits with each new year, many of us are already in dire need of time to gather our thoughts before the year continues in earnest, dragging us all along with it. Luckily, a report released last month by U.S. News & World Report, in partnership with BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, provided ample opportunity to take stock, at the national level, at least.

The report in question, “Best Countries,” rated 60 states on a number of attributes and ranked them in different categories. The findings were based on the perceptions of 16,000 people who took part in a global survey. The so-called “best country” was Germany. The most powerful? The United States (no surprises there). Best for “adventure?” Brazil, followed by Italy and Spain. Scandinavia, meanwhile, topped the list of “Best Countries for Women,” with Denmark at number 1, and Sweden at number 2. Algeria and Pakistan were seen as being the world’s worst for women.

Israel, which came in at number 25 overall - the highest ranking the Jewish state got was number 8 for “power,” where it scored well for its “strong military” - was 24th best country for women. States that did favorably on this list scored highest on five attributes: Cares about human rights, gender equality, income equality, safe, and progressive.

The “Best Countries” rankings are based on survey respondents’ perceptions, not cold, hard facts. Saudi Arabia, for instance, which would hardly be described by most as progressive on women’s rights, ranks 28, just four below Israel. By comparison, on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Israel ranked 53 out of 145 in 2015, and Saudi Arabia ranked 134. Still, the findings give us pause for thought. Is January’s ranking indicative of what Israel is like for women who live there? What issues should Israeli women keep in mind as the year winds on?

This is an opportune moment to recall that Israelis ended 2015 with two major political sex scandals in that not-so-distant month of December. First, former journalist-turned-Habayit Hayehudi MK Yinon Magal resigned after an ex-colleague revealed Magal’s inappropriate - to put it lightly - behavior at his Walla News leaving do on Facebook. Several other women then came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct. Later that month, ex-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom resigned after 23 years as a lawmaker amid sex assault allegations against him from several women.

These were only the latest in a long line of sex assault and harassment scandals. 2015 was littered with such stories, from the ranks of the police to the lawmakers rounding off the year. Part of the problem, as Allison Kaplan-Sommer pointed out in Haaretz, is Israel’s macho culture, where Alpha males with military backgrounds are lauded. We have come a long way since the sexism of the 1950s (and 1960s and 1970s and…), but certain behavior and attitudes toward women often appear to be tolerated or forgiven, if not simply forgotten.

What was significant in December’s cases is that both men quit quickly. This is a welcome rarity in Israeli politics, where it takes a lot for a politician’s position to become untenable. As Meretz MKs Zehava Galon, MK Michal Rozin and MK Tamar Zandberg said at the time, Shalom’s decision to resign “was a victory for public norms required of Israeli public officials.” It also sent a strong message about the kind of behaviour Israeli society should not be willing to tolerate. Let’s put aside the irony of Shalom’s replacement being Shas’ , who left the same post 22 years ago under indictment for corruption, and went on to serve three years in prison.

Even though December may seem long-gone, its lessons should not be. The Magal and Shalom cases showed there can be real consequences for powerful people who cross a line with their subordinates. There can, and should, be real consequences for treating women like sex objects. As the year continues, as another sex assault scandal inevitably surfaces in Israel’s frenetic news-cycle, let’s keep in mind what happened in 2015.

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