A day after Professor Eyal Ben-Ari was arrested on suspicion of forcing sex on his students, both professors and students Thursday described a reign of terror at Hebrew University's sociology department that kept female students from reporting his sexual harassment.
The police suspect Ben-Ari of indecent acts and extorting sexual favors from students and doctoral candidates in exchange for promoting them and providing funding for their research. The police refused to state how many women have filed complaints against the professor, but claim to have evidence that he sexually assaulted 10 students over a 10-year period. They also expect more women to come forward and complain now, since his name and picture were published in the media after he was arrested and then freed on bail on Wednesday.
Ben-Ari told Channel 2 news last night that he cannot comment on the allegations against him due to fear of obstructing justice. "The most burning issue is to tell my truth, but unfortunately, there is an ongoing investigation," he said.
Allegations of sexual harassment in the sociology department surfaced about a year ago, when students sent an anonymous letter to university officials regarding Ben-Ari. The students accused Ben-Ari of rape, forced sexual relations and misuse of university funds, both to finance his own trips abroad with female students and to purchase gifts for them. They also claimed that the university management had been been shelving complaints against Ben-Ari for the last seven years.
Three months ago, a teaching assistant published sexual allegations against a colleague of Ben-Ari's, sparking a storm in the department, which ultimately led to Ben-Ari's arrest. The assistant, represented by the Israel Women's Network, claimed the other professor had exploited his position of authority to harass her after she ended a romance between them. She finally wrote a blog about the incident under the headline "A. from the Sociology Department."
The new department chair, Dr. Gad Yair, admitted to a "reign of terror" in the department in a letter published on the Internet. "Neither academic freedom nor academics can exist in this environment," he wrote.
The university has denied dragging its feet in handling sexual harassment complaints. But Israel Women's Network attorney Yifat Mitzner said the university tried to close the case her client brought against the other professor and convert it into a case of "conduct unbecoming," without even hearing the complainant's testimony.
A university spokeswoman denied Mitzner's allegations, saying the Israel Women's Network itself had called the complainant's testimony incomplete, so university officials are waiting to hear her full story. A response could not be obtained from the professor in question.
Sociology professor Eva Ilouz said there are many more victims of similar crimes. "They must not be afraid to speak out," she said. "The Hebrew University should condemn this phenomenon, the result of a clear masculine culture."
But other professors in the department denied claims that there was a general problem of inappropriate relationships and sexual harassment, as well as claims that allegations are silenced. Previous department chair Zelli Guvitz said: "Any allegations and rumors were relayed to university officials. The Ben-Ari case was reported a year ago, but complainants did not come forward. The rumor mill worked overtime; there were accusations, conversations and faculty meetings. The matter was not shelved, but there were no complaints, and university policy is that no action can be taken based on rumors."
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