At the end of May, the top-rated Israeli news program broadcast a statistic that made waves in the Knesset: Of the 32 female lawmakers at the time (there are now 33), 28 had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Channel 2 Knesset reporter Daphna Liel dedicated nearly 15 minutes of the prime-time news hour to having nine Israeli MKs tell their stories, ranging from experiencing humiliating comments to assault.
“I never told my mother about this, I’m afraid to see how she’ll react,” MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) told viewers. “When I was 13 or 14, I was roller skating, and an older man pulled me into a stairwell. He looked down my shirt and said he was looking for pretty girls. It took me years to understand.”
Nahmias-Verbin told another story, about a family friend who inquired about her sex life shortly after her marriage and tried to touch her: “I’ll never forget it; it was such a disgusting experience. I had to push him off me, literally push him, with force, and scream ‘get out of here.’ ”
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and MK Anat Berko, both from Likud, recounted being fondled by strange men on buses and being too shocked and afraid to speak out. MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union) was pinched inappropriately by a coworker. Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova said that when she moved to Israel as a teenager, in the wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, people would make comments to her and touch her blonde hair, to the point that she would avoid leaving the house and dyed her hair.
Perhaps the most emotional part of the report was an interview with Likud MK Sharren Haskel, who, at 32, is one of the Knesset’s youngest members. Haskel said she was sexually assaulted when she was young, by an adult man whom she trusted, and later found out that another woman, to whom she is close, experienced the same thing by the same man.
“I broke my silence after years, and the first thing I felt was terrible guilt,” Haskel said, crying. “I said to myself that I could have stopped it. I went to therapy to help me deal with it. It was hard for me to accept that I could have saved other women from the horrible thing I experienced but I didn’t do it.”
MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union), a prominent defense lawyer who represented well-known mafia figures before entering politics, gave some advice: “It happened more when I started out practicing criminal law, mainly from police officers who thought they could start with me. But I immediately put them in their place. I had to adopt a very powerful stance, and over time it happened less, because I just wouldn’t stand for it.
“There is no woman who hasn’t been harassed more than once. At first it’s paralyzing, it’s shocking, and you don’t know how to respond,” she added. “When it happens, it’s embarrassing. It’s a war of survival. Sexual harassment must be stopped immediately. The harasser must be shamed and called out for what he is.”
While most of the incidents that the female Knesset members spoke of happened when they were younger, Kulanu MK Merav Ben-Ari also talked about harassment she experienced in the Knesset itself. Ben-Ari said that, because she is a single woman, in the Knesset people “make comments that I don’t know that they would make if I wore a ring.” She spoke of an “unpleasant situation” that she said she dealt with on her own, but would not give more details to Channel 2 or in a subsequent interview with Tablet magazine.
Ben-Ari’s admission struck a personal chord with me. As a reporter, I love working in the Knesset and reporting about it. But if there’s one thing that can burst my bubble about the “home of Israeli democracy,” as it’s sometimes called, it’s when a man I’m interviewing starts touching my arm or shoulders unnecessarily, or asking invasive personal questions, or when a man I’ve never met before loudly and publicly comments on my appearance.
The Knesset isn’t a den of iniquity and hedonism where a woman can’t walk around without being leered at or touched, but the women who work there on a regular basis are no safer than they are at any other workplace from the comments and sometimes even hands of the hundreds men, strange and familiar, who pass through the legislature each day.
It’s a slight reassurance that there is security everywhere, in case, God forbid, something really gets out of hand. But the feeling I’ve had is less a sense of danger and more one of degradation and shock, like Swid described. You wonder if you should just shrug it off, yell at the person, or complain to someone else. It makes you question your ability to maintain your dignity, go on doing your job, and act like a professional after you’ve been objectified. In a country where our former president is in jail on charges of raping a female subordinate, it is fair to say that the social problem of harassment even in government is a real one, though Israel is far from unique in this respect. When I asked if they thought this is a specifically Israeli problem, MKs mentioned that the French parliament’s deputy speaker recently resigned over sexual assault allegations and pointed to comments Donald Trump has made about women.
MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) talked in the Channel 2 report about a similar dilemma in her time as a member of the Jerusalem City Council, when a fellow member of the council would make sexual comments during meetings, and everyone else would laugh. “I asked a municipality legal adviser and other people, and they all said there was nothing to do,” she said. “It really made it hard for me to work, and I was very disturbed. It’s hard to behave professionally, when you’re treated like that.”
A week after the report was broadcast, MKs felt that they succeeded in their goal of empowering women to fight back against harassment. When Nahmias-Verbin worked in the private sector, she was the appointed person to receive complaints about sexual harassment in her company. One major problem she saw was that women kept quiet, she said. “Telling our stories does the work. It’s empowering. I’ve received indescribably touching reactions. Women approached me in the Knesset and said they felt ready to deal with the things that happened to them,” she said. “It’s important that women are not afraid to complain.”
Nahmias-Verbin said the MKs who spoke “are not weak women, suffering from inequality. We took inequality into our own hands.” And people like them speaking out can “change the discourse about sexual harassment and knowing how to set limits.”
Ben-Ari said her goal was “to show that no one is immune.” She added, “MKs should set a personal example and say it’s happened to us too, and it’s something we live with, part of life, and we learn how to handle it, but it’s important to come out and say it can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter what your job is, if you’re 18 years old in the army or if you’re a member of Knesset. No one is immune.”
Nahmias-Verbin had a message for men watching, as well, which is that women very, very rarely make up these stories.
“There are men who say they won’t get into an elevator alone with a woman,” because she can pretend he harassed her, “and I tell them that if they’re not harassers, they won’t have a problem. Normal people know what normal social behavior is. Most men are not harassers, and most women don’t make up complaints.”
Svetlova added: “Some things are social, not everything is criminal. No one will go to court to complain about a man who touched your behind, but if you don’t talk about it, it will never stop. We want to change a norm. The situation is slowly changing. There are laws, and we have made social progress, but it’s still not enough.”
Svetlova thought about her two daughters when she told her story. “Back then, I didn’t want to tell anyone, not even my mom. I hope such things never happen to my girls, or at least that they would tell me,” she said.
The Zionist Union MK pointed out that most of the lawmakers who said they experienced harassment refused to speak about it and said she didn’t believe the four female MKs who said they never had these experiences, though she commiserated with them.
“It’s been 20 years since [I was harassed], and we had a problem in our society that gave me the sense that I needed to stay quiet. We still live in a kind of fear, and the time has come to overcome it,” Svetlova stated. “No one is asking to be sexually harassed,” she said, “and the more vocal we are, the more we shout it out, the more this thing will disappear.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.