New Online Database Tries to Put an End to Sexual Assault on Israeli Campuses

The anonymous index of testimonies on sexual abuse in Israeli academia attempts to lead to real change after decades of silence

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Rivi Gillis, Tuffaha Saba and Tamar Hager (from left) last month.
Rivi Gillis, Tuffaha Saba and Tamar Hager (from left) last month. Credit: \ Moti Milrod

“The guest looked me up and down with X-ray stares. A. turned to leave the meeting but before he could, the guest grabbed him by the elbow and said: ‘So that’s your star student? You didn’t say she was attractive, too!’ I was shocked by his forwardness and I blushed beet-red. My adviser laughed, winked at me and the guest, and said, ‘That’s part of your charm,’ as he walked out.”

The scene, which reads like a bad American college movie, is part of a detailed description by a woman of sexual harassment she suffered as a master’s and Ph.D. student. “The guest – I forgot to mention he was 2 meters tall [over 6 feet, 5 inches] – grabbed my elbow and said, ‘Don’t run away. I’m sorry.’ He later stole the main part of my doctoral thesis and published it with my adviser, as is,” the story continues.

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This testimony is one of over 80 that were published in August as part of an anonymous database of personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault in Israeli institutions of higher education over a period of more than 50 years. They appear (in Hebrew) on the website of an organization called Academia for Equality

“We want to try to understand the structures of abuse within academia,” says Prof. Tamar Hager of Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel. She is the lead researcher, together with researcher Tuffaha Saba of Tel-Hai, feminist activist Rivi Gillis and researcher Adi Moreno. Hager hopes the stories will help the Israeli academic community learn to protect itself and “not make do with a commissioner to prevent sexual harassment [on campus],” she says.

The stories were collected using an anonymous online survey. New submissions will be accepted until October, when the researchers plan to carry out a study of the initial responses before reopening the database to new submissions.

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

All Israeli institutions of higher education are required by law to submit an annual report detailing the number of complaints of sexual harassment submitted and how they were addressed. Figures from the National Union of Israeli Students show a steep rise in the number of complaints reported by the institutions in 2018, to 106, up from 65 in 2017. Two institutions did not file reports last year, eight reported zero complaints and the remainder reported at least one complaint each. Even when complaints are submitted, they usually result in a clarification session, or at most a reprimand.

Around 70 percent of the complaints reported last year involved universities, though only half of Israeli students are enrolled in the country’s state-funded research universities – as opposed to private colleges. This suggests that the universities have more effective mechanisms for dealing with the issue. But small numbers of complaints may reflect underreporting or an establishment that does not provide a safe space for victims of abuse.

“These things happen in our space, we see them, but most women are not eager to complain because the complaint involves reliving the original experience,” Hager says.

Ripple effect

The Israeli project was inspired by Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor of anthropology in the United States and the founder of The Professor Is In, an academic consulting service who in 2017 created Sexual Harassment in the Academy, an anonymous, open-sourced database that quickly accumulated more than 2,000 stories of sexual harassment and abuse in higher education. The U.S. survey is in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, and respondents can include the name of the institution where the incident took place, if they wish. In light of Israel’s much smaller academic world, details such as the name of the institution are stripped from the stories to guarantee anonymity.

Moreno believes anonymity doesn’t really matter. “It’s important to us to talk about the abuse as part of a broader culture, as part of the power structure. Publication of the database encourages people to read and to respond, and by reading they recall things that they experienced or heard about. There’s a ripple effect,” she says.

Alongside the descriptions are comments by users – some of whom make a point of noting their multiple advanced degrees – who claim to have never witnessed any instances of sexual harassment or assault in academia. “That’s an interesting response,” says Moreno. “People fill out the survey just in order to say they never experienced sexual harassment. There are people who wrote, ‘Why do you assume [all women] have been abused, don’t assume that all men are abusers.’ Of course we don’t assume this. There’s no claim that all women are harassed, only that there’s a high probability that somewhere during all your years in academia you at the very least heard about a women in your surroundings who was harassed.”

Nor is the victim always female and the perpetrator always male. While that is the case in a large majority of the statements, there are also stories of men who were harassed by male teachers, or female faculty members whose behavior toward female students was sexist.

The earliest case that was described in the survey took place in 1968, the latest only recently. So have things changed? “From what I’ve read there doesn’t seem to be any change,” says Hager. She says change can only come from talking about the issue openly, something she hopes that making the database available to the public will facilitate. “For now, the complaints take place in closed circles, we’re still a culture of silence. As long as there’s no mechanism for stopping the abuse from happening, abusers will continue to abuse.”