Israeli Prof. Escapes With Reprimand Over Relationship With Student

Some people at Tel Aviv University thought the sociology professor should have been found guilty of sexual harassment.

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A YouTube screenshot of Ronen Shamir, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University
A YouTube screenshot of Ronen Shamir, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University has reprimanded a professor for unbecoming conduct for his intimate relationship with a student who at one point sought to drop the case after she received emails offering her “protection.”

In the 40 pages of the ruling posted on an internal Tel Aviv University website, significant chunks are deleted, not just personal details, making the case all the more complex.

It’s a story of a relationship between Prof. Ronen Shamir of the university’s sociology and anthropology department, and one of his female students, identified as S.

The student, who at one point moved in with the professor, filed a sexual harassment complaint after he reportedly broke off the relationship, but she later retracted the charge and sought to have the disciplinary proceedings halted.

The university pursued the complaint anyway, leading to a ruling that Shamir was guilty on two counts of unbecoming conduct, not sexual harassment. Despite the university’s request that Shamir be forced into early retirement, two of the three judges on the disciplinary panel opted for a reprimand, surprising some people at the university.

The ruling ended an investigation and proceedings that lasted four years. Shamir was also barred from serving as an administrator at the university for five years. He had been department chairman, but had stepped down by the time of the ruling.

Shamir, who with his lawyer declined to comment for this article, is a sociologist specializing in legal issues. He has researched decisions by the High Court of Justice and Israeli attitudes on the occupation. He has also delved into legal attitudes on the New Deal in the United States.

According to the ruling, Shamir began courting S. - an Arab student - during her first year in the department. Initially she is said to have rebuffed his advances, but ultimately agreed to go to a show with him.

Later they began living together in Shamir’s Tel Aviv home. Shamir did not report this to anyone at the university, even though a short time after the couple’s relationship began, the university published regulations barring teachers from “intimate relations with a student if there are ties of academic authority between them.”

According to the regulations, the faculty member is the one responsible for avoiding such a relationship, or be subject to possible disciplinary action.
After the relationship had lasted a year, Shamir broke off his ties with S., but she told several faculty members about the relationship and filed a complaint with the university’s commissioner for sexual harassment complaints, Prof. Rachel Erhard.

A day after Shamir appeared before Erhard for an initial clarification on the matter, S. began receiving emails, some from a friend of Shamir’s and others bearing a false name, Luka Haroun. That moniker derived from two characters in a book by Salman Rushdie, reportedly one of Shamir’s favorite authors.

In the emails, there were promises to protect S., who said she suspected that Shamir had them sent after she filed her complaint. The investigation involved testimony from a number of people; The disciplinary inquiry took many months and there was a lot of testimony. Erhard, the commissioner, spoke to another female student who told her about problematic behavior on Shamir’s part but refused to lodge a complaint; friends of a female student from a foreign country also told her about such conduct – but these testimonies remained outside the written complaint against him.
During the process, Shamir continued teaching.

When Erhard sought to question S. about the case a second time, she did not appear and later retracted her complaint. The university administration deliberated over whether to continue with the case and decided to file a formal complaint against Shamir.

“The university is not an entity that can force a student to come in and complain,” a university official said. “In many other places, I assume they would have dropped the case.”

The university filed a complaint accusing Shamir of sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming of a faculty member. When S. was summoned to testify against Shamir, she failed to appear and hired a lawyer in an effort to end the proceedings.

A number of faculty members testified against Shamir before a three-judge panel headed by Prof. Nina Zaltzman of the university’s law school. She found the testimony to be unsubstantiated rumor.

According to Zaltzman, it was not enough that S. had reported improper conduct on Shamir’s part to a number of faculty members, even if her accounts were always identical. And the university had a high burden of proof, Zaltzman ruled.

In fact, S. testified on Shamir’s behalf, explaining that she had filed her complaint out of anger at the professor and a desire to get revenge. People at the university incited her to file the complaint to sully Shamir’s reputation, she added.

But Zaltzman found it hard to accept S.’s new account, saying it was confused and full of contradictions. According to Zaltzman, S.’s new account was inconsistent with her willingness to share details of her relationship with Shamir with other faculty members. Zaltzman concluded that neither version of S.’s testimony could be relied on.

