Battling Sexual Harassment in Tel Aviv Clubs, One Aggressor at a Time

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A party at a Tel Aviv club.Credit: Sara Wass

Dozens of clubs and bars in Tel Aviv are marking the first anniversary of their decision to band together and try to fight the sexual harassment that’s plagued the city’s nightlife scene. But has there been any positive change?

Forty business owners signed the “Good Night” pact. In it, they committed themselves to dealing with complaints of sexual harassment immediately; protecting the personal security of customers; making a person responsible for collecting and coordinating the complaints; conducting training twice a year on how staff should deal with sexual harassment; and putting up signs encouraging people to turn to the staff in cases of sexual harassment.

During staff training in the city’s Sexual Assault Crisis Center, waiters and bartenders described to colleagues what they have to contend with every night. Staff learned that what many call a “battle of the sexes” happens on the city’s dance floors, and the time had come to stop it.

Some clubs hung signs encouraging customers – both men and women – to turn to the staff if they needed help or experienced sexual harassment.

The Block in south Tel Aviv went even further and began telling groups of arriving revelers about how the club was a safe space, and that any report of harassment would be dealt with on the spot. “Not a night goes by where the briefing doesn’t receive applause. It gives women who come to the club a feeling of security, and it has a dramatic effect,” says Yaron Trax, the club’s owner.

Since the initiative began, the number of complaints has risen: More revelers are complaining; more harassment accusations are being dealt with; and more of the harassers have been given life bans from the bars and clubs due to sexual violence.

Trax says over 100 men have been banned from clubs in the past year, and that every complaint is investigated immediately. The night managers listen to the woman’s version of events and the man’s, and examine the video footage from the security cameras to make a decision.

“My fantasy is for the club to feel like a womb, the most protected place to spend time, one that provides immediate happiness from all the elements – the sound, the feelings and the interpersonal communication,” says Trax. “Sexual harassment threatens this feeling.”

Along with the Tel Aviv initiative, the feminist student group Yerushalmiot has its own version for pubs in the capital in cooperation with city hall and the Na’amat women’s organization.

A poster warning against sexual harassment, part of a campaign by a Jerusalem women's group called 'Yerushalmiot.' The caption says 'Make sure she really wants to. Stopping sexual violence.'Credit: Lena Sternberg

Elena Romanovsky tells of how the project began after she was drugged in a pub in Jerusalem: “I was lucky nothing happened, because a good friend of mine was with me.” Romanovsky discovered this was not such a unique experience, but that women simply don’t talk about it.

“We decided that to get angry is great, but the time had come to do something about it,” she says. The group explains how to raise awareness of the problem to the bar staff, and how to make the space safer.

The group has awarded its awareness certificate to 10 Jerusalem pubs, while another 10 will undergo training in the coming months. Most places cooperate, she says, but notes that the pubs that refused to participate said, “It doesn’t happen here.”

‘Horny and exploitative’ men

The Tel Aviv initiative began with an angry Facebook post by Gili Ron, an architecture student who went out dancing with friends. She was attacked, she says, by “horny and exploitative” men, who she was forced to fend off by herself.

Ron created a dialogue between social activists and the club and bar owners, and after six months of work, they all formulated a pact. Ron says a number of her friends decided to stop going out last year, fearing for their safety, but says she now sees signs of a breakthrough.

Her main accomplishment has been raising awareness of sexual harassment on the club scene – which until recently was seen by women as a known risk and an inseparable part of the evening.

Ron says that when she was harassed by men, “there was no one to turn to – all I could do was throw a bottle of water on the man.”

She says the pact returned her faith “in social organization. As a result of the initiative, club and bar owners recognized that they had responsibility for what goes on in their business, and it’s for their own good: When you end the evening with a good experience, you want to come back,” she adds.

A deejay often gets the best view of what’s happening at the nightclubs. DJ Idan Gavriel praises the initiative, but says it hasn’t stopped the harassment. “Two weeks ago, I deejayed in London,” he relates. “There, people come to dance; they don’t go out for this battle of the sexes.”

Israeli harassers are still back in the 1960s and haven’t changed, he believes. “It’s sad that most men in these entertainment spots come for that,” notes Gavriel.

In a recent meeting the group set its next goals: To deal with the thousands of bars and clubs outside of Tel Aviv; requiring bars and clubs to sign the agreement by making it part of the business licensing process for nightspots; and finding ways of dealing with “people who think they are entitled” – in other words, the friends of the owners who go out “hunting” every night, and about whom no one wants to say anything.

Some places use the “Good Night” standard as a sort of “Kashrut certificate,” but remain just as sleazy as they always were, says Masha Aberbuch, a student who frequents the club scene.

“They take pride in this certificate, which gives them legitimacy. They are careful to throw out once in a while someone who harasses, and it’s nice to publicize it on social networks. But the problem is much deeper than that,” she says. Owners and club employees imagine the harassers as strangers who came by chance to their business, and don’t recognize that often it is they and their best friends, she says.

“We would rather throw out someone we see as a harasser and occasionally make a mistake, rather than take the risk that such a person is in our place,” said one attendee at the meeting.

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