Crying out from a cubbyhole in a male preserve
Among the many career officers who come to the Kirya compound in Tel Aviv, the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, it is doubtful anyone else faces the daily trial of Major Belle Felzman to find a chair and a desk so she can work.
The process began years ago but has worsened in recent months, says Felzman, with her commanders sending her to work in a small cubbyhole that was also used as a storeroom and whose old computer there was not connected to any network. Some time later they ordered her to leave that as well and gave her to understand that they would not be sorry if she decided to resign from the IDF. They cannot fire her because a ruling handed down by the High Court of Justice two years ago requires them to place her in a "suitable position."
Felzman, 41, is the mother of three and has been serving in the career army since 1995. She has a B.A. in geography and is completing her M.A. in business management. Despite her rank, her superiors, she claims, relate to her as though she were "a minor secretary." Not a single one of the jobs she has been required to do over recent years is intended for majors and her salary, and therefore, does not include most of the perks received by those who hold this rank. She is also not entitled to the use of a military vehicle.
According to Felzman, the negative attitude derives from the fact that she dared make a sexual harassment complaint against a senior officer and even to petition the High Court of Justice after the IDF ignored the orders of the soldiers' ombudsman in her case. She herself refused to be interviewed for this report, but her story is told in detail in another petition that her lawyers, attorneys Avigdor Feldman and Miri Hart, have filed against the army on her behalf.
The new petition accuses the IDF of having "avoided the implementation" of the previous High Court of Justice ruling that required it to assign the officer to a "suitable position" and also of having put Felzman "though a long series of agonies" full of "slanders, insults and an attitude of demonstrative rejection" in order to "punish her" for having dared to complain against the officer who harassed her.
"The tales of the petitioner and the Israel Defense Forces," wrote Feldman in the petition, "show how an organized body with a male chauvinist worldview can flout a ruling by this honorable court, humiliate the petitioner, 'punish' her for her application to the High Court of Justice and force upon her years of partial activity that is not commensurate with her qualifications."
The fighting feminist spirit in which he has chosen to formulate the petition is especially obvious in the context of Feldman's statements in the Moshe Katsav affair: "This kind of punishment of women who dare to complain against sexual harassment and dare even further to complain to the courts over this matter is not an unknown phenomenon, and it is up to the court to do everything it can to root out this phenomenon."
"There is no contradiction between my position in this case and my position in the Katsav affair," Feldman has told Haaretz. "I am acting in accordance with legal principles and this is not the only case in which I am defending victims of rape or sexual harassment. I am representing Katsav in the criminal sphere, which is an entirely different sphere. The crucial question is whether there is or is not evidence of a crime."
Attorney Hart believes that the issue of sexual harassment is only one of the matters of principle in the affair: "There is another worrying trend that has been growing stronger. The High Court of Justice hands down a ruling and the authorities ignore it."
Felzman's Via Dolorosa began in 2000, when she was serving as a captain in the Technological and Logistics Directorate at the General Command and decided to complain against one of her commanders to Brigadier General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, who headed the directorate at the time. "Recently," she wrote to the major general after reminding him of the instructions of the chief of staff at that time, Shaul Mofaz (now minister of transportation and road safety) for the fight against sexual harassment, "I have encountered crude and harassing behavior on the part of the head of the maintenance division, Colonel Zacharia Hai, who has ignored and trampled crudely on the chief of staff's orders."
She described what had happened to her a few days earlier at a meeting that Hai ran. "On that occasion," she wrote, "the head of the maintenance division used crude expressions ('fuck') toward me, used indecent hand gestures several times, made threats ('If you were a man I'd get up now and beat you up') and employed cheap language while shouting... When I complained that my head ached, he said in response: 'I hope that I haven't spoiled anything for your husband this evening.'"
Felzman concluded her letter to the major general with a request that he "preserve and demand my dignity."
The investigation of the incident in accordance with Zeevi-Farkash's orders ended with the conclusion that "it is not possible to determine conclusively ... as to the justice of one side or the other in the incident" and with the statement that "in light of this the head of the Technological and Logistics Directorate sees the matter as closed." Zeevi-Farkash expressed the hope "that both sides will help toward turning over a new leaf in the relationship to continue to carry out all tasks."
A new leaf was indeed turned. Less than two months later Felzman was informed of the decision not to appoint her to a position earmarked for her (head of a department in the means division of the Technological and Logistics Directorate) and to grant her the rank of major that it required. During the following year, she was further told, she would be able to compete for other vacant positions but if she were not found suitable for any of them, she would be discharged from the army. Not long after that she received some additional news: Colonel Hai had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general and appointed chief ordinance officer; the manning of most of the vacant positions, as well as of the position that had just been taken from her, was subject to his approval (Hai retired from the IDF in 2003).
