Israel’s New #MeToo Scandal Highlights a Dark Corner of Startup Nation

It’s not just in the U.S. that powerful men hire investigators and use scare tactics against the women they think will accuse them of misconduct

A new #MeToo scandal rocking Israel’s vaunted high-tech community is a red flag for victims of sexual assault and harassment who have gone online for support, advice, to contact journalists and to help identify fellow victims of serial offenders.

Rami Beracha, head of Israel's Pitango Venture Capital.
Yoram Reshef

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Technology has made it easier for victims to find each other and take action. Now it is also allowing the powerful men accused of misbehavior, who have financial resources and access to top technological expertise, to disrupt potential accusers from making their stories public.

Film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the original #MeToo perpetrator, turned to the investigative firm Black Cube, which harnesses expertise honed in Israel’s legendary elite military intelligence units, to keep him informed of the actions of his would-be accusers, The New Yorker reported in November. According to a television report, it appears that the central figure in the Israeli scandal chose a similar strategy, hiring private investigators with military intelligence background and instructing them to infiltrate closed online forums of women in high-tech to see whether his name was being mentioned – while gathering personal information on those he feared would accuse him of misconduct.

The focus of the Israeli affair is 56-year-old Rami Beracha, managing partner of Pitango Venture Capital, a giant in the field responsible for investments of $1.9 billion. Pitango enjoys a uniquely high profile thanks to co-founder Chemi Peres, son of the late President Shimon Peres, and its phenomenal success as one of the pioneer funds on the Israeli startup scene. Beracha has been a well-known and widely admired figure in Israeli high-tech circles, and has a heroic backstory: He overcame devastating injuries sustained in combat – he lost both a leg and an arm to a landmine while heroically rescuing a fellow soldier in Lebanon.

But on Wednesday night, his name hit the headlines for a different reason. On the “60 Minute”-style “Uvda” (“Fact”) program, two female entrepreneurs, their faces obscured, described in detail how Beracha asked to meet them in a seaside restaurant to discuss Pitango investments. What they had thought would be a business meeting turned deeply uncomfortable, as Beracha, by their accounts, shifted the conversation from professional to personal, groped them repeatedly, forced himself on them for a kiss and abused his power over them as a powerful player in the investment community. The report said that additional women had provided similar accounts. All had kept silent, fearing damage to their professional reputations, and not wanting to harm the companies and reputations they had worked so hard to build.

The smoking gun of the “Uvda” story came in the form of leaked WhatsApp messages from Beracha to a private investigation firm that contained references to an “avatar” – a fictitious member of an online group for women in high-tech discussing sexual harassment. According to the messages, Beracha also sought information on women he feared were his potential accusers, as well those who have been on the forefront of unmasking sexual harassment in Israel’s high-tech industry. In addition, the report said, he asked investigators to follow the people he feared would contact his potential accusers and expose him.

Following the report, Beracha, who has spoken out against harassment in high-tech, announced that he was freezing his business activity in order to focus on “clearing his name,” and vigorously denied the behavior ascribed to him on the program. He also declared that he “never touched anyone sexually or crudely without her permission or forced anyone to have intimate contact with me, either in work or social meetings, and if someone ever misinterpreted my behavior toward her, it was not with any bad intention and I regret it.”

As the #MeToo movement has swept around the world over the past six months in the wake of the Weinstein affair, Israeli women, too, are taking a closer look at past abuses of power by men, questioning their own decisions not to speak out at the time and wondering whether this has enabled men to harm other women. And as in the U.S., Israeli women compare experiences in online forums – including one for women in high-tech – to see if patterns emerge.

Media exposure of sexual harassment and discrimination in Israeli high-tech circles, particularly in the world of startups and investors, predates #MeToo. In July, Haaretz ran a series of articles on the phenomenon, describing a hostile and difficult work environment for Israeli women in high-tech, who comprise 35 percent of the high-tech workforce and hold less than a quarter of core technology positions. At the top of the food chain, where young entrepreneurs make the rounds of investors and venture capital firms and ask them to bet on their future by providing funding, women are even more rare. The industry’s long hours, extensive travel and the blurred lines between business and socializing make it particularly difficult for women to maneuver. While female entrepreneurs who meet with wealthy and powerful male investors may not be their employees, they are locked in a power dynamic which makes it problematic to confront inappropriate advances. In Startup Nation, where “everyone knows everyone,” there is more motivation for women who are harassed to not report it.

The “Uvda” report sparked an “earthquake,” said Inbal Orpaz, the former reporter for Haaretz’s financial publication TheMarker who authored the sexual harassment articles after hearing numerous accounts from women across the high-tech world in her job as a high-tech journalist. Such incidents, she said, had been something that “everyone knew about but nobody talked about” until then. She said she was “not surprised” to learn about Beracha, whose name she had heard several times in connection with sexual harassment.

However, what did surprise her was learning that Beracha asked his private investigators to target her – as well as other journalists – along with accumulating personal information on the women he feared would accuse him.

The firm he hired, BICI - Business and Cyber Intelligence, describes itself on its website as providing “intelligence solutions for clients in the business arena – all the way from private individuals, to international corporations” and features a “team [that] includes former members of American and Israeli intelligence services.” One of the company’s co-founders, Ronen Raz, is billed as “coming from the intelligence community” and his photograph on the website from the back, making him unidentifiable.

In November, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reported that Harvey Weinstein hired Black Cube, a similar security agency headed by Israelis, as part of his “army of spies” to investigate women accusing him of sexual assault as well as journalists working on the stories about them. He had them compile psychological profiles of his accusers while digging for dirt on their personal histories. The aim was to prevent The New York Times and The New Yorker from reporting on Weinstein, as well as to stop the publication of actress Rose McGowan’s book detailing his alleged abuse. According to The New Yorker, a Black Cube private investigator and former Mossad agent pretending to be a women’s rights activist and a victim of harassment met with actress Rose McGowan and journalists working on the Weinstein story.

At first Beracha denied bringing in investigators, and admitted to hiring them only when confronted with the WhatsApp messages. In a statement to “Uvda,” he characterized his use of investigators as merely information gathering, which he believed was necessary in the face of what he called “a harassment and slander campaign” being launched against him.

BICI, he said, “offered me a basic service that would warn me if things were going to be published about me in online newspapers and on the open social networks” and that he “made it clear to the detectives that there was to be nothing proactive and not to violate anyone’s privacy.”

Representatives of the firm defended their actions to “Uvda” in a telephone call, referring to their work as merely “gathering information” on people who were “conspiring to harm their client.”

Orpaz and Sharon Shpurer, a journalist for the Hebrew website “The Hottest Place in Hell,” who Beracha’s investigators also targeted, said that when they learned about the report, their concern was not for themselves but for the women Beracha allegedly harassed. Orpaz said she was worried that in the future, “women will be afraid to take a stand” now that they understand the steps that powerful men will take when they are accused.

She hopes the current scandal will redouble conversations on “how to protect women and help them in spite of the power and resources men have.”

Shpurer, like Orpaz, had heard stories about Beracha’s problematic attitude toward young female entrepreneurs who approached him looking for investment. She said that if the stories are true, he has victimized the women twice over: “The first time, instead of talking to them like businesswomen, attempting to make the relationship sexual, and then, using his power to hire investigators to stalk them, investigating their private lives with the implied threat that if something is found, it will be used against them if they dare to speak out.”

But from the feedback she has received since the “Uvda” report was aired, she believes women in the sector will be encouraged rather than discouraged to come forward. “From the number of messages I am receiving, things are reaching a critical mass and the story is breaking open. Rami Beracha is not the only one who should be worried,” she said.