It's Not the Midriff, Stupid

It's a shame that in 2002, and after Israel has passed such effective laws regarding sexual harassment, it is still necessary to go over the ground rules. Sexual deviants, rapists and the mentally ill are not especially well versed in matters of fashion.

Picture this. In a small Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] town - say Bnei Brak - one woman, known for her piety and for being the daughter of an esteemed Hasidic rabbi, ran an excellent educational institution. The parents admired her, the teachers idolized her, and the school was known all over the country for being an example of the best in Haredi education.

Then one day, out of the blue, the woman died under mysterious circumstances. Everyone thought she must have been very ill, but a few days after her death, the truth begin to come out.

At the woman's funeral, her husband complained about wanton behavior that had spread among the girls in the educational institution. The mourners were all choked up. A little girl said the principal's husband had hit on her, and her family threatened to go to the police.

Afterward, the family changed their minds and decided to hush everything up so as not to make waves. Some of the young teachers also admitted that the husband, who used to hang around the school yard for some reason, had dropped outrageous and embarrassing hints.

Suddenly it turned out that all the parents had known something was afoot and kept quiet, because it would be unpleasant for them to have to embarrass the rabbi's daughter. Now, proclaimed all the secular newspapers, the poor girl and all the other students would pay the price for lies, ultra-conservatism and brutal Haredi chauvinism. To maintain their social order, they were willing to place the blame on the women - even on an innocent girl.

But this scandalous affair did not take place in Bnei Brak - it happened in Tel Aviv. And not just Tel Aviv either, but in a showcase of enlightened secular liberalism - the Tel Aviv Arts School. And the principal was not the daughter of a rabbi, but Yael Ha'elyon, an highly regarded educator.

The parents and teachers all knew - as is now becoming apparent from all the articles and from conversations with them - about a number of unpleasant incidents in which the principal's husband was involved, but they remained silent "because it was unpleasant for them." And when one brave girl finally did what all the teachers are always teaching all the children to do - complain - the system could have been expected to protect her. It would keep the harasser at bay, support her, protect all the students, use all the educational and psychological means at its disposal. But it didn't.

Now the 14-year-old girl has to bear the burden and silence of guilt. Neither the beloved principal nor her husband will be able to beg her forgiveness, or at least explain to her why they, the wonderful and admired adults, fell apart when she did the right thing. And as though that weren't enough, all the far-flung evil genies are raising their heads to say: "What's the problem, the strange and repugnant remark made by Ya'akov Ha'elyon over his wife's open grave - regarding girls who entice boys with revealing clothes - is not so strange.

On the contrary, claims columnist Ron Maiberg in the mass-circulation daily Ma'ariv (and many probably nodded in agreement), the girls, with their low-cut jeans and their exposed midriffs, have crossed the boundaries of good taste. It's no wonder that the perverts "hidden among us" want to rape them.

It's a shame that in 2002, and after Israel has passed such effective laws regarding sexual harassment, it is still necessary to go over the ground rules. Sexual deviants, rapists and the mentally ill who cannot distinguish right from wrong, are not especially well versed in matters of fashion - nor even in matters of outward appearance.

Young brides from the Vishnitz Hasidic community, for example, cover not only their midriffs and their heads, but even their elbows and necks, yet despite this a pervert deceived them and raped them in their own homes. Not to mention all the five-year-olds and three-year-olds who have fallen victim to sexual assaults by pedophiles. Were they immodestly dressed, too?

The most severe consequence of the Ha'elyon affair is the fact that attention has been diverted from the personal tragedy and the educational failure to the girls' midriffs. If the woman teachers are swept up in this ugly witch hunt of girls aged 10 or 12, in order to suppress the panic, they will be adding insult to injury.

It is still not too late for adults to remind every young boy and girl that they must report every harassment. This is because a secret is something dark and evil and they, the adults, are always prepared to protect them, to support them and to go to bat for them in time of trouble. These - not clothes, or keeping covered, or self-righteous and hypocritical concern - are the order and stability that children need in this world.