How not to be sexually harassed in the IDF

May Fatal is a young soldier who was sexually harassed and perhaps stalked by her superior in the army. That’s nothing new. Sexual harassment in the IDF has been a dirty, loosely kept secret for decades, known to most women and plenty of men in Israel.

Few women ever go public with their experience, and even fewer do so with their own identity.

Last year, Fatal submitted a complaint against her commander Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi, a battalion commander in the Givati combat brigade, within the army system. The case made the press but she remained anonymous. In December, military prosecutors reached a plea bargain with Hajbi: he was removed from IDF service, but avoided criminal charges in a civilian court.

Last week Fatal broke her anonymity by protesting the plea bargain in an impassioned Facebook post. In so doing she became one of the few victims of sexual harassment to reveal herself publicly, rejecting the single initial and pixelated face commonly used to protect anonymity. Many have come to feel that hiding one’s name and blotting out faces on TV conveys that the woman has been shamed and strips her of her identity, making it harder for the public to relate to her.

Fatal’s post generated a series of headlines, analyses and further developments. She was attacked online for having photos of herself in a bathing suit on Facebook, supposed proof of her temptress character. MK Shelly Yachimovich wrote a lengthy response arguing for Fatal — and every woman’s — right to both wear a bathing suit and not be harassed.

Over the weekend, Gili Cohen wrote in Haaretz about  a trend of women revealing their own experiences of harassment in the army, on Facebook and elsewhere, and what it means. The article asks for the umpteenth time what happens when a woman steps forward and complains. Why don’t more women do so? Is the pain worth the price? If more women do it, will the process become less intimidating? This question is becoming central to the debate. A survey published Sunday shows that 98 percent of those who have experienced harassment do not report it to the police.

Cohen quotes Rachel Tevet-Weisel, the Israeli army’s “advisor to the Chief of Staff on women’s issues,” saying she encourages women to step up and speak out. But the advisor’s also had some thoughts about how sexual harassment can be avoided (my translation):

[Tevet Weisel] says that actually in the mixed units this [sexual harassment – ds] happens much less. “In the end, they prove themselves – if they are good fighters or good pilots – and these barriers come down very fast. The differences are erased, they start to work together, and that’s it,” claims Brigadier-General Tevet-Weisel.

In other words, she implies that women can earn their peace of mind and body, and their equality, by serving in a combat unit. And if her performance as a combat soldier or a pilot is outstanding, she has a really good shot at not being molested.

IDF soldiers (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
The best way for an IDF soldier to avoid sexual harassment? (Photo by IDF Spokesperson)

So much commentary focuses on what women can or can’t wear and what they should or shouldn’t do to redress the situation – or even prevent it. The message that emerges is: ladies, it’s up to you.

What about society, its institutions, the perpetrators themselves?

Cohen does mention some “hasbara” in the army –a PSA the army put out a couple of years ago is one example. (Aside from a fleeting moment showing the female soldier looking sad, the central message is punitive: if you harass her, you might find yourself in court.) It is also true that in recent years, IDF recruits are commonly taught about gender sensitivity and harassment issues in basic training.

But Lili Ben Ami, director of the Center for Women’s Leadership in Jerusalem, a teacher and longtime activist for gender equality, argues that there is no overall institutional plan in the education system, the formative years. She describes an uphill battle with the Education Ministry.

“No one has decided that it’s important enough to allocate sufficient funds to it,” Ben Ami says. “There are ad hoc seminars – but there is no policy and they don’t reach the majority.” She cannot fathom why there are programs for all pupils about safe driving but that former Education Minister Shay Piron wouldn’t even grant a meeting about incorporating these issues into the education system’s curriculum. “It is urgent,” she told me. “It is a matter of people’s lives.”

Let me be clear – the discussion around submitting complaints is important, and women should come forth, reclaim the initiative and air the truth.

But people need to understand that this takes an enormous, even overwhelming amount of emotional energy. Hours go into consulting, maybe crying, with friends, family, therapists. A formal complaint is just the start of a lengthy process that, at its best, eats up more mental and emotional strength; at worst, it can create more trauma. Conversations will be repeated endlessly in our heads as we turn over the original painful things that were said and done – then more painful things that might happen as a result.

I admit it: when I should have complained, I didn’t. I was one of those aware, educated, feminist, savvy, “strong” women who used up all my strength to contain the rage and humiliation and sense of betrayal, to work my way out of a depressive phase, and get back to work. I didn’t want to devote any more of myself to the issue.

Just imagine if all that damned energy and thought and emotional investment went into developing the next killer app, mapping a genome, or running for prime minister instead.

Imagine if those who commit the crime, and all of society, share the burden of preventing it, and we free up our talents to meet other challenges.

Individuals and society alike are responsible for prevention, not the victims. Here are some obvious first steps:

• Men can learn to control themselves. After all, they managed to become potty-trained.

• Israeli culture can cut out the military gold standard. Children do not need to be trained from age zero that the greatest possible achievement is to become a combat soldier, with the accompanying sense of machoist entitlement for those who get there. That gold standard means women start from less than zero in terms of social capital. (Women combat soldiers will never be seen as equal, and who wants more of them, anyway?)

• Women do not earn equality by being pilots as good as men, or by being as successful as men at killing people. We are already valuable. Invaluable.

• The IDF does not need an advisor on “women’s affairs.” Women are not a problem. Maybe there should be an advisor on gender relations.

Fatal wrote in her post that the indictment recognized her commander’s devoted service in the IDF, specifically during the recent war, as an argument for leniency of his punishment. So here’s a lesson in no-brainer logic: fighting a war does not excuse terrorizing a woman. It’s painful that I really have to say this.

I personally believe that someone who harasses a subordinate has failed to confront the soul and spirit of that person. If this is a broad social phenomenon, the lack of engagement is everyone’s problem.

Humanizing women wouldn’t be a bad start for men in the army. Who knows, the image of dignified human beings may even rub off on some other people commonly treated as less.