Jewish Home MK denies online rumors of sexual harassment

Party chief Bennett speaks with lawmaker, appeals for any victims to come forward as rabbis launch probe

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jewish Home party was rocked Thursday by allegations swirling on social media that a senior party member had sexually assaulted women over a period of several years.

The lawmaker, who was not named, denied the allegations against him. Meanwhile, a team of rabbis affiliated with the religious Zionist party said they had gathered testimony and were investigating the claims.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home party leader, spoke with the lawmaker, who denied any wrongdoing, the party said in a statement.

Bennett urged anyone who may have been harmed to come forward and lodge a complaint.

The claims drew media attention after a Jewish Home activist on Wednesday evening went public with the allegations on Facebook. Chagit Moriah-Gibor, who said she knew some of the victims, posted a public appeal for other victims to step forward, saying none were willing to lodge an official complaint.

The Hebrew-language Walla website reported that the lawmaker vehemently refuted the allegations.

“This is a wicked attempt to harm me,” the MK said. “For years, there have been reports published like this.

“All of the people who were mixed up in these rumors in the past denied them and said ‘there was nothing.’ I don’t know what it is about, it is a lie. There never was anything like this and there is nothing… This can bring about the destruction of a family when there is nothing and there never was anything,” he said.

Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked attends a plenum session in the Knesset, November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked attends a plenum session in the Knesset, November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also a member of the Jewish Home party, told Israel Radio she remains wary of the claims, but also urged any victims to speak up.

“I don’t comment on anonymous reports. If someone suffered sexual assault they should contact the police. I will not comment on Facebook posts what are not based on facts.”

“Kudos to those who raise the subject of assault, but we need be balanced when on the other hand there are people’s lives [to consider],” she said.

In her Facebook post spotlighting the alleged assault, Moriah-Gibor said she was aware of several incidents, but the victims were unwilling to take action.

“The stories are mounting and the silence is very deafening to me,” Moriah-Gibor wrote. “There is a serving MK that attacks and has attacked [women] for years now. I know of an old incident and recently I heard additional outrageous stories. The problem: the price that those women will pay is too great and they are not prepared to talk.”

Moriah-Gibor said she was working with other activists to assemble a group of alleged victims of the MK who are prepared to give testimony, even anonymously.

“This a classic case of ‘everyone knows but no one can do anything’ and in the meantime women continue to be attacked,” she wrote. “I ask and plead, if you were attacked, or know someone else [who was], or know something — contact me. Complete confidentiality assured. Let’s put an end to this. A group is powerful — and you are not alone.”

In a Thursday interview with Army Radio, Moriah-Gibor said she first heard allegations of assault against the MK two years ago but attempts to locate other possible victims who would talk of their experiences failed.

“I know of five stories like that,” she said. “I have heard three testimonies firsthand, but I doubt they will go to the police because the personal price they will pay is too high.”

Moriah-Gibor stressed that she doesn’t want the allegations to become political fodder.

“Maybe it is naive, but [I believe] the 120 people who represent us in the Knesset need to be as clean as can be,” she said.

A group of religious-Zionist rabbis are reviewing the allegations of inappropriate behavior towards women by the MK under suspicion. But the task force, led by Safed chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, said on Thursday it did not have sufficient evidence to summon the lawmaker for questioning or call for his resignation.

Hebrew media reports said rumors of inappropriate behavior by the unnamed Jewish Home MK surfaced before the last election in March 2015. In the weeks before the vote, the party chiefs were informed of the allegations by women who had worked with the lawmaker in the past. However, senior party officials were unable to convince any of the women to file a complaint with police.

Former Jewish Home MK Yinon Magal speaks at the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former Jewish Home MK Yinon Magal speaks at the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jewish Home party has previously faced allegations of sexual harassment by its lawmakers. In November 2015, Yinon Magal resigned from the Knesset over sexual assault claims. In February, the Tel Aviv district attorney’s office announced it halted the probe into Magal after police said they had not found enough evidence to recommend an indictment.

Cops probed Magal on suspicion that, before he entered politics, he harassed female subordinates. During the investigation, police gathered testimony from women who had worked for Magal over the years, including when he was editor of the Walla news website.

The first public allegations surfaced in a Facebook post by Walla reporter Racheli Rottner, who said Magal had made a pass at her at his farewell party at the news website.

Hours later, a second Walla reporter, Or Shukrun, also complained that Magal “repeatedly stroked my behind, even after I asked him to stop,” an act that could be considered sexual assault.

In the days following, a third woman and then a fourth came forward with similar allegations against Magal.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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