Tragedy Strikes Israel's London-based Tourist Office

An employee at Israel's London-based tourist office accused a superior of sexual harassment. But the Tourism Ministry apparently didn't handle the complaint properly. A few weeks ago, the complainant took her own life.

A few weeks ago, a British citizen who headed the public relations department of the Israel Government Tourist Office in Britain put an end to her life. A few months before the suicide, the woman sent a letter of complaint to the deputy director of marketing at the Israel Tourism Ministry, Oren Drori. She complained that Rafi Shalev, head of the London-based Israel Government Tourist Office, which serves the UK and Ireland, had sexually harassed her. Shalev denies these allegations.

As a result, Assaf Rosenberg, head of the Civil Service Commission's disciplinary branch, recently dispatched a letter to Tourism Ministry director general Noaz Bar Nir, sharply criticizing top officials at the ministry for their handling of the affair. Rosenberg wrote that the employee's sexual harassment charge had been ignored for months; the letter was not sent promptly to the civil service commission, in violation of the regulations regarding such complaints. Rosenberg alleged that the mishandling of the complaint prevented a substantive inquiry from being conducted, and led to tragic results.

Tourism Ministers - Ziva Levi / Alondon - February 2012
Ziva Levi / Alondon

Rosenberg's letter traces the sequence of events: In August 2011, the employee sent her letter of complaint to Drori, and it was forwarded to the ministry's director general and to other ministry officials. "The complainant's claims, in brief, are that the [male] worker flattered her about her external appearance and beauty, evinced a special attitude toward her, dropped hints about a romantic relationship, and even suggested that she go out with him for a ride on his motorcycle," Rosenberg writes in his letter. "He would also make comments to her whenever he didn't like her appearance. The complainant charged that the [said] employee made a connection between these subjects and their relationship in the workplace, and frequently switched from professional conversations to personal matters."

Rosenberg continues: "In response, the complainant would avoid this employee, and not respond to his comments; she ignored his repeated invitations about the motorcycle ride. The employee, she claimed, continued to pressure her about this, and so she felt compelled to tell him explicitly that he was too 'old' for her. She claimed that as a result of this explicit refusal, he began to take reprisals against her at work. As part of such reprisals, he made it impossible for her to engage in a normal conversation about work topics; he was cold and brusque toward her, frequently shouting and humiliating her in front of colleagues. Also, he assigned to her more tasks than she could reasonably handle, and then would become angry about her inability to complete all of them. Moreover, he would reject ideas she proposed, and then would carry out these same proposals when they were proposed by other workers."

In her letter to Drori, the complainant stated that she had already notified him about the same problems about a year earlier. "Email correspondence conducted by Mr. Drori indicates that from July 2010 on, he was aware of an irregular relationship between the complainant and this employee [Shalev]," Rosenberg confirms in his letter, adding that Mr. Drori wrote that "when the employee asked to fire the complainant, he [Drori] believed that this request 'did not stem from solely professional considerations,' and had a discussion with the employee, to persuade him to reconsider the dismissal.

"Yet," the letter goes on, "we have no way of knowing conclusively that Mr. Drori actually knew about allegations of sexual harassment as early as July 2010."

The complainant, Rosenberg explains, alleged that from the moment she appealed to ministry officials in Israel, "the employee stepped up reprisals against her by transferring assignments that had heretofore been under her authority to other workers, and to a subcontractor."

In late October 2011, months after the woman had lodged a second complaint, the ministry finally decided to investigate her complaints thoroughly. A top Tourism Ministry official, Gideon Snir, went to London to investigate the circumstances; apparently some weeks went by after his visit before he relayed a summary of this investigation to the Civil Service Commission.

"In this memorandum," Rosenberg notes in his letter to the Tourism Ministry, Snir commented "that not all employees in the office cooperated fully with the investigation. In a conversation about the matter, the male employee mainly complained about the work performance of the woman employee ... Based on his discussions with other workers, Mr. Snir found it impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about relations between the complainant and the male worker, or to shed any new light on the complaint. Concluding his impressions, Mr. Snir noted that the male employee had a habit of using 'indelicate language' toward the complainant and others in the office; that the events she described did not seem to him to be harassment, although he said he lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to reach a decision on the matter; that the atmosphere [in the office] was not good, and required immediate treatment; and that the complainant and the employee should not keep working together."

Delayed complaint

In December 2012, the Civil Service Commission asked the complainant to submit a formal, orderly complaint. However, after it was submitted, they had difficulty evaluating and investigating the allegations properly, since by then a lot of time had elapsed since the complaints were originally made.

"After we were apprised of the complaint, and the materials pertaining to it were collected and conveyed to us, it was difficult to assess the nature of the woman employee's allegations," Rosenberg writes in his letter to the Tourism Ministry director general. "The situation had reached a point at which the complainant had come to be regarded as a problematic employee, one who complains about everything yet does not work very hard; most of her responsibilities had been meanwhile transferred to other workers, or to an external sub-contractor. Had the complaint arrived [to the commission] in time, its evidentiary basis could have been intelligibly assessed, and it also would have been possible to investigate whether there was indeed a connection between sexual harassment and the changed attitudes toward the woman worker's performance on the job."

