‘Unbelievable’: Why a Netflix Show About Rape Resonates So Much With Israelis

Based on the case of a real-life U.S. serial rapist, ‘Unbelievable’ is drawing comparison to incidents in Israel — and a high profile case in Cyprus

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette as the police officers who cracked the case of a serial rapist in the Netflix hit "Unbelievable."
Beth Dubber / © Netflix

A young British woman charged with falsely accusing 12 Israelis of gang rape testified for the first time in a Cyprus court last week. Under cross-examination, the 19-year-old said a police officer had pressured her to retract her complaint. For some Israelis following the case, which has garnered considerable international attention, the parallels with the new Netflix show “Unbelievable” are striking.

The eight-part U.S. series, released last month to critical acclaim, is based on the case of a serial rapist on the loose in Washington and Colorado — and how he was eventually caught. It also follows the story of Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a teenager charged with submitting a false report about being raped. In a plea bargain, she is eventually put on probation and forced to pay a $500 fine. Only later does it emerge that Marie was pressured by two investigating police officers — both male — to retract her complaint.

In Cyprus, the young British woman initially told police she had been gang-raped by a dozen Israeli teens after they met while vacationing in Ayia Napa this summer. The Israelis were taken into custody on July 18, a day after she lodged her complaint. They were held by the police for about a week before being released when, over the course of a night of questioning by local police, the British tourist changed her story and retracted her allegation.

Subsequently charged with “public mischief” for issuing a false complaint, the young woman spent a month in prison before being granted bail at the end of August. The defendant later said she had changed her story under duress, that she certainly did not want to have sex with the entire group, and that she most definitely did not agree to have videos of her having sex with members of the group published on social media. She faces up to a year in prison if found guilty.

While testifying in court last week, the police officer who took the woman’s retraction statement denied that any coercion had been used.

The 19-year-old British woman charged with falsely accusing 12 Israelis of gang rape covers her face as she arrives at the Famagusta courthouse in Paralimni, Cyprus, October 2, 2019.
YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU / REUTERS

“After watching ‘Unbelievable,’ the first thing I said to myself was, ‘This is Ayia Napa! It is simply Ayia Napa,’” says Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “These are two cases of victims suddenly becoming the accused.” (All of the Israeli men involved in the case have denied any allegation of wrongdoing.)

Sulitzeanu says this case couldn’t happen in Israel — thanks to a regulation introduced in 2002 that prevents the prosecution of individuals who submit false rape complaints. Initiated by Edna Arbel, who served at the time as state prosecutor (she later became a Supreme Court justice), it is often referred to as the “Arbel regulation.”

According to Sulitzeanu, its purpose was to encourage victims of rape to submit complaints. “Arbel understood the dynamics of what goes on very well, and she thought this would encourage more women to speak out against such crimes,” she notes.

Suzy Ben-Baruch, former head of the Israel Police Juvenile Department, is also inclined to believe that things would have played out differently in Israel. “In Cyprus, it was a man who was interrogating this British woman when she signed the statement retracting her complaint,” she says. “In Israel, it is very rare that you wouldn’t have a female police officer in charge of questioning in a rape case — and one who has undergone special training for dealing with such cases.

“Not only that,” she adds, “but I can’t imagine a situation in Israel in which such questioning would be done in the middle of the night rather than during the day. I can’t imagine why it was so important for them to interrogate her in the middle of the night. A woman in Israel also has the right to be accompanied to the police station by a volunteer from one of the rape crisis centers so she is not alone there, as this British woman was.”

Kaitlyn Dever as Marie in Netflix's "Unbelievable."
Beth Dubber / © Netflix

Neither does Ben-Baruch believe that the young men would have been released from custody so quickly had such allegations been made on Israeli soil. “In Israel, under a law legislated in 2001, the onus of proof is on the man,” she explains. “It used to be that in cases involving rape, it was up to the woman to prove that she didn’t want to have sex. Under this new law, it is now up to the man to prove she agreed to have sex. There would have had to be some very strong proof that this young woman wasn’t raped for those boys to have been let off so quickly, had this taken place in Israel.”

Ben-Baruch adds: “It is this law that paved the way for the #MeToo movement in Israel.”

The ‘polite rapist’

It’s not that Israeli police officers don’t attempt to discredit rape victims or discourage them from pressing charges. Indeed, Sulitzeanu says such practices are common — especially when complaints are filed at police stations without specially trained officers on duty to deal with sex crimes. “If there isn’t such a specialist around when the complaint is filed, women often don’t get the treatment they deserve,” she says. “They’ll get inappropriate questions and comments about things, like how they were dressed and their sexual history.”

The serial rapist featured in “Unbelievable” (in real life, Marc O’Leary) was able to escape justice between 2008 and 2011 because he would leave no trace at the crime scene. Not only did he use condoms — thereby ensuring that the police would have no semen samples to work with — but he also forced all his victims to shower meticulously so his DNA would not be left on their bodies. He was also in the habit of photographing his victims.

(He also understood that the different police districts in Colorado would not be in contact with each other, thus making it easier for him to avoid detection. This would be harder in Israel, where a special Israel Police unit was established in 1998 to deal with sex crimes.)

Such a modus operandi might sound familiar to Israelis: One of the country’s most infamous serial rapists was Benny Sela, who is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence. Police believe he committed as many as 34 sexual crimes in central Israel during the 1980s and ’90s when, like the rapist in “Unbelievable,” he would force his victims to take long showers in order to remove any remnants of his DNA from their bodies. On occasion, he would also videotape them and threaten to publish the footage if they reported the crime to the authorities.

Benny Sela in a Jerusalem court in 2009. Some of the serial rapist's methods were also shared by the offender in "Netflix,' including forcing his victims to take long showers.
Emil Salman

Another serial predator was the so-called Polite Rapist (the two words rhyme in Hebrew: ha’anas hamenumas), who prowled the greater Tel Aviv area in the late ’70s. The moniker came from the perpetrator’s insistence on cordiality after committing his crimes, often apologizing to the victims and even offering them rides home. Israeli moviemaker Michal Aviad, who was herself one of his victims, based her 2012 film “Invisible” on the case. In a television interview following the film’s release, Aviad said she was startled to discover that the police files of the victims included references to their appearance, as if that were at all relevant.

Yael Sherer is the director of One of One (Achat Mitoch Achat in Hebrew), a lobbying organization that aims to change policy and legislation in Israel in order to assist victims of sexual violence. Unlike Ben-Baruch, Sherer does not believe the group of Israelis in Cyprus would have faced a tougher situation back home. “We’ve already had a few cases involving accusations of gang rape in Israel this year, and nobody’s in custody,” she says.

As to the question of whether the victim would have been treated better here, Sherer believes Israel is just as bad as anyplace else.

“The police here often tell you that you have no case, that it’s your word against his, that maybe you misinterpreted things, that there’s not enough proof,” she says. “But there’s no magic place on Earth where police believe the victims automatically — it just doesn’t exist.”