The barrier was broken

End of silence surrounding sexual violence in Israel

Israeli public opinion on sexual violence has changed radically during the past five years has. Who and how managed to convince the public that sexual violence is not rare and individual experience, but a huge problem that concerns all?

When it comes to sexual violence, the last few years in Israel were so revolutionary that the academy already calls them “The Fourth Wave in Israeli Feminism." To understand where this change began and how it happened, it is important to explain that for many years sexual violence in Israel was ignored. Sexual offences were coveredin a very stereotypical and vulgar way, and described almost pornographically with the blame assigned to the victim. Victims of sexual offences rarely gave press interviews, and if so, they were only shown in silhouette, shadow, and even with their faces blurred. There was a norm amongst men in positions of power to use force or influence to obtain sexual favours. Men whose hands were everywhere were considered to be “naughty,” and it was something that a woman should have just taken into account. 

Although Israel had some of the most advanced laws against sexual harassment, they were rarely enforced. The police never took the matter seriously and many of the cases that concerned sexual violence were dismissed with the reasoning “Not of public interest”.

Female members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) who spoke of such matters were subjected to ridicule and were considered to raise a subject that was dirty, inappropriate, and pornographic, as well as taboo. Their male colleagues in the parliament responded to the legislation the female MPsproposed with the argument that they were “exaggerating,” “making it up,” “igniting,” and “stirring.”  They claimed that it wasn’t a widespread phenomenon but something that only concerned a few isolated cases that didn’t justify any legislation.

However, the 1990s were not that much different than the 1980s when male members of the Knesset objected to legislation that disallowed men from hitting their wives and legislation that recognized the possibility of a husband raping his wife. Israeli men considered these issues as something the government should not haveinterfered with.


Time for another story

Five years ago changes occurred in Israeli society that spurred an ongoing revolution. After years of rising costs of living, erosion of social privileges, cutbacks, and dramatic house price rises, “social protest” broke out in Israel.

Citizens realized that they were unable to live off their salaries. The average salary in Israel did not allow one to rent an apartment, and certainly not to buy one. Prices of products went up, especially food; and poverty increased. Banks raisedinterest rates and fees, stopped approving overdrafts, and the common Israeli household found itself in heavy debt  trying to survive the crisis (all current indications show that these debts still need to be rid off  rid of). It started with one student, Daphne Leaf, who announced that a tent was all she could afford. After an angry post on Facebook, she set up one in the heart of Tel Aviv. Soon, she was joined by students, single mothers, unemployed, low paid workers, and immigrants who also pitched tents. Large anti government demonstrations began, and in the height of the protests more than a million Israelis took to  the streets. The leaders of the protest met with the Prime minister Benjamin Nethanyahu and a committee was set up to decrease the living costs.

Despite thedramatic events, housing prices, food costs and  bank fees continued to grow. Although the protest was of historic importance, it ultimately failed. But something did change. The Israeli public did not manage to change things on a grand scale, but got attracted to making a change. Facebook and other social networks proved  an important tool: influential, alternative media outlet that enabled to spread a different narrative. Many activist groups were established, local volunteering programs arose, political and social ventures grew, and even agricultural co-operatives were started.


The faces of victims

Something else happened in Israel, dramatic maybe, but not unusual. In November 2012 a war broke out. While the I.D.F. were fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israeli citizens had to hide in bomb shelters because for the first time long range missiles which could hit as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were launched from Gaza. The country was paralysed, and many had to stay at home and pay attention to the alarms. Entertainment venues were empty, the public was glued to TV.

Then and exactly then, the most watched TV channel decided to broadcast the documentary film I created. Entitled “Dirty Laundry,” the film details my family’s struggle with the fact that my father sexually abused me and my decision to sue him in civil court. Unlike previous victims of sexual assault, I appear openly, not adhering to the stereotype that Israel was used to, not shamed or ashamed, but active, fighting back and “getting even.”

When this film was shown during the war, the public sat in front of TV and gave it a rating never seen before for a documentary; especially a documentary dealing with such a subject. It was practically the first time that Israelis saw the face of the victim and certainly the first time that she had a personality, goals, an agenda, and demanded compensation and recognition of the damage caused to her by the victimizer.

My messages were simple. There is nothing to be ashamed about. I have no reason to hide my face. He is the perpetrator and he should be ashamed of himself. I am not alone because sexual violence happens everywhere and I am not ashamed to talk about it. Journalists struck gold. Both the little documentary, “Dirty Laundry,” and myself as the director had enormous exposure and this new message spread to the media, newspapers, and magazines, as well as television shows. The film continued to be screened. You would think that the interest would fade, but social media wouldn’t abandon the topic.

Like so many social ventures that grew online after the 2011 protest, Israeli feminism, too, spread on Facebook. Discussion groups were formed and women started talking, getting to know each other, initiating activities, and gaining power. If feminism was once something to be ashamed of,  thousands of women now found togetherness; they weren’t alone any more. Their voice grew in influence,  transcending the limits of Facebook. The message of the documentary started to be spread via the “share button” and more women joined those groups, including teenagers who were now hearing other brand new messages that contrasted with those they’d heard all their lives...

