Yaniv Nahman was a well-known figure in Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene. Multiple women described meeting the handsome investment manager at a club, then waking up in his bed the next morning without any recollection of how they got there. Police suspected he was using the date rape drug GHB but couldn’t prove it because by the time women filed a police complaint, it was no longer detectable in their bloodstream. Nahman agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted to one instance of rape, and on December 27 he was sentenced to 6 months of community service. The judge cited several reasons for the light sentence: first, he did not use a lot of force and second, the shaming he experienced on social media during the trial had done irreparable damage to his reputation.
The decision had women’s groups in Israel up in arms, including the Counseling Center for Women.
“In this case, in which there was no physical evidence and only the word of the complainants against the word of the defendant,” says Beth Zaslow Offer, a counselor at the CCW, “judges chose to side with the defendant rather than the complainants, because they did not place equal value on the emotional toll of both having been raped, and having to come forward.”
According to Offer, people underestimate the courage it takes for women to come forward, as society still often shames and blames the victim. That’s why she sees the recent spate of rape and sexual harassment scandals in Israel as a healthy thing.
In November, Jewish Home Knesset member Yinon Magal resigned after several women accused him of sexual harassment. In December, interior minister Silvan Shalom stepped down from public life after 11 women came forward with accusations of assault. (The allegations against Shalom were not substantiated and the investigation was subsequently closed.) And last week, Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni was arrested on rape and corruption allegations.
There have also been a string of sexual harassment scandals in the upper echelons of the Israel Police as well as a social media storm surrounding alleged misbehavior by former celebrity rabbi Marc Gafni.
Offer says that rape and harassment are nothing new. In fact, they’re grossly under-reported. What’s new is people’s willingness to talk about it.
“I think social media is helping. More and more people are saying this is not okay, what you women went through.”
According to Offer, Israel has come a long way. When she began working as a social worker in 1989, there was no law against wife-beating.
“I would visit a home and see a woman crying hysterically, with two huge black eyes. Two policeman were standing there and they said, ‘Don’t get too upset about this, honey. This happens all the time. She won’t put in a complaint so there’s nothing we can do.”
But in 1992, Israel passed a law where even if the abused partner doesn’t file a complaint, the alleged attacker will at least get questioned. In 1998, Israel passed its first sexual harassment law. Offer sees the current spate of scandals as part of Israel’s maturation process on these issues.
She also credits the rise of women’s organizations, such as the Counseling Center for Women where she works, for raising awareness.
The center was founded in 1988 by new immigrants from the United States and England who were inspired by the feminist movement and wanted to bring those messages to Israel. It has 24 therapists in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan who handle issues related to sexual assault and trauma.
According to the Women’s Security Index, a survey by several feminist NGOs in Israel, 61 percent of Jewish women in Israel fear that someone will force them into sexual contact against their will, 38.4% fear that a family member will humiliate, attack or abuse them, and 65.9% fear being attacked on a dark street. Among Israeli Arab women, 66.7% fear being forced into sexual contact, 67.5% fear abuse from a family member, and 74.3% fear an attack on a dark street.
The survey also asked Jewish women how many had experienced sexual harassment (34.3%), but among Russian-speaking women it was 50%; 26.4% of Jewish women said they experienced rape by a known or unknown person, while 45.5% of Russian-speakers said this.
Beth Offer says she also sees a lot of abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community. A typical scenario involves a young girl or woman visiting a friend, when her friend’s father does anything from harass to rape her. Sometimes, the community will tell her to shut up and not talk about it. On other occasions, even if she tells her family and they believe her, the rest of the community does not.
“This girl needs therapy. Often she comes to us because we are outside her community.”
CCW has done workshops with therapists from Sri Lanka to South Sudan to Brazil, and patterns of abuse, denial and cover-up are depressingly familiar. The only difference, says Offer, “is that if a society is more open and aware there is a better chance for a woman to get the help she needs.”
What sexual abuse does to the psyche
The physical act of rape ruins a woman’s life, Offer says. “She feels like her life has been taken away from her. One thing we have to do with therapy is give a woman back her life.”
Teenagers who have been abused often lose their self-confidence, become either abstinent or completely permissive, use drugs and develop eating disorders.
Sexual harassment, says Offer, lies on a continuum, with catcalls and whistling at one end and assault and rape at the other.
She is happy that we’re in a cultural moment when men are being called out and shamed for harassment, as this will make them think twice about their behavior.
Does this mean that if a man and woman are on a date, the man should ask the woman every time he makes a move? She says it’s possible for the man and woman to transmit nonverbal cues to each other, but when in doubt, they should “use their words.”
“Keep your hands to yourself until you know it’s okay. In a way, shomrei negia [those who generally abstain from physical contact with a person they are not married to] are better about this, because they need to talk about it at each stage.”
Offer is all too aware of the Hollywood idea of the man being a little daring and taking control, which is fine, she says, as long as “he looked in her eyes and saw it was okay. If she moves back he won’t go in for the kiss. If he sees her leaning towards him then he will.”
In general, Offer says, it’s not a bad thing that in light of all the scandals, men today are more nervous about how they speak and act around women.
“We need smarter men. Mothers need to educate their sons. I have three adult boys and none would dare make a move on a woman without asking her first. Their father was the same and we’ve been married for over 30 years.”