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The State of Sexual Harassment in Israel

A woman in Israel recently won the equivalent of about $8,000 in a lawsuit against her employer on the grounds that his habit of routinely calling her into his office to watch porn on his computer constitutes sexual harassment. Although he had not requested any sexual “favors” from her, the District Tel Aviv Labor Court ruled that his actions created a hostile working environment for the woman.

In another recent case, a government employee received a demotion and a 50% pay cut for making sexual jokes, commenting on his co-worker’s perfume and attire and calling her “sexy.” Once again, the court ruled that even if the employer did not actually solicit sexual acts, his actions were nevertheless against the law.

Paradoxically, Israel has one of the most progressive and stringent laws in the world regarding sexual harassment — and yet, the law does not seem to have influenced workplace norms all that much. According to a report released this month by the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, 40% of women in Israel have experienced sexual harassment at work, a third of whom had the experience within the last year.

Forty percent believe that their workplace is not a safe place regarding sexual harassment, and 19.2% believe that their work has suffered because of it. Over 7% missed work because of sexual harassment, 5% shortened their work hours because of it, and 17% left their workplace because of it. Yet only 9.5% of victims of sexual harassment actually filed a complaint.

In Israel, sexual harassment is broadly defined. It includes pressuring a worker to engage in sexual activity, touching a worker sexually, putting down another person based on gender or sexual orientation, and repeated sexual commentary, even without pressure to perform, and even if the commentary is indirect or via a third party. The harasser can be a man or a woman, as can the victim, and the incident does not necessarily have to involve an authority relationship. In fact, in cases where the harasser is in a position of authority, the victim does not even have to prove an unwillingness to receive the comments. Just making the comments is against the law.

Although legislation is vital for achieving justice, it does not necessarily influence culture, writes attorney Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, a leading feminist law professor in Israel in her book “Women in Israel: A State of their Own.” The sexual harassment law is exemplary, she explains, but that does not automatically change the way people think, speak or behave.

The Ministry of Trade report was reviewed in a Knesset hearing during a special session for the prevention of sexual harassment, initiated by journalist Merav Michaeli, which was followed by workshops on sexual harassment.

Interior Minister Yizhak Aharanowitz, who participated in the workshops, said that “we recognize the complexity of the relationship between a male boss (menahel) and female employee (ovedet).” He added that since 2007, 900 files have been opened, but only 37 cases are actually in progress. “That means that the time it takes from filing a complaint is very slow, and it’s very hard to expose the story.” Still, he encourages victims to file. “When there is an increase in claims,” he says, “there is more awareness.”

Maybe. But considering how slow and difficult the legal process is, there ought to be other ways to raise awareness – both among potential harassers and among potential victims. Government funding for mandatory workplace seminars would be a good place to start.

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