The Constant Parade of Sexual Harassment Scandals in Israel: Will It Ever End?

The meteoric rise and devastating fall of Knesset member Yinon Magal cast a glaring spotlight on a major problem in modern Israeli politics – and Israeli society in general.

Yinon Magal in the Knesset, Jerusalem, Oct. 14, 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

The meteoric political rise and devastating fall of Knesset member Yinon Magal cast a glaring spotlight on a major problem in modern Israeli politics - and Israeli society in general.

On one hand, the Israeli public still prefers their (predominantly male) leaders to confidently take-charge and to be macho, tough talking fighters who swagger on to the political scene after a stint in an elite combat unit. This is just what Magal did before his media career, from which he was plucked by his brother-in-arms Naftali Bennett, leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, and placed in a starring role on the party’s list as part of a push to attract young voters who “don’t apologize” for being right-wing and religious.

At the same time, like most countries in the Western world with a degree of modern consciousness, social norms in Israel have evolved to the point where grabbing and propositioning women, imposing sexual contact with them against their will - whether it is through remarks on their bodies or forcing kisses on - them is unacceptable behavior. And under Israel’s 1998 sexual harassment law, it is illegal in many cases.

The crux of the problem: traditionally - and even in this day and age, macho swagger and inappropriate behavior towards women still often tends to go together, especially when it comes to men who aspire to - and achieve - positions of power. This is why, despite the changes in consciousness and laws, the tide of Israeli leaders falling victim to their own flaws has yet to be stemmed. It hasn’t been limited to the political realm. Sexual harassment accusations against prominent journalists, army officers and most prominently in recent weeks - police officers - criminal, civil, and via the public shaming networks of Facebook, hit the headlines on a regular basis.

It’s not that times haven’t changed at all. The latest wave of accused perpetrators are distinct from the old-school offenders - whose cases still hang like a shadow and significantly color the reaction to them.

The worst and most traumatic case was former President Moshe Katsav, who resigned in disgrace in 2007, was convicted of rape in in 2010 and began serving a 7-year prison sentence in 2011. The Katsav scandal arguably traumatized Israeli society more severely than the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal scarred the United States, since Katsav was proven in court to be not only a liar and serial harasser, but a rapist, forcing sexual relations women who were subordinate to him. Preceding Katsav was the case of of Yitzhak Mordechai, who resigned as deputy prime minister in 2000 and was subsequently convicted of indecent sexual assault - including behavior like locking the door of his office, throwing his victim to the ground and groping her.

In comparison, the sins of Magal and the accused police officers are mild; the behavior they are accused of committing is far less brutish and violent, and the line between tastelessness and criminality more blurred.

But the legacy of Katsav and Mordechai has cast a long shadow.

Ever since,  the Israeli media and public has been far less willing to brush off sexual harassment as hijinks to be brushed off in a “boys will be boys” way. These older men belonged to a generation that saw the norms and laws of relations between the sexes changed radically. A look at their history showed that had someone spoken out and stopped them when they were younger, they would surely not have gotten to the point where they felt that assaulting women in their office was acceptable - or certainly, that they could not get away with it and maintain their positions of power.

Men of Magal’s generation - he is 45 - grew up watching these dramas play out in the media and, as a journalist, Magal even must have covered them and was certainly aware of the laws regarding sexual harassment.

Perhaps that is why Magal seems to have been rather legalistically careful when it came to choosing the time and place of his propositions. His initial accuser said explicitly that when Magal made his comments about her “tits and ass” making him “horny” at his goodbye party from Walla News before entering the Knesset, presumably because, since he was no longer her boss, it would not technically be sexual harassment.

But the law is one thing and politics is another. Just as the Katsavs and Mordechais didn’t see that the world had fundamentally changed - neither did Magal.

Magal was just as blind as older generations of men in being unable to understand that a pattern of sleazy sexual come-ons even if not technically criminal,  was a ticking time bomb that could destroy any hope for a successful political career - especially a career as a leader of a heavily Orthodox party whose basic message incorporates Jewish family values and high moral standards.

Even if nothing he did violated the law - he should have known that his position as the Jewish Home’s poster boy for the ability to be religious, right-wing and cool wouldn’t survive public accusations by women he allegedly fondled and propositioned. And it turned out that the fact that some of these women were willing to identify themselves and tell their stories in Facebook posts - without hiding behind a veil of anonymity as the old-school sexual harassment victims had meant they were impossible to ignore.

Odelia Carmon, one of Katsav’s victims, appearing on Israeli television as a commentator on the Magal case, applauded the change.

She said it was a positive development that dealing sexual harassment has “moved from the criminal arena to the public arena. We know that this kind of behavior is something that we can’t live with morally and won’t tolerate anymore. The rules are clear and we are finally beginning to internalize them.”

Magal, to his credit, did so quickly. Even in his disgrace, Magal received compliments on the fact that he quickly took responsibility for his behavior, and that once a critical mass of accusations accumulated, exited the political stage, just one week after the allegations first surfaced. He is being compared to American and European politicians who know that quitting when scandal hits is the right thing to day, instead of clinging to their political position for dear life as criminal investigations unfold, as has been the tendency of scandal-plagued Israeli leaders till now.  

The big question is how to stop these sex scandals from haunting the political landscape. Some blame the Magal scandal on the flawed-to-nonexistent vetting of politicians and candidates for powerful positions in Israeli life. Vetting would certainly help. However, changing the norms of gender relations in Israeli society - and not just the laws - so that even the most charismatic macho leaders refrains from the behavior that gets the into trouble in the first place - would be far better.