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A wave of complaints about cases of rape, attacks and sexual harassment of young Orthodox women who volunteered for National Service (Sherut Leumi) instead of being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, has agitated the national religious public over the past year. The rabbinical establishment apparently takes a very forgiving attitude toward the attackers and tends to blame the victims - young, innocent religious women, whose education hasn't prepared them to deal with this type of situation. The problem is so severe that Orthodox women are beginning to wonder in what way volunteering for National Service is preferable to serving in the army.

"In the army at least there's someone to turn to, and they deal with it in a strict and unequivocal manner," says Chana Kehat, a lecturer in Jewish studies at the women's college in Elkana. "I have students in the college who say this thing called National Service should be closed. They don't tell me what they went through there, they always say that they have a friend who experienced harassment."

It happened six years ago. A., now 25, grew up in a national-religious family. Her grandfather was a community rabbi. For four months after her rape, she didn't tell anyone a thing. In the religious society where she grew up, they don't talk about rape as a real danger, certainly not to naive and straitlaced girls who scrupulously observe the religious commandments. Her rapist was a 32-year-old driver who took students on class trips. She was a 19-year-old National Service youth counselor; she was in charge of a group of high-school students from the center of the country, who went on their annual school trip in his bus. At the end of the trip, after all the students had gotten off and all the equipment had been unloaded, she asked to return home. The group's coordinator suggested she get a lift with the driver. "`He's our regular driver, you can rely on him, he'll take you to the central bus station' said the coordinator, and I got onto his bus."

On the way, she says, the driver stopped the bus by the side of the road. "He said there was some problem, and he got off to check. After a minute he came back and said, `You're a pretty girl, you did such a good job as a guide on the trip.' I tried to be polite, I said, `Thank you very much,' but he continued talking. I started to get nervous and then he tried to touch my face. I turned my head and said, `Let's go,' but he didn't move. Then I got up from my seat, but he blocked my way and hit me hard, lay me down on the floor of the bus and started to abuse me. He did everything, he hit me, cursed me, humiliated me, raped me and at the end even urinated on me. He took out all his wickedness on me. He was very angry - what right did I have to refuse him?"

"If there is a book of humiliations, he took everything from it. Everything," she says. "At a certain stage I lost consciousness and when I opened my eyes, he said: `Good, we can do it again' and started all over again. There was a part when I lost my strength and I must have prayed, then he said: `I'm your God and your Satan.' A family man, with a wife and children. And I screamed, but he didn't care about anything. In the end he got up, turned on the motor, offered me a glass of water and asked if I wanted to get off to drink coffee with him. A nice guy. Afterward he drove to the central bus station, let me off, and asked if I wanted to call someone to ask for help. I was trembling with fear. I was in such shock, that even now I don't remember how I got home.

"I was wearing a long wraparound skirt, a shirt and a jacket," A. recalls. "When I got off the bus I must have tied the skirt somehow, and that's how I got home. It was a Friday morning. My mother was home, she asked how I was and I don't remember what I answered, I went straight into the bathtub, I washed myself for hours and I went to sleep. Since then I haven't worn that type of wraparound skirt, or a shirt with a jacket. My situation deteriorated drastically. I wouldn't go on any more trips. I simply didn't go, I used all kinds of excuses. I was deathly afraid that he would come. I told everyone I didn't feel well and it was true that my whole body hurt, it was full of bruises. I would have sudden attacks of vomiting. I had terrible stomachaches. There's a place on my back that still hurts. I was sleepy all the time."

Everyone noticed that there was something wrong with her. "I went for a checkup but they didn't find any medical reason. After four months I could no longer continue to lie to everyone. One day, after I had messed up another trip, the school administration called my supervisor and said there was a problem with me, and my supervisor called and said, `This is unacceptable.' That day I broke down. I took a bus to Jerusalem, it was just when there was a memorial service for Zevulun Hammer [the late leader of the National Religious Party] at the Jerusalem Theater, and I met my supervisor there. She was in shock when she saw me. And then I broke down and told her everything. She also broke down and cried uncontrollably. Afterward she called the school right away and said I wouldn't be coming to work any more, and she put me in contact with a psychologist and with the Rape Crisis Center."

Harming chances for a match

A week later, A. told her parents what had happened to her. "I remember my mother cried terribly," she says. "but after that I slept all night for the first time without nightmares." A week later A. told her boyfriend, who is now her husband. "I was very strong," she says. "I asked that we stop meeting. We were at the beginning of our relationship, and I was afraid he would stay with me out of pity. He was in shock, he didn't know how he was supposed to react. Even now I suffer from nightmares and he suffers from me. When I was pregnant I trembled with fear that I would have a girl. Fortunately, I had a boy."

