The sexual exploitation of young women and the extent to which men with money and prestige work to avoid the consequences has become a leading story in Israel this summer.
A nearly decade-old scandal continues to unfold in the saga over the misconduct of popular singer Eyal Golan and members of his entourage, even as Golan continues to perform to enthusiastic crowds.
The prison system, meanwhile, has circled the wagons after being hit by allegations that young female guards were being pimped to dangerous security inmates at Gilboa Prison, northern Israel, in an apparent system of exploitation and endangerment that was covered up for years.
But nothing gripped the country as emotionally as new revelations last week regarding the exploits of two of the country’s top soccer players, Omer Atzili and Dor Micha. They used their revered status to bring two 15-year-old girls to an apartment for an evening of drunken sex in June 2020, passing one of the teenagers from player to player.
Explicit text messages between the men and their fellow players (and to the girls), which were published on Israel's Channel 13 last week, making it clear that they knew the girls were young students. This contradicted previous claims that helped them escape statutory rape charges in September 2020.
Beyond the legal consequences, the calculating tone of the text messages and their plans for the girls was deeply disturbing on a moral level, especially as the players are role models for young players and fans alike.
The newly revealed evidence has also cast a dark shadow on the decision by prosecutors to drop the case two years ago and spotlighted the way in which some teams hold their players to account for such behavior while others look the other way.
- Kick them out of Israeli soccer
- Female warden in Israeli prison says she was repeatedly raped by Palestinian inmate
- Prison guards were 'pimped out' to inmates, and Israel silences the victims
The story first hit the headlines in the summer of 2020 when news broke that two then-unnamed soccer stars from one of the nation’s top teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv (which was Premier League champion at the time), were being investigated for statutory rape – sex with a minor under the age of 16, a crime that can carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.
The police learned of the incident from the high school the two girls attended, where word had spread of their encounter with the players through word of mouth and social media. Subsequently, the girls’ families also filed a police complaint.
The players had met the girls at a party, exchanged telephone numbers and began communicating with them. They told police, and the public through their lawyers, that they possessed “unequivocal evidence” that proved the girls were both 17.
After the players’ names were revealed – following a failed bid to obtain a gag order preventing publication of their identities – Micha, then 28, and Atzili, then 26, both admitted to sleeping with the girls, but continued to plead ignorance of the girls’ true ages.
While denying criminal activity, they apologized for their behavior on social media.
Micha wrote: “Even though I was convinced they were 18-year-old adults, I should have been more careful since I was a well-known figure and a role model for many young men. Therefore, I’m sorry if there are people who were disappointed by my actions. The damage to my image will apparently be with me all my life.”
Atzili, meanwhile, stated: “I made a moral error. I apologize to every boy or girl who was forced to ask their parents what happened to me and to every parent who was forced to explain. I’ll have to learn to live with this stain for many years to come.”
Despite their expressions of remorse, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s owner, Canadian billionaire Mitchell Goldhar, took swift action against the players. After being suspended as soon as the allegations surfaced, within weeks they were dismissed. Regardless of how the case played out in the courts, Maccabi said, the players’ behavior was deeply damaging to the team’s image and the players would not be allowed to return.
An ugly public battle ensued. Fans of the players attacked the two girls, shaming, cursing and threatening them online. They held demonstrations outside stadiums, blaming the girls for their behavior, said they had initiated the encounter and attacked them for damaging the players’ careers.
Lawyers for the girls and family members insisted that the players were the ones who enticed them to the apartment, and that they were suffering emotional damage from their treatment and its aftermath. They consistently claimed the players were fully aware that they were young high school students.
Women’s advocacy groups stood behind the girls, with Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel CEO Orit Sulitzeanu calling the incident “an extreme case of the sexual exploitation of minors.”
Yet just three months after the scandal broke, the State Prosecutor’s Office abruptly announced that the cases against Micha and Atzili were closed. The reason cited, police sources told the media, was the fact that they provided proof that the girls had concealed the fact they were under 16.
An additional charge, of providing alcohol to minors, was also dropped due to “lack of public interest.”
The players quickly worked to rehabilitate their careers. Following their suspensions, both had left the country to play for teams in Cyprus. After their cases were closed, both returned home to Israel and over the next two seasons worked to leave the scandal behind them.
Micha joined Maccabi’s southern rival, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, while Atzili signed with Maccabi Haifa, became the team’s star player and was selected for the Israeli national team.
Last week’s revelations by Channel 13 destroyed the carefully constructed narrative built by the two players and their supporters .
Text messages between the two players leaked to the media revealed clear knowledge – and even concern – that the girls they were luring for a night of pleasure were underage. The messages discussed explicitly and methodically how they planned to provide alcohol and debated the wisdom of providing drugs for their exciting “night with the minors.”
“It’ll just be the four of us, alcohol and hanging out. I’m in favor of bringing some powder [presumably cocaine], but that depends if you feel like it,” Micha wrote, according to the news report.
Atzili responded: “I don’t have a problem with it, but not with the girls – they aren’t 18 yet. I’m afraid they’ll get turned around: 12th grade, forget about it.” He called the idea of doing drugs with young girls “scary.”
Micha responded: “Anything we do is fine, little girls do [piles of] drugs as tall as we are.” Ultimately, he relented: “We’ll leave the powder for another day.”
They passed around photos of the girls from their social media accounts to help decide if they were attractive enough to take the risk. At one point, they wanted to add another player to the mix, and unsuccessfully pressured the girls to bring a friend to the rendezvous. Repeatedly, they referred to the two high school students as “girls,” using the Hebrew word that refers to children, not young women, as well as “minors.”
The Channel 13 report also included excerpts from the players’ police interrogations. In one of them, Atzili’s defiant attitude contradicted his remorseful social media posts.
“She ruined my life, she should ask me for forgiveness – she ruined my life, my career, my home,” he said, referring to one of the complainants. “She lied to me. I thought they were lying a bit about their age, [but] I couldn’t believe for the life of me that they were under 16.”
Following last week’s TV report, both the mainstream and social media were filled with calls for the players’ new teams to reconsider their decision to employ them. Many suggested they follow the example of Maccabi Tel Aviv and fire them, no matter how their team benefited from their skills on the field.
The cries were especially fierce in regard to Atzili’s status as a member of the Israeli national team. “A man like that shouldn’t be wearing our flag,” one person tweeted.
Maccabi Haifa owner Ya’acov Shachar came to Atzili’s defense, saying he was a “changed man” since he came to play for the team two years ago.
Feminist groups, meanwhile, called on the police to reopen the investigation in wake of the report. However, attorneys for the players said the report was based on fabricated text messages, calling the story “fake news.”