TEL AVIV, Oct. 18 — For decades it was widely accepted that some of Israel’s top military officers and government ministers considered sexual encounters with female employees a seigneurial right.
A society built partly on the conscious effort to project an image of strength tended to overlook such harassment. In fact, a certain amount of male rakishness often added to a prominent man’s allure. The alleged womanizing by national legends like Moshe Dayan, for example, was considered part of their mystique.
But the ground is shifting rapidly under the feet of the current crop of leaders as a result of legal and societal changes. This week, the police recommended charging President Moshe Katsav with the rape of two former employees, the most serious criminal allegations ever made against an Israeli leader. And on Tuesday, Justice Minister Haim Ramon went on trial, accused of kissing a soldier against her will.
“When I was in the army it was assumed that the office of every senior officer was essentially a harem for him,” said Michael Oren, an historian and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute, who served in the military 30 years ago. “Israel is emerging from adolescence into adulthood.”
In 1998 a sweeping sexual harassment law, inspired in part by American legislation, was passed by the Israeli Parliament, making such behavior illegal anywhere, whether in the street or the workplace.
Soon afterward, a major turning point came: the trial of Yitzhak Mordechai, a former general who was Israel’s defense minister and a prime ministerial hopeful. He was forced to resign after being convicted of sexual assault and harassment.
His very public trial followed charges filed by several women who had worked for him in the government and during his long, highly decorated career in the army.
For years trying Israeli leaders for such crimes was unheard-of. The founders of Zionism sought to create “the new Jew” — aiming to transform Jews who lived in the Diaspora, perceived as bookish and weak, into men of muscle and power.
The militarization of Israeli society that eventually followed in the wake of successive wars with Arab neighbors seemed to cement Israel’s male-dominated character. And while that has not changed completely, the question of sexual harassment is getting real attention, especially in the army, which is the epicenter of such activity and the institution with the most influence on the society.
In the last 10 years the army, into which nearly all Jewish 18-year-old Israelis are drafted, has begun intensively promoting awareness of sexual harassment and the consequences that can follow for those who cross the line. Several highly publicized cases in which senior officers were suspected of having sexually assaulted female soldiers made the army’s efforts more urgent.
Many female soldiers work in clerical positions. A senior officer often has several 18- and 19-year-old women serving as secretaries.
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