Why didn't you tell your parents immediately?

A.: "It's a disgrace. It's humiliating. For three years I didn't look in the mirror. I would go into the bathroom and cover the mirror with special cloth. A week before the wedding was the first time I looked in the mirror."

Another year passed until she agreed to complain to the police. At the time A. worked for a well-known lawyer and in one of her moments of crisis, she told him everything. "Within the hour the entire Tel Aviv criminal investigations department was in his office, and then everything started to move very quickly. They convinced me to file a complaint."

There was a trial, the driver was convicted of rape, and the court sentenced him to nine years' imprisonment: seven years in jail and a two-year suspended sentence. Now she is afraid of the moment when he is released: "Once I was sure that I saw him at the Central Bus Station and I went into total shock. I sat in the station for six hours and I couldn't move. I peed in my pants out of fright. People brought me home. I was almost an automaton. For me he's the strongest, most frightening and most wicked person in the world."

A. is not the only one to have suffered such brutality. Ayelet Cohen-Wieder, a clinical psychologist from Jerusalem, for eight years headed the psychological department of Bat Ami, a nongovernmental organization that sends young Orthodox women to National Service.

"Many girls came to me because of sexual harassment during their service," she says. "Most of the complaints were against people with authority, including rabbis, who exploited the girls' naivete. Religious society is very patriarchal, and the man is seen as the one who always knows better, especially if he is an educator, a person of status or a rabbi. They don't ask questions about things he does, and after he does something, they don't dare to speak against him."

In the absence of complaints, said Cohen-Wieder, there is nothing to keep them in check: "This is a phenomenon that nobody is stopping. The naivete of Orthodox girls is unbelievable, maybe that's what attracts the men. A girl with a broader sexual education can identify when it's harassment. An Orthodox girl doesn't identify it, and that's why she becomes part of an at-risk group."

The National Service system doesn't know how to handle these cases properly, claims Cohen-Wieder. "Usually they send the girl away. There was a girl who worked in education, she was responsible for a certain field in a high school, and there was an older man working there, who was responsible for that same field. And he put his hands on her all the time, and she said she `observes negiah' [the prohibition against touching members of the opposite sex], so he starting to have philosophical debates with her, and explained to her how it wasn't good for her to observe negiah. It was very hard for her to deal with this and she came to me and told me. We spoke to the woman in charge and they sent her away from there."

Religious society is very afraid of the perpetrator, said Cohen-Wieder. "One girl was harassed by someone in a small town and [the family] turned to the rabbi of the community, but the rabbi didn't do anything because he was afraid of the man, who was known to be very violent. In Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] society, if such a thing happens, the family of the victim takes four thugs who `take care' of the man.

"We are law-abiding, but on the other hand we don't appeal to the legal system because we don't want to hang out our dirty laundry in public. That immediately involves publicity and the media and lessens the chances of finding a shiddukh [a match], which is a central factor in the decision, because what happens immediately calls to question the girl's tzniut [modesty in dress and behavior]. We had a girl who complained that a senior educator in the place where she worked harassed her, so the coordinator said to her: `I asked you to be more careful about how you dress.'"

When is one permitted to pinch

About 8,000 young women, most of them Orthodox, volunteer every year for National Service through four organizations: the Israel Volunteer Association, Bat Ami, Aminadav and Shlomit. These NGOs are a combination draft board and manpower agency. They compete among themselves for the girls, and offer a choice of attractive places: school systems, health institutions, boarding schools, Magen David Adom, courts, the police, senior citizens programs, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and so on. As in military service, the state (through the NGOs) is responsible for the health and welfare of the volunteers, for pocket money, housing, insurance and for dealing with any problem that comes up during the period of service. The minister of labor and social affairs is responsible for overseeing the National Service Law. All the directors of the NGOs say they have direct control over suitability and monitoring. In fact, they have much less control than they think.

Rabbi Zvi Bamberg, executive director of Aminadav, enlists about 700 young women into the ranks of his organization every year. He has heard about sexual harassment. Here and there.

"From those who come to us it's only here and there, but I assume that not everything reaches us," he says. "We give counseling before the service. There's a seminar that deals with the rights of the girls, who have just finished school and don't exactly understand the difference between a pinch on the cheek, which until a year ago was still allowed as a gesture of childish affection, and [behavior toward] a mature young woman who is now working in an institution. We explain to them what is allowed and what is forbidden, which groups deal with this area and what services exist in the country. Of course if we receive information, we deal with it on a different plane. But the girl has to agree, because it's impossible to file a complaint with the police if the girl doesn't want to do so."

