Sexual Harassment Inadequately Dealt With in Israeli Academia, Watchdog Finds

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A long chapter of the annual State Comptroller's report, soon to be published, is devoted to the issue of sexual harassment in academia.

The report mentions several cases in recent years at state-funded institutions of higher education, including the large universities, in which senior male faculty members sexually harassed female students.

The report criticizes the schools' handling of the incidents, citing delays in investigating complaints. In some cases, the government watchdog agency found, the complaints were not even investigated.

In the report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is expected to criticize certain schools for failing to increase awareness about sexual harassment in academia. In some cases, institutions either failed to hold sexual harassment training programs, as demanded by law, or did so incompletely.

Employees of the State Comptroller's Office who were involved in preparing the report said the incidents that were brought to their attention indicated that sexual harassment was a widespread occurrence in Israeli academia and is not always addressed seriously.

The comptroller's findings were originally scheduled for publication last year, but the report was postponed to allow for further study of the issue.

Israel's Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law requires employers to take reasonable measures to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment in the workplace and to address each incident.

Several cases of sexual harassment on campus have been reported in the past few years, together with complaints about the way the incidents were handled. Some of these were addressed in a 2012 position paper published by the National Union of Israeli Students.

"In some institutions there is a norm of silencing sexual-harassment complaints, expressed in a lack of transparency and failure to enforce the law. In extreme cases, the institutions even persuade female students not to submit a complaint," the report said.

In a number of cases, the student organization's report said the institution gave monetary compensation to such students.

About a year ago Haaretz reported on a student demonstration at Tel Aviv University to protest the institution's alleged failure to handle a student's complaints about one of her teachers. The student, identified here only as M., posted her side of the story on her Facebook, prompting the demonstration.

M. claimed that the university's commissioner for sexual harassment complaints, Prof. Rachel Erhard, shelved her complaint against a teacher who sent her text messages of a personal nature and asked about her personal life.

M. claimed she declined a breakfast invitation from the teacher, who promised to raise her course grade. After receiving a low grade on a test she stopped attending the class and complained about the teacher to the department head.

The department head forwarded M.'s complaint to Erhard's office. "In the circumstances brought before me, I did not find that the lecturer’s behavior constituted sexual harassment according to law and the bylaws," Erhard wrote M., adding that she could read the report and the recommendations.

But Erhard did not tell M. that she could appeal the decision not to follow up on the complaint. M. claimed that after learning of this option she returned to Erhard, who refused to give her the forms unless she signed a confidentiality agreement. The rector of the university rejected M.'s appeal.

An investigation by Haaretz published in August 2012 found that although two other students had complained about the same teacher previously, he was still employed by the university. In one case he was found guilty of inappropriate behavior, and in the other the commissioner for sexual harassment at the time said nothing could be done because the complaint was anonymous.

Haaretz also learned of other cases in which TAU took no action on complaints about other faculty members.

Students and researchers point out the problematic nature of the sexual harassment commissioner's position within the institution: The commissioner, a faculty member, is charged with investigating complaints against her colleagues.

That situation, noted Prof. Orit Kamir, who helped draft the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, places the commissioner in an "inherent and inescapable position of conflict of interest as a consequence of institutional loyalty."

Kamir, who was speaking at a TAU conference six months ago, suggested creating an independent, external panel to hear complaints of sexual harassment in academia and the workplace.

The Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities said in a statement that it regards every incident of sexual harassment as a serious matter and believes in a zero-tolerance policy for such cases, "which should be addressed thoroughly and decisively. The universities deal firmly with every complaint received and do not hesitate to take measures against all offenders regardless of status or rank. The universities go beyond the letter of the law in dealing with such incidents. Beyond that, we cannot comment on the state comptroller’s report before it is published.”

The State Comptroller’s Office confirmed that the upcoming annual report contains a chapter on how institutions of higher education in Israel deal with sexual harassment.

Uri Rashtik, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, said a survey conducted by the organization pointed to inadequate handling of sexual harassment in academia. He said the union has been working with the relative agencies in an effort to rectify the problem and will continue to do so until it is satisfied.

In addition, Rashtik said, the student organization has drafted a proposal for introducing a uniform protocol for addressing sexual harassment in academia and will do all it can to see to its implementation.

A student demonstration at Tel Aviv University against handling of sexual harassment complaints.Credit: Alon Ron
Students at Tel Aviv University. Administrators failed to adequately address complaints.Credit: Tali Meir

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