All told, the three judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove sexual harassment. “The question is whether it was proved that the defendant had directed ‘repeated propositions of a sexual nature while taking advantage of his authority regarding academic studies’ toward S. My answer is negative,” Zaltzman wrote.

But she did rule that Shamir’s “intimate relations” with a student in the department were “ethically improper and constitute behavior unbecoming of a faculty member.” She said two emails that Shamir had sent reflected an improper effort to dissuade S. from cooperating with the investigation.

In the ruling, the university attributed to Shamir physical or verbal violence on several occasions during the relationship he had with S., and also the use of her telephone without her permission, prima facie to send messages to her boyfriend. Shamir denied these claims and was exonerated of them, after it was ruled that the testimonies concerning them were hearsay.

In the punishment phase, two of the three judges decided on the reprimand. A third judge, Prof. Miguel Deutch, recommended that Shamir be suspended for the maximum period allowed — six months — and that the regulations be amended so that a longer suspension would be possible in the future.

Sources at the university relate that there is disappointment about the punishment. “We wanted him not to work here any longer,” said one person. “The bottom line is not good at all. Faculty members have known about him for years, the whole world knew – and in the end that is the result. We felt very frustrated in face of the ruling.”

A faculty member told Haaretz: “I thought there should have been a more significant punishment. I have no doubt that what she said initially is the truth of the matter and what she said afterwards is not. The ruling implies that he did grave things, no matter what you call it — and it’s ended with a punishment that is a joke. At least it merits publication.”

A senior official at the university says: “The judges say there wasn’t sexual harassment but under the regulations in the context of the unequal power relations she was not required to say she did not agree. The law says that the fact that he pursued her is sexual harassment. They interpreted this very leniently – it’s baffling.”

Despite the criticism voiced, the university chose not to appeal the ruling, according to a senior source there, because “they didn’t think there was a big chance [of success] of an appeal like this.”

”The decision of the disciplinary court raises many additional questions. The first of them concerns the length of time the procedure took: A year and a half elapsed before the written complaint was lodged, the court’s deliberations took about another two and a half years and the ruling was published only in November of 2014. Another question is why the ruling remained confidential.

The university published only a summary of it in a way that enabled access to it only to people in the know. A university source has explained that it was the judges who asked to keep the ruling confidential.
Women in the legal profession are also criticizing the ruling, and wondering among other things why the university chose not to investigate Shamir for intimidation in the matter of his attempts to contact S after he became aware that the complaint had been lodged.

“The law defines intimidation as even graver than harassment itself, in criminal law, and sets a punishment of three years imprisonment,” says a legal expert on sexual harassment. She adds: “This is a central part of the law to prevent sexual harassment, because it is clear that a woman who complains is liable to be subjected to intimidation. It is formulated in such away that even if there was not a significant conviction or civil suit and even if harassment was not proven, the intimidation can stand because of the causal relationship. It is enough that there was a complaint. My impression is that she was panicked, that she was feeling persecuted. The prosecution did not bring this up and no one discussed it. This means that the university is not familiar with the law, is not doing its work properly and is not dealing with something that prima facie should have been obvious. The wagging finger here points to all the elements within the university.”

Another woman in the legal field related to S’s request to stop the procedure and according to her this is a common phenomenon. “Many women who complain realize what they have gotten themselves into and change their minds. This often happens because of the reactions from the institutions: They don’t deal with them properly, they don’t give the women a feeling of security and they realize that this is suicide. That a woman who complained has changed her mind in and of itself poses a question mark concerning the person who was the recipient of the complaint, because had he done his job properly perhaps this would not have happened.”

In response to the university’s claim concerning the length of time the disciplinary procedure took after S changed her mind, the legal expert says: “The fact that she changed her mind is not at all relevant to their obligation to take care of this, to prevent harassment of other women and to find out if there was intimidation.”

Maya Tzahor, a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment cases, questioned the high burden of proof required of the university administration. She also said the facts did not support a finding of sexual harassment.
As the university put it in a statement to Haaretz: “The university filed a complaint with the faculty disciplinary tribunal against a faculty member regarding sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming of a member of the university faculty ... despite the withdrawal by the complainant of her complaint and her demand that disciplinary proceedings be dropped.”
According to the university, “At the end of the proceedings, the university even demanded that the faculty member receive the harsh punishment of an immediate termination of his employment and his immediate early retirement.”

The tribunal acts in accordance with regulations and makes its decisions independently, the university added.

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