Knesset okays stronger punishment for sex offenses motivated by terrorism or racism

Female Arab MK upbraids Knesset for ‘promoting racism on the backs of victims’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, right, head of the Special Committee for Oversight of the Israeli Citizens' Fund, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, right, head of the Special Committee for Oversight of the Israeli Citizens' Fund, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday passed a right-wing-backed law that makes terrorist, nationalist or racist motivations an aggravating factor in crimes of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Aggravating factors come into play during criminal sentencing and are a consideration that can push judges toward issuing a sentence closer to the legal maximum.

Sponsored by a group of lawmakers led by MK Limor Son Har Melech, from the far-right coalition faction Otzma Yehudit, and MK Yulia Malinovsky from right-wing opposition party Yisrael Beytenu, the new law marked a rare case of cross-Knesset alignment and passed 39 to 7 on its final reading.

The law would double compensation fines for sexual harassment motivated by racism or hostility toward certain groups. Additionally, it establishes reporting requirements, whereby the justice and national security ministers must report enforcement statistics to the Knesset’s National Security Committee annually.

Sharp criticism of the law quickly came in from an Arab lawmaker and Israel’s rape crisis center umbrella organization, with both alleging the law improperly creates a ranking of the severity of such crimes.

Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Sliman, a former head of the Knesset’s Women’s Status Committee, told the Knesset: “Do not punish according to hierarchies and classifications.”

Joint Arab List MK Aida Touma-Sliman in the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Shame on these laws,” she continued, tweeting after the law passed, “Don’t promote racism on the backs of victims!”

Touma-Sliman told the plenum that sexual assailants are “despicable” and should be judged based on the crime, not their identity.

“I don’t care if [a sexual offender] is Jewish or Arab, or whether the victim is Jewish or Arab,” she said, stopping short of saying that the law might be disproportionately applied to Arab attackers of Jewish victims.

Orit Soliciano, who heads the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, an umbrella organization of nine support providers, told The Times of Israel that her organization also opposed the law.

“We think there is an epidemic of sexual violence in Israel; many women, girls and boys suffer. The perpetrators should be harshly punished, and it doesn’t always happen in Israel. But to declare one rape is more horrible than another rape — we do not support [this],” she said.

Residents of Gedera protest after a woman was allegedly raped in her home on February 2, 2023. (Flash90)

“We don’t want survivors to feel that their experience is less important,” once rapes are “rated” according to their circumstances,” she said. “We think it’s very dangerous to create this kind of rating.”

During the committee process to prepare the bill for final votes, as well as in explanatory notes accompanying the bill, backers alleged that Israel is facing increased incidents of nationally motivated sexual assault.

Soliciano said that the Association of Rape Crisis Centers “do not see any such phenomenon in our data — of rape as a form of terror.”

In 2012, a brutal rape in central Tel Aviv, in which a West Bank Palestinian assaulted a young Israeli couple, shocked the nation. Three years later, the court declared it had a nationalistic basis, following an extensive investigation.

Also capturing national attention, late last year, an Arab teen received a lenient sentence after raping a 10-year-old Israeli child, enraging the local community. In February, an Arab man raped an Israeli mother in front of her children in the southern town of Gedera. But neither incident was deemed to be a terror attack.

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