Dr. Hana Kehat began her fight against sexual harassment within Israel's religious sector even before initiating the Takana forum, from which she has now resigned in the wake of the Rabbi Mordechai Elon affair. Kehat is a founder and board member of Kolech - a feminist, religious Zionist movement established more than 20 years ago which aims to achieve equality for women within the religious community.
Kehat, a lecturer in Bible and Israeli thought, started taking on sexual harassment at Kolech, where she exposed how such harassment on the part of Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, head of the women's religious college at Bar-Ilan University, had been handled. The affair nearly led to her firing from Orot College by its director, Rabbi Neria Guttel, and demonstrated the great need to establish the Takana forum. Kolech put pressure on Bar-Ilan; as a result the university set up an investigatory committee headed by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, today one of Takana's leaders.
Kehat's resignation from Takana, along with other members of Kolech from the forum they created, was carried out in protest against how the Elon case has been treated - with a lack of transparency - which resulted in the women being excluded from its handling.
Dr. Kehat, might all the commotion around Mordechai Elon stem from the fact that he is homosexual?
Definitely not. Takana treats sexual harassment according to the seriousness of the case, not according to sexual preference. The commotion comes from the severity of the offenses, from the fact that it involves an assault, and also because it involves a rabbi who managed to turn himself into almost a kind of saint.
Would the same amount of noise had been made if Elon had sexually assaulted women who came to see him for advice?
I believe so. I am also certain that Takana treats rabbis who sexually harass men or women with the same gravity. We were partner to the establishment of Takana because of other cases we handled in which we discovered the total lack of awareness of the entire matter of sexual harassment on the part of rabbis. Not only was it not clear to them that it was illegal, they were not aware that it was an improper and indecent phenomenon.
We had previously dealt with the case of [Rabbi Ze'ev] Kopilovitch from Netiv Meir [yeshiva] who harassed many students and had been protected by [other] rabbis; and with the cases of Yitzchak Cohen and Rabbi [Shlomo] Aviner. Deliberations about Aviner took place entirely in a rabbinical court - lasting seven years and ending only a few months ago - with the decision that Aviner may not advise women any more.
And during those seven years he taught and dispensed advice?
Yes. But in any case it is impossible to compare the severity of his offenses with those of Elon. In Aviner's case, unbecoming behavior and verbal abuse were involved, but in Elon's there is also physical abuse.
We established Takana as a result of our activities, when rabbis began to understand that we were right and it was not a good idea for them - the rabbis - to be portrayed in front of their students as supporters of sexual harassment or as those who exploit their stature, which is much greater than the stature of regular teachers with their students, to commit such deeds. Until then, it had been accepted that rabbis were permitted to do anything, they were the highest authority and no one could question or attack them.
After the forum was established, it took two years to explain to rabbis the law against sexual harassment. Then they began to act according to the model of disciplinary committees in other institutions, which include jurists and psychologists and representatives of other bodies. But it is still difficult to conduct matters with transparency within the framework of hundreds of rabbis. In Elon's case, it was clear all along that a ticking time bomb lay under the surface because of his special stature; due to the fear of what the story would do to the religious community, we [female] representatives of Takana were excluded entirely.
According to Takana's bylaws, our representatives sit in on every panel and discussion. Until this case, it has always been this way. And in all the forums and deliberations in which we did play a part, they did not tell us there was a ticking time bomb beneath the surface.
Why? Because of your fighting spirit? Were they afraid you wouldn't cooperate in concealing the case?
Just about. The matter between Takana and Kolech is clear now. The treatment of the case was unprofessional and lasted four years. Elon was asked to resign from two teaching positions and he moved to Migdal, where he mocked Takana's decisions and continued to teach. Furthermore, he built himself up as a kind of saint who had moved to the Galilee and become an ascetic, while the whole time no one was supervising his behavior.
So you are basically saying that because Elon was important, Takana decided to sweep the matter under the carpet.
There was concealment to a certain degree here, not a whitewash. There was deception. They also broke the forum's rules, and I imagine there will be discussions about this now. In the end, lessons will be learned and it will be sorted out and they will go back to conducting themselves as a public body.
What was the significance of Elon's move to Migdal? Out of sight, out of mind?
No, this solution was proposed by Elon himself when he was forced to leave his teaching posts. As an explanation, he said the move was due to health problems. He made up the story and in hindsight, without their intending it to happen this way, Takana helped him create the image of a saint.
Are there any positive sides to the story?
First of all, it signifies a very important change in the religious sector's approach to sexual harassment. But the ones who have gained the most from the story are religious homosexuals, and I of course welcome this. From their point of view, things really turned out well. As Elon was one of their greatest opponents, they can now say that homophobia is proof of hidden homosexuality.
Second of all, from now on it will be possible to say that it is legitimate to be a religious homosexual. It's a fact that there are other religious leaders like Elon. They received a great deal of legitimization, however indirectly. I also think that it will make it easier for lesbians and gay men to accept their identity and find a framework within religious society; it's very important that they create communities that will help them deal with the dichotomy of being religious and homosexual. It is not a simple struggle to wage. I admire this struggle and support it.
On the same topic, is it possible that throughout all these years Rabbi Elon conducted a double life - being a married family man and at the same an active homosexual - and no one knew?
In any case, I didn't know. I don't know if others knew.
Where do you see him in another 10 years?
I think he has lost his place in public life. His followers will sober up, too. I don't pity him. My heart is with those who were hurt.
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