Is there in fact a sympathetic ear in National Service for girls who have been harassed?

Bamberg: "I think there are places to turn to. On the other hand, I am familiar with the reality of their anxieties. When we hear about a specific case, even indirectly, we invite the girl and ask to involve her parents, which is not a matter of course for her, but we can't undermine her privacy and involve another factor. Our goal is to handle it discreetly, because often there are girls who cancel complaints because of the public exposure, and they even prevent other friends from filing complaints. If the case is handled discreetly, it's easier."

The Israel Volunteer Association handles about 4,300 girls each year. It employs 120 staff from around the country, and also has a unit for handling sexual harassment, headed by a social worker. The unit that has grown in recent years "as a result of what is happening in the field," says the deputy director of the NGO, Yaron Lutz. As opposed to the situation in the military, here there are problematic relations between the NGOs and the institutions where the young women do National Service. The NGOs cannot dictate to hospitals or to courts whom to remove from work on suspicion of sexual harassment, whom to reprimand or whom to move to another department, as long as a complaint has not been filed with the police, and even then nothing is self-evident. The only sanction available is to deny that institution the manpower of the young women.

"We remove the girls, and until the person [accused of harassment] leaves, and there have been such cases in the past. We don't send them any more girls," says Lutz. "There are places where it doesn't help and nothing is done."

Yedayah Levin, executive director of Bat Ami, is proud that this year there were only three cases of sexual harassment among the 1,700 girls that the NGO enlists every year. Levin forgets to mention that these were the only three cases that came to his attention. He didn't hear, for example, about the rape of someone named N.

"Where there has been harassment, we encourage going to the police," he says. "This year there was a case of a girl who was harassed by an outside person with financial influence in the town where she is serving. We tried to encourage here to turn to the police, but she and her parents were opposed. From our point of view, the most important point is to protect the girl. There was also a case of a girl who was raped. She had a meeting with someone in the place where she was serving and he raped her. We made sure to remove her from the place immediately and we also turned to the police."

`Let me hear your voice'

Hila Kerner Soliman, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, says that a survey conducted in 2002 in dozens of such centers all over the country showed that 34 complaints were received by them from National Service volunteers and 31 from female soldiers.

"That doesn't mean anything from a statistical point of view," she says. "It's possible that the statistics are much higher, but the army has an independent system that deals with the issue, and the National Service girls don't usually report. There was a 22-year-old girl who was raped when she was a student in an ulpana [a religious high school for girls], but there they kept the story quiet. They told everyone there had been an attempted rape, but that she had overcome the attacker and he had fled. They changed the story in order to protect her and her shiddukhim."

Kerner Soliman recently initiated the inclusion of addenda to two paragraphs in the Sexual Harassment Law. In the paragraph where it says "in service" - which means in the security services - she wants to add "in national service," and in the paragraph that defines three categories of sexual harassment - of a minor, of a patient and of a worker - to add a fourth category: "[someone] in the context of consultation with a religious leader."

MK Eti Livni of the Shinui party has taken it upon herself to promote the change in legislation.

In the past year, news about cases of rape and sexual harassment in National Service have filtered down and have provoked a powerful upheaval in the religious-Zionist community. Last week, the biennial conference of Kolech, a religious feminist forum, took place at the International Convention Center in Binyanei Ha'uma in Jerusalem, and this seemed to be the main topic of discussion among the women there, in the various panels and in the corridors. Testimony by women regarding sexual harassment has accumulated against two important rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner from the settlement of Beit El and Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen of Rehovot. The publication of these two affairs opened a war of words between the male sector of religious Zionism, which came to the defense of the rabbis, and the women's sector. The rabbis accuse "those feminists who have nothing else to do with their lives."

Chana Kehat of Kfar Daniel in the Etzion Bloc is one of the most reviled women today among the community of rabbis who supported Rabbi Cohen. Kehat, the chairperson of Kolech, exposed the affair and was the first to put the pieces together. At the end of 1998, Kehat established Kolech, together with 50 women who felt that women's deprivation in the religious community is intolerable. Today 1,000 women are registered members of this nonprofit organization. At the recent conference, there were 2,000. A sea of colorful hats, headscarves and uncovered heads adorned the plenary hall. Long dresses, skirts, tight shirts, loose shirts, embroidered and plain, in all the colors of the rainbow, a demonstration of power that is hard to ignore.

The name of the organization comes from the biblical verse "Hashmi'ini et kolech" ("Let me hear your voice") and is a challenge to the silencing of women expressed in the Talmudic saying, "Kol be'isha erva" (which means `a woman's voice is provocative,' in a sexual way).