She filed a complaint with the army ombudsman about "the direct connection" between her non-appointment to the position and the threat to dismiss her from the army and her complaint against Hai.
The conclusions of the ombudsman's investigation was not unambiguous: He stated that "no concrete support" was found for the existence of such a connection but he ordered the army to honor its promise to promote Felzman to the rank of major and recommended appointing her "to a position commensurate with her qualifications."
The army ignored the ombudsman's instructions and recommendations. Felzman was summoned to an interview with the head of the personnel department at the Technological and Logistics Directorate, who informed her, according to what is stated in the summary of the interview that she appended to her petition, that "the chances of finding a position that is suitable for her are slight," because "no element in the army is interested in taking her under its command." In another interview, with the head of the maintenance department in the Ordinance Corps she heard even more explicit things: In the summary of the interview it is stated that "there is no chance of fitting her into any position at all."
In 2001 Felzman decided to petition the High Court of Justice. In an order issued when the petition was filed, the court ordered the army not to discharge Felzman before the deliberations on her petition were completed. This order, which forced the officer on the army, made the relations between them even worse.
The deliberations on the petition lasted for no less than four years, during the course of which the army avoided promoting her to the rank of major and appointing her to meaningful positions. Its representatives argued in court that there is no connection between the complaint she filed against Hai and her non-advancement, defined her as a "mediocre officer" who had been disqualified from being appointed "to no less than three positions" and stated that she had filed her complaint against her commander, "which had nothing to do with sexual harassment precisely because she knew about "the dissatisfaction that her functioning was arousing among her commanders."
The High Court of Justice ruling in October, 2005, written by Justice Ayala Procaccia, refuted these claims, one by one. It unambiguously recognized the connection between the complaint and her non-advancement ("The petitioner's complaint and her uncompromising determination contributed significantly the army's decision not to promote her in rank and position and to discharge her from the IDF"), criticized the army for having ignored the ombudsman's recommendations ("It is hard to avoid the sense that a real attempt was not made ... to integrate the petitioner into the ranks of the army. Instead of so doing, the army took measures in order to fulfill its obligation pro forma from a hostile attitude toward the petitioner while emphasizing her negative aspects and sought weak points to distance her") and ordered it to promote her to the rank of major and assign her to a position "commensurate with her qualifications."
In the new petition filed two years after this ruling, the officer is claiming that the IDF "has not implemented the ruling." Although IDF has indeed promoted her to the rank of major, until now it has not found even a single position intended for majors that would be "commensurate with her qualifications."
According to the petition, during the first year after the ruling Felzman was required to wait for the next round of assignments and to continue serving in the temporary position, which is suitable for people who hold the rank of captain, to which she had been assigned in compliance with the High Court order. After that she was asked to list four assignments for majors for which she would like to compete but she was called in for interviews for only two of them. Later, and even before she received an answer about them, she received notification that the round of assignments had been completed, and therefore she would have to wait for another half a year until the next round.
When this round was approaching, she was summoned for an interview with a brigadier general in the Logistics Directorate, who informed her that she could not be appointed to a department head (as is customary for majors in the directorate) and that it had been decided to appoint her to a new position for dealing with "implementation and instilling the lessons of the Second Lebanon War in the wake of investigations carried out in the areas of logistics."
Since this position "requires immediate manning," she was told she would not be able to compete for the position of department head in the next round of assignments. However, since the position that had to do with lessons of the war is by its nature a "temporary position," she could compete for permanent majors' appointments while filling that position.
This did not happen. During the last few months, Felzman has been handling "implementation and instilling of lessons from the [Second] Lebanon War," first in the cubby that also served as a storeroom and then without any office at all. She has not been able to compete for any other assignment.
However, this was not the end of the officer's woes: Ten days after she had submitted her second petition to the High Court, she was informed that it was her commanders' intention to court martial her for "disobeying an order." Felzman, say her commanders, refused to obey an order to clear out of the storeroom in which she had been working. In the meantime Feldman's intervention has led to the suspension but not yet to the cancellation of this legal proceeding.
The response from the IDF Spokesman: "The claims put forth by the officer in her petition to the High Court of Justice have no substance. The IDF has been dealing with this matter now for some time and its detailed reply to the officer's claims will be given to the court at the time appointed for this."