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Israeli Society Split By A Kiss

Jerusalem – The latest faux-form letter making the rounds here is called “The Kissing Contract As Per the Ramon Rule,” and men and women across Israel are passing it around by e-mail with a chuckle — and in some cases, bitterness.

The four-point contract permits a man to kiss a woman on the “mouth/cheek/forehead/other* (herein: “The Kiss”)… with/without tongue/teeth/gums/lips*.” The contract provides blanks to fill in the date, hour and length of the kiss. It also requires that the woman sign it in front of a notary “after she has understood all the significance deriving herein.”

The anonymous spoof pokes fun at the unanimous decision of three judges in Tel Aviv District Court January 31 to convict former justice minister Haim Ramon of an indecent act for forcibly kissing a young female soldier.

For some the spoof contract is a sarcastic reminder that a man should be certain a woman is interested in his advances before making a move.

For others the, um, tongue-in-cheek contract conveys a fear that the court’s verdict has undercut the game of courtship, effectively ending romance for fear of a jail sentence.

For still others, it expresses the belief that the judges went too far — perhaps with an ulterior motive.

Ramon’s conviction has ended the storied career of one of Israel’s most powerful and ambitious politicians, shocking Israeli society to the core. Dominating news coverage for a week, discussed endlessly in television studios, on buses and over dinner tables, it also divided the country between those who rejoiced and those who felt an injustice had been done.

The division defied lines of gender, ethnicity, background, age and education. What might seem an issue of women versus men, of chauvinists versus feminists or enlightened versus unwashed, was far more complex.

Most Israelis seemed to agree that Ramon’s behavior was inappropriate for someone of his age (56) and position (fifth most powerful minister), in that location (next to the prime minister’s office), and at that moment (minutes before a Cabinet decision on whether to make war on Lebanon after the kidnapping of two soldiers that day).

Nevertheless, many say the verdict was unwarranted in its severity, branding Ramon a criminal sex offender, ending his political career and preventing him from ever working as a lawyer again.

Levana Zamir, chair of the Association for Women Executives, said she was “pained” by the verdict. “I think to ruin a man’s career because of a kiss is too much,” said the self-proclaimed feminist, age 60.

Such convictions, once rare, are becoming increasingly common. In 1999, police officer Shimon Levy forcibly kissed a young policewoman who entered his office seeking certain documents. He was convicted of a nonconsensual indecent act and given a four-month suspended sentence, 200 hours of community service and required to pay 2,000 shekels. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Ofer Glazer, husband of Bank Hapoalim tycoon Shari Arison, for forcibly kissing a woman who had come to see an apartment he was renting in 2003, as well as for sexually harassing a nurse in Arison’s home. He begins a six-month prison sentence next week.

Zamir, like many Israelis, believes the complainant’s behavior invited the kiss. A photograph taken before the kiss shows the 21-year-old soldier, identified in the media as H., with her arms around Ramon and her head on his shoulder. Some say if H. didn’t want it to go further she should have reacted forcefully.

Others say that’s unrealistic. “Only a woman who feels comfortable in her position, and is not subordinate in a working situation, could react with a slap,” said Yahel Ashkurlander of Israeli Women To Women. “Most of us are not in a situation of equals.”

Samuel Cohen, 65, a business consultant, said that even if H. seemingly invited Ramon’s advances, the minister should have kept his distance. “People in power must keep certain boundaries,” he said. “But there are chauvinists who think they can do what they want. I think sexual harassment is becoming an epidemic in this country, and if it’s not stopped we’ll be in trouble.”

The case has left numerous questions unanswered and given rise to conspiracy theories. The unanimous verdict all but prevents a successful appeal to the Supreme Court. It decreed that Ramon and his numerous defense witnesses — several of whom testified that the complainant had publicly discussed her attraction to the divorced Ramon before the incident — had all lied and that only H. spoke truth.

“The panel of judges went far, too far. They took a complicated situation and blackened it entirely,” wrote journalist Ben Caspit of the daily Ma’ariv.

Caspit believes the verdict will weaken faith in the legal system. “This verdict could signal the beginning of the end of this faith,” he wrote, “the beginning of the war of Judgment Day between the Supreme Court and the state attorney’s office and the rest of the country.”

By contrast, legal scholar Orit Kamir of Hebrew University said there was nothing complicated about the case or extreme about the verdict. “He used his hand to open her mouth forcefully and then penetrate it with his tongue,” said Kamir, co-director of the Center for Human Dignity. “This has always been a crime in Israel.”

The case was clear-cut, Kamir said, because “the only thing that needed to be determined is whether he or she was lying.”

Nevertheless, many suggest that the judges and the attorney general had it in for Ramon because he opposed the appointment of Judge Dorit Beinish as chief justice of the Supreme Court. His trial prevented him from appointing someone else, his conviction prevented him from making changes to the judicial system later.

Caspit wrote that many of Ramon’s fellow politicians are calling the case a “targeted killing.”

“His act may be inappropriate, but it doesn’t feel like a criminal act,” said Yisrael Arogety, 31, a Tel Aviv lawyer. “That’s the problem we have with this verdict. If trying to kiss a woman who we believe is interested is a crime, then we men are all potential criminals.”

In fact, the court had few options. The Israeli penal code considers kissing by force an indecent act with a maximum punishment of three years. It does permit victims of indecent acts to choose whether to sue the defendant in a criminal, civil or labor court (if it happened in the workplace). But few women choose the civil court, because the damages it awards are low. The labor court was not an option because Ramon is an elected official.

A Knesset committee is currently preparing disciplinary codes for elected and appointed officials. If it had already been in place, Ramon would likely have been tried through a disciplinary board and, hence, not be a criminal.

Some ask why Ramon’s case was dealt with so quickly when other, far more serious cases — such as President Moshe Katsav’s rape case and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s three corruption cases — have been dragging on.

Kamir said that by appropriately removing himself from office, “Ramon expedited the process. Katsav, however, refuses to do so, making it harder.” Moreover, because Ramon’s case was a lighter offense with fewer people involved, reaching a verdict was easier.

Women’s rights organizations are largely satisfied with the verdict, but even there, concerns are voiced. “The media attention on this case has put the problem of sexual violence on the national agenda,” said Naomi Schneiderman of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “But at the same time, we are concerned that because the allegations against the victim of this assault were degrading, the stigma of being a victim — and the price one has to pay for coming forth — might deter women from complaining.”

Many predict that the verdict will change the old-school behavior that traditionally winks at Israeli leaders who have extramarital romances or sexually harass subordinates.

“This will begin to flash a red light to many managers and leaders,” said Roy Golan, 28, a Petah Tikva computer programmer. “There are many girls who are poor, lower-class, who suffer from harassment. This verdict will change the way people act in this society. It’s good because women will feel more secure.”

Others, however, fear the negative consequences of the verdict.

“The verdict creates an absurd situation in which a man interested in kissing a young woman won’t dare to do so without receiving her definite approval,” said Arogety, the young lawyer. “If we had to negotiate before kissing a woman on her lips we would probably lose our desire to do so.”


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