In 2013 a new wave of intensive discussion started. A group of female journalists gathered and collected testimonies about a colleague of theirs that for years sexually harassed and assaulted women. The story was published simultaneously in all media outlets. Exposing the reporter sent shock waves through the public  accustomed to thinking of sexual violence as something done by the desperate and not the powerful ones. A judge’s remark in criminal court stating that “some girls enjoy rape” aroused a powerful and focal response after years of the public tolerating such remarks. In this climate, journalist Sharon Shpurer called out to women on Facebook to openly expose their experiences instead of being ashamed. Amongst the hundreds of women who flooded social media, the renowned journalist Ariana Melamed accepted the challenge and revealed how she was raped when she was 15 by a relative who was slightly older than her.


Everyone’s concern

Two feminist activists who only knew each other virtually decided that these testimonies carry important information. Gal Shargil and Shlomit Havron established the Facebook page “One of One”, collected these lists by men and women, and published them. The page became a viral phenomenon that shocked the Israeli public. The amount of detailed testimonies and the fact that many women and men published them under their full names made it impossible to ignore the phenomena was everywhere and concerned everyone. No more accusations that rapists were immigrants, religious people, non-religious people, that it only happens at the kibbutz, only in poor families… it transcended all stereotypes and became the centre of a public discussion.

The phenomenon was so powerful that it crossed the line into closed communities where sex in general was taboo and so opened similar pages to discuss sexual violence inside Jewish orthodox society. A page in Arabic called “Tooskutish” (Don’t be Quiet) was run from Israel and started as a page discussing sexual violence among  the Arab minority in Israel. However, it soon became popular in many Arabic-speaking countries, bringing open discussion about sexual violence in Arabic-speaking societies throughout the Middle East and Asia, and its popularity is still growing.

If before television shows struggled to obtain interviewees even with the promise to hide their faces, the situation is now opposite. Even when it comes to the privileged, powerful, and influential men, the tide has turned. Women started accusing their assailants, rapists, and attackers on their personal Facebook pages, shaming them and warning other women against them.

In the meantime, “One of One” that started as a Facebook page became a non-profit organization. I was honored to receive an invitation to its board. First project we launched was a secure database where men and women could report sexual offenders. It allowed victims, who wondered if they were the only one, if perpetrator continued to offend or victims who were contemplating going to the police, to find answers. No accusations of secret cooperation could be made since the victims got information from a third party: “One of One”.

It also allowed women to request that if another woman names the same perpetrator, they would be notified, so they can make a joint decision about going to the police or the media. As a result of a process that took months, testimonials were gathered through the database about the most renowned actor in Israel, 3 times the winner of the Israeli Academy Award for lead actor in a film, winner of many prizes in Israel and Europe: Moshe Ivgi. As was also the case in this instance, women testified openly about incidents of sexual assault and attempted rape leading the police to arrest and recommend to prosecute the number one film star in Israel.


Fourth Wave

This topic does not come off the public agenda. Other exposures led to the resignation and dismissal of parliament members, I.D.F. generals, and police chiefs, as well as famous media personalities. The database recently helped expose that a businessman and heir to a family of millionaires used to drug and rape women in clubs  he owned. So far, 14 women testified against him and he is now charged on many counts.

Media coverage suddenly gained attention. It wasn’t only important  that the media would cover those stories, it was also the way in which they were covered that became important. Unprecedented criticism was directed at TV and radio hosts for blaming the victim, protecting powerful victimizers, taking sides according to political agendas or expressing themselves in ways that are inappropriate, vulgar, and rude. Not only did women start to talk openly about sexual violence, they also started to point fingers at shows where they were not willing to talk at all, boycotting them. In a society that a few years ago thought that sexual violence was  insignificant, the victims and activists (often the same women) are now well known, famous, and respected both in the media and in politics.

New groups have emerged and comprise what is now referred to as “Fourth Wave”. They are not active just online by publishing and blogging, “Awake,” “Justice You shall pursue,” and “The Women’s Opposition Front” also organize demonstrations, push for votes and legislation in the Knesset, and start letter campaigns, as well as  spearhead legal campaigns with growing influence. A recent plea bargain that was exposed to the public revealed that a general in the I.D.F. that raped a junior soldier under his command will not serve time in jail. In an amazing demonstration of force five hundred people blocked the road next to the government’s offices in the centre of Tel Aviv. The week after it was revealed that former president Moshe Katzav who was serving a prison sentence for two counts of rape, two counts of sexual assault, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice would get an early parole, even though he still refuses to admit the crimes or receive treatment. A hundred activists went out that same evening to a demonstration I organized with activist Galia Angel and blocked a main road in Tel Aviv again. King George Street was packed with traffic at peak hour, and for the first time demonstration was organized without any permission.

Today, reports of rape or other sexual crimes cannot possibly be perceived as before. The victims now talk to the press on record, establishing their own narrative. The barrier was broken and public discussion has changed dramatically and forever. We now talk to the victims and not about the victims. This is a special and unique change which is significant internationally as well. History will determine if the change in narrative and discussion will change the scope and number of sexual assaults, reports, and legislation, and, hopefully, this course of events can be duplicated or exported to other countries.

The author is a journalist and filmmaker.