Furthermore, according to Rosenberg, "cases of this sort depend upon accounts given by witnesses and on the credibility of such testimony. Ordinarily, there is no external corroborating evidence in such cases that allows investigators to uncover the truth. Therefore, when a long period of time elapses before an investigation is initiated, the ability of examiners to conduct a serious inquiry is severely hampered."

Rosenberg explains that the state's 1998 sexual harassment law stipulates that a public official who receives information regarding suspicions of sexual harassment must immediately report to the Civil Service Commission's disciplinary branch. Rosenberg adds that the regulations ban officials from the relevant ministry from investigating complaints; they can only collect the complainant's testimony. In several instances, disciplinary actions have been taken against senior officials who failed to discharge their responsibilities, and did not report on suspicions of harassment which reached them, Rosenberg notes in his letter.

In conclusion, he writes: "In light of all these considerations, it appears that the [Tourism Ministry's] handling of this complaint was not in accordance with the requirements stipulated in the relevant codes. Mr. Drori did not report the woman's complaints in 2010 (assuming he knew at this time about the suspicions of sexual harassment ), nor was this matter submitted to us for handling in August 2011, when the complainant recorded her sexual harassment and reprisal complaint in a clear, official manner."

It emerges that the same month the woman employee submitted her "orderly complaint" to the commission, in response to its request, the commission received copies of a different complaint - submitted by Shalev in regard to what he saw as mendacious reports submitted by the complainant, explaining her absence from work for medical reasons. Shalev's letter was received shortly before the employee committed suicide.

At the end of his letter to the Tourism Ministry, Rosenberg recommends the following steps against Shalev: "The handling of the woman's complaint deviated from required procedures. We have been informed that it has been decided to return this employee [Shalev] to Israel this summer. In view of the tragic conclusion of this affair, and in keeping with findings that arose from the inquiry which was conduced, it seems that there is cause to return this worker to Israel sooner than planned."

Haaretz has learned that a London attorney, who represents the professional union to which the woman employee belonged, has approached the Tourism Ministry and demanded a full account of the events relating to her case. The attorney may be preparing future litigation against the ministry.

Ministry: Shalev to leave

The Tourism Ministry response: "In November 2010 the woman employee in the London office approached the deputy director of marketing in Israel, and complained that she was not getting along with her superior, Mr. Shalev. She claimed that Mr. Shalev was a demanding, difficult boss. It bears mention that her complaint, both verbally and in writing, did not make any reference to harassment of sexual nature. This being the case, there was no legal requirement to relay the complaint to the Civil Service Commission. The deputy director of marketing held a discussion with the employee and also with Mr. Shalev, and was able to improve working relations between the two. After this, the woman employee and Mr. Shalev reported to the deputy director that their working relations had improved, and become acceptable.

"From this stage, and until August 2011, a period of 10 months, no complaint was lodged by the woman employee. On August 1, 2011, she was informed that her work was being terminated as a result of reorganization in the office. It had been decided that public relations services (her area of responsibility ) were being transferred to an outside PR firm. On August 25, 2011, after the employee was informed of her dismissal, she sent in another complaint - this time complaining for the first time about comments of a sexual character made by Mr. Shalev. The very day this complaint was lodged, the ministry's director general, its deputy director for human resources and its legal department initiated a review of its contents. This same day, an official in the legal department engaged in a discussion with the Civil Service Commission's legal counsel, who referred the matter to his counterpart in the Foreign Ministry. Since the matter pertained to a foreign worker and the case was under the jurisdiction of the country where this woman was employed, there was a need to consult with the legal counsel of the London office. All parties involved in the consultations concurred that the complaint should be reviewed in a face-to-face meeting with the woman employee in London, and immediately after this meeting, its findings were to be submitted to the Civil Service Commission.

"Concurrently, the woman employee was informed that the complaint was under review, and that the dismissal notice would not take effect so long as this review remained in process, thus she was not required to leave her position. Due to the holidays, the meeting with the deputy director for human resources was delayed until October 2011. Immediately after the holidays, the deputy director flew to London, questioned all the workers in the office, and held a meeting about the dismissal with the woman employee, an attorney engaged by her professional union, and a lawyer who represents the office in London. Subsequently, the deputy director sat with the worker for two hours, and directly reviewed the complaint. He made it clear that her rights would be protected, and that the matter was to be referred to the Civil Service Commission.

"Immediately after the deputy director returned to Israel, the complaint, with all the pertinent accompanying materials, was relayed to the commission. After consultation with it, we were informed that in view of the unfortunate circumstances - that is, the complainant's suicide in December 2011 - there is no possibility of continuing and taking disciplinary action against Mr. Shalev. It bears mention that Mr. Shalev will end his current position, and at this stage there is no plan to renew his appointment. The Tourism Ministry is examining the option of his early retirement."