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In the #MeToo Era, the Nomination for Israel's State Prosecutor Is Troubling

Ido Baum
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Haifa district prosecutor Amit Aisman photographed in 2013.
Haifa district prosecutor Amit Aisman photographed in 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ido Baum

The nomination of Amit Aisman, who was investigated for making improper remarks in his office, reflects major backsliding recently in Israeli society's attitudes toward women

Amit Aisman, the Haifa district prosecutor, whom an official search committee has recommended as Israel’s next state prosecutor, is a tainted candidate for the job. The stain is from two separate improper remarks that led to an investigation against him by the Civil Service Commission. The investigation ended in a recommendation that the matter be clarified by the Justice Ministry director general at the time, Emi Palmor, in an internal ministry process, for unbecoming conduct by a civil servant. That concluded with Palmor finding that Aisman had expressed himself in a vulgar manner that was not respectful, and he received a reprimand in his personnel file.

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Since Aisman is now a candidate for such a senior and sensitive position as state prosecutor, the details of the two utterances are important. In the first case, from 12 years ago, before he became district prosecutor, Aisman held a meeting with a female prosecutor on a case involving a sexual offense. At one point in the discussion, he turned to a female law clerk who was present and asked her if she had a “spotted G-string” in her closet. The law clerk said she did not, after which Aisman turned to the prosecutor and said, “You see. Here’s a normal girl. She doesn’t keep things like that in the closet,” unlike the complainant in the criminal case that they were discussing.

The second, more recent incident occurred following his appointment as Haifa district prosecutor. A female prosecutor in the office asked to consult with Aisman on a defense lawyer’s proposed plea agreement in a case. He responded: “You’re not a man. You don’t have balls, right? Because when you’re a man and they crush your balls, there’s a feeling of pain but you also have a feeling of pleasure, and that’s what the defense lawyer is doing to us.”

The account, by the female prosecutor, who said that she found the comment crippling, was backed by other female prosecutors in the office.

The search committee for the position of state prosecutor, which was headed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, clearly understood that Aisman was a tainted candidate. In recommending Aisman, the committee devoted an entire paragraph to the issue, noting that it related to events that were years old.

Does time change a person’s character or approach? The panel noted that Aisman’s case was examined and that he was reprimanded. Does that reprimand change his character and resolve the stain?

The committee had the impression that Aisman recognized the problematic nature of his conduct and regretted it, that he had learned a lesson and was currently working to promote “respectful discourse” in his senior position at district prosecutor. Does the regret and change of course make him fit for such a job promotion?

The paragraph on the issue in the committee’s recommendation of Aisman reads as if it had been written by a prison parole board considering the case of a criminal who served two-thirds of his sentence and was seeking early release for good conduct. It’s not the kind of thing you would want to read in connection with the appointment of someone who would on a daily basis be making decisions that would have a major influence on norms of conduct in the country where you are living.

For example, it is doubtful that a judge who was caught making remarks such as Aisman’s would be considered for a promotion to chief judge of his court or as a Supreme Court justice. The standard for such appointments is the same that should be required of the state prosecutor.

Backsliding on #MeToo

Aisman’s nomination is one example of the major backsliding that has been taking place in Israeli society recently when it comes to attitudes towards women, which are approaching a serious low. Offensive sexual attitudes are not merely vulgar. An attitude such as Aisman’s reflects a humiliating approach to women specifically, and toward male and female employees more generally, that no one should have to put up with in the workplace. Tolerating remarks like those Aisman made years ago is a cause of such backsliding.

For a time, the MeToo approach in the public arena was in the ascendancy. It drove people like Haaretz writers Ari Shavit and Roy Arad and journalists Yinon Magal and Yaron London, and others, out of public view. Granted, some of them have returned to the public spotlight, but none have been restored exactly to their prior stature. It seems to have been clear to them that promotions to job positions that had given them their power – to the extent that such a possibility existed – were no longer a prospect.

In the public sector, those who have not resigned have been removed. Natan Eshel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, for example, was forced to resign, and there are many other examples. Eshel exemplifies the regression that we have been witnessing. Perhaps it’s a backlash against the success of the MeToo movement, but Eshel has continued to work as a senior political envoy for Netanyahu and is still part of the circle of decision-making. His closeness to the prime minister prompts suspicions when it comes to the scale of values of Netanyahu himself, who was recently caught bizarrely calling for mercy for women as one would have mercy for animals.

When contemptuous and humiliating comments towards women are excused, when humiliating conduct toward women is swept under the rug as a marginal misstep, it’s no wonder that violence towards women has been increasing to unprecedented proportions.

Sometimes there is value in appointing people who have erred and have mended their ways. There is also value in appointing someone who has been investigated and has personally experienced the legal process. Who knows that better than Mendelblit, who to this day has felt that he has been dealt an injustice over the so-called Harpaz affair, which never resulted in a criminal investigation against him but was never formally closed?

If Aisman’s appointment is ultimately confirmed, he should mend his ways in a major, substantial and public way. Expressions of regret two and a half years ago to Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor, or now to the search committee, are meaningless from this standpoint. Aisman needs to say it publicly, particularly to women. Otherwise, the stain will follow him on a daily basis and overshadow every decision that he makes.

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