Israel sex scandals point up gender bias challenge
Many Israeli feminists see the high-profile case of a president accused of rape as a significant triumph in a decades-old battle against macho workplace ethics in the Jewish state.
"Who would have imagined women levelling charges like this say, 10 years ago?," Rina Bar-Tal, an Israeli women's lobbyist, said of plans to charge President Moshe Katsav with sex offences against four former female employees.
Yet some women wonder if the Katsav case is a pyrrhic victory in a quest for greater equality in a society in which the military, where men hold coveted combat positions and women are generally not on the front line, holds pride of place.
Initial euphoria over the attorney general's release of a draft indictment against Katsav, after investigating him under a law that women lobbyists pushed through in mid-1990s, has given way to rising doubts he will ever be formally charged.
Israel's parliament has been slow to take steps to force Katsav's ouster, despite calls from prominent lawmakers to do so. Under Israeli law, a president can be tried only if impeached or after leaving office.
"Wishful thinking," Tamar Hermann, a Tel Aviv sociologist replied when asked whether Katsav's case may spell the end of public tolerance for the imposing Israeli macho at the office.
Hermann said she felt the case "may boomerang against women by fomenting a feeling they are manipulative" and that many men, fearing the glare of the law in their dealings with women, might avoid hiring or promoting them.
Several male colleagues have expressed such views to her recently, she said.
"Drawing up specific rules of what is permitted and what isn't may actually lead to more separation of the sexes and not necessarily improve the status of women."
Male acquaintances have told her they would hesitate to employ or promote women in a climate where they fear being charged with sexual harassment or assault, Hermann said.
A debate erupted recently among womens' rights advocates over charges brought against former justice minister Haim Ramon for allegedly kissing a young woman soldier against her will.
Ramon has denied the sexual assault charge. One of Israel's veteran feminists has sided with him, arguing that prosecuting a man for a kiss could trivialise the purpose of the law and divert crucial personnel from handling more serious crime.
Shulamit Aloni, a former leftist lawmaker, said the case "constitutes contempt" for the law. "People are not robots," she said.
Women's rights experts say Israel has a similar record to other Western countries on violent crime against women, and a competitive one in numbers of women in parliament and senior management.
Israel recently named a woman, Dorit Beinisch, as chief justice of its Supreme Court. Two of 24 cabinet ministers are women, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
But gaps remain in achievements of women versus men, and stereotypes of women's roles persist.
Some blame this on Jewish religious clerics, who are empowered to decide on marriage and divorce and under Orthodox ritual law do not grant women equal status with men.
Experts say the Israeli army also helps perpetuate a stronger social status for men over women by serving as a launch pad for many successful political and business careers.
Women serve alongside men in the armed forces, which pioneered female conscription in the 1940s, but they traditionally have performed clerical duties with generally less prestige than combat service.
Recent figures published by Haaretz newspaper suggest a rise in the past year in complaints of sexual harassment in the army, despite the military's efforts to curb the problem.
"We live in a very militant, chauvinist society," Bar-Tal, the lobbyist said.
She said the violence of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians has also hurt the status of women in the Jewish state by keeping women's issues low on the country's political agenda.
"We're a young country that hasn't seen a day of peace," Bar-Tal said. "So when it comes to women's issues the subject gets low priority."
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