"The establishment of Kolech comes to illuminate the status of women in society, in halakha [Jewish law], in the synagogue, in education, where they don't deal with it at all, and the girls are still educated according to the patriarchal tradition," says Kehat, who is now doing a doctorate in the Jewish philosophy department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "We're trying to bypass that by having in-service courses for women, and we are causing a great deal of discomfort to the religious education administration."

"When Kolech was established, one of the founders said that she insists that Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen, head of the midrasha [post-high school institute for Jewish studies] for girls in Bar-Ilan University and a teacher at a Torah institute in Ra'anana, not be invited to speak at our forum," says Cohen-Wieder, who is also a member of the founding group. "She explained this by saying that he had seriously harmed a friend of hers. A few years later we heard about another case, and then we decided to investigate. But when he heard that we were dealing with this, he went to Rabbi Fisher and complained that we were harassing him."

Rabbi Shlomo Fisher is the father of Chana Kehat and a respected rabbi at the Itri Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who formerly served as a dayan (judge) in the rabbinical court. Kehat was born in Mea Shearim and grew up there until the age of 20, when she went through a process which her family, her parents and her seven brothers and sisters, who are all ultra-Orthodox, saw as leaving the fold. She went to study at university and lived between the Orthodox and the secular worlds, until she got married at the age of 27 to a student from a hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with military service), and found her place in the national religious world.

"My father is Haredi, but liberal," she says. "He is a second-generation Israeli, of Austro-Hungarian descent. Fundamentally he is a person with a Zionist orientation, despite the fact that he's Haredi. We are in contact. I think that the subversive element of my feminism is more difficult for him today than the Zionism. When Rabbi Cohen came to my father, my father called me and scolded me, saying: `What are you doing to a tzaddik [a righteous man]?' I told him that he isn't such a tzaddik, and sent the women who had complained to speak to him. He was so shocked by what he heard that he immediately called me and said that he wanted me to do anything I could to remove this man from his place of work, that he's a walking danger to women, and he wrote a letter to that effect that we sent to Bar-Ilan."

Cohen-Wieder: "When we turned to Bar-Ilan with a request to investigate the affair, they didn't do anything with it. Later, when Rabbi Fisher wrote the letter and Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, the head of the Ramat Gan yeshiva, supported us, things started to move more quickly. It was no longer those hysterical feminist women. And right before Passover, Rabbi Cohen was removed from the institution in Ra'anana and from Bar-Ilan University (BIU), after a public committee established by the university recommended it. But the rabbinical community still supports him unreservedly."

Kehat: "It's astonishing. Had he violated the Shabbat or eaten unkosher food, I have no doubt that they would have decided that one couldn't study with him, but the fact that he harassed women, rabbis treat him forgivingly - so he started up with a few girls, so what? That still doesn't disqualify him. His students say, `but his lessons are wonderful.'"

Kehat and her friends were surprised to find that even after they have managed to show that the man had harmed several women, and not only one or two, the attitude toward them hasn't changed. "The reaction is the opposite - we demonized him, people reject us because we succeeded in shattering the myth, and we weren't afraid despite the fact that rabbis came to his assistance," she explains.

In the affair of Rabbi Aviner, first published in the daily newspaper Ma'ariv, an arbitrator was appointed; he determined that the rabbi hadn't operated out of "yetzer hara" (the "evil instinct"), and that the women had wrongly interpreted his deeds and his intentions. The rabbinical establishment breathed a sigh of relief and adopted the arbitrator's decision as complete exoneration.

"Even an admired rabbi may be involved in harassment," says Dr. Aliza Lavie, a lecturer in communications at BIU and an activist in Kolech. "Is it possible that the process of ordination for the rabbinate is imperfect? Despite the processes of selection, filtering and gradual promotion, the system has also produced some rotten apples."

A similar opinion, but even more decisive, was heard from one of the few men present at the Kolech conference: "It's possible that the institution of the rabbinate is the root of the problem," said Dr. Noam Zohar of BIU to the assembled women. "Because if the unconditional mobilization of rabbis who come from the religious establishment to slander, banish and silence the women, and to prevent the discovery of the truth, stemmed from a desire to protect the institution of the rabbinate, the heart and soul of a ritual of blind adoration, and out of fear for its existence - then it's better to announce the closure of this establishment." His words were greeted by applause.

The religious public, however, is years behind in its attitude toward sexual harassment, claims Kehat: "They still blame the victim, who must have done something in order to encourage it. It's terrible. It's an educational failure that we want to fight, because if that's the case, then in what way is our society preferable to secular society?"