Recently, claims have been made public on blogs both in Israel [Hebrew] and outside it about sexual attacks against Israeli and international activists by Palestinians in Palestinian villages and at Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. It was further claimed that there is “a conspiracy of silence” surrounding this issue. To this, leftwing activists responded that these news items and posts were published for the sole purpose of delegitimizing the joint activity against the occupation, and that the writers do not have the women’s best interest in mind, but rather hostility to the left and to Palestinians.
Rechavia Berman, editor in chief of the Youpost open news portal, is the first blogger to attempt an investigation of the reported cases and to try and understand if attacks actually took place, how many actually occurred and what became of the alleged “conspiracy of silence”.
The gravity of the accusations and the reverberations of the case made me decide to publish Berman’s piece in full, adapted slightly for the English speaking audience (Hebrew original here). I am grateful to Rechavia for granting permission to use his text. The translation is courtesy of Dena Shunra.
Youpost investigates: a lefty betrayal or rightwing lies?
Rechavia Berman, Sep 22, 2010
The blogosphere was up in arms yesterday after a column published in First Class News site claimed [Hebrew] that “the left” – and more specifically, that part of the left that regularly demonstrates against the crimes of the separation wall and other land grabs and misappropriations in Jerusalem and the West Bank – was leaving its women activists exposed to sexual harassment on the part of the Palestinians in those villages and neighborhoods where the protests occurred. The article also stated that victims of such harassment were pressed to refrain from filing complaints.
In short, this column, written by attorney Roni Aloni-Sedovnik, claimed that the rights and well-being of the activists were sacrificed on the altar of the fight against the occupation.
This is not the first time this issue has come up. Several months ago, similar concerns were made public, but at the time they were raised by the leftwing organizations themselves, when they published a post on Indymedia site, concerning a workshop dedicated to handling this problem. The wording in this post led many people to suspect that the purpose of this workshop was not to preempt the phenomenon nor to empower the victims but rather to teach them “how to live with harassment.” Many bloggers, including many leftwing ones, condemned this approach. The activists who organized the demonstrations – Anarchists Against the Wall and Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity – already claimed at the time that the accusations were untrue and had ulterior motives.
Adv. Sedovnik’s column on First Class News inflamed the issue again, not least due to her aggressive writing style and to allegations of new cases “which had been silenced”. Many commenters followed the tone of the article and accused the entire left of hypocrisy.
Careful examination of the facts, however, demonstrates that the column by Adv. Sedovnik – who provides legal advice to victims of sexual assault and who describes her work as “feminist legalism” – is full of gross and tendentious factual errors, and demonstrates a deep hostility to the left and to Palestinians. (Here is just an example: “the peace activists who are afraid that handling the issue would hurt the feelings of Palestinians and their cultural heritage, which sees woman as sexual objects.”)
That said, the problem of sexual harassment of women peace activists does indeed exist, a fact which is not denied by the activists themselves. We have chosen to examine here Adv. Sedovnik’s allegations and the way the entire matter is handled in leftwing organization.
Hijab and Burka? Not exactly
First, in contrast to what Adv. Sedovnik said, the American peace activist who was attacked in the village of Umm Salmona, was not raped. It was – most fortunately – an attempted rape. This is, of course, a most serious crime, but the facts should be carefully reported. Additionally, it is not true that the victim of this crime had been asked not to file a complaint. A complaint was filed with the Palestinian Police, which the demonstrators see as the appropriate authority for handling events that occur in the Occupied Territories. The perpetrator was arrested by the Palestinian police and spent some time in jail, even if his release was much quicker than we would have wanted.
Onward: in contrast with the statements made both in the Sedovnik column and in other places, no one demanded that demonstrators come to the Occupied Territories or to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood wearing “hijab, burka, or head covering.” The truth is this: some people in Sheikh Jarrah requested some of the Israeli activists to show consideration for local customs, just as visitors are asked to do in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in the city of Bnei Brak and in Me’a Shearim in Jerusalem.
The request was that they come to demonstrations in what was defined as “appropriate attire” – which consists of regular short sleeved shirts rather than “wife beater” tops. The request was circulated among the various activists and published on websites identified with the demonstrators. Some demonstrators took the request into practice, many others did not, and continued coming to demonstrations in the heat of summer in their skivvies, and as those who were present at the scene can verify, no one said anything to them. As stated, the request was for consideration – no sanctions were imposed, and in any event most of the demonstrators came to Jerusalem attired as per their preferences.
The rape that did not happen
As to the issue of sexual assaults: as stated, in Umm Salmona there was an attempted rape, not a rape. The handling of this involved the collaboration of the Israeli activists and the village popular council. It included removing the attacker from any activity in the village, not only activities involving Israelis and internationals.
According to Tal Shapira, a prominent activist who is at the core of the activists’ attempt to cope with the issue of harassments, and according to testimony by other activists, in that case and in other cases, the activists demanded immediate handling of the case by the local community, and made this a condition for further cooperation. This demand was met in full, and for this reason there was no boycotting of the protest, which seems to be what Adv. Sedovnik (and others) demanded.
As to the claim that the demonstrators should have filed a complaint with the police, Shapira says, “right. We’re anarchists. Is it really surprising that we choose to take actions that do not involve the authorities? And I should state that I care about the Palestinian Authority about as much as I do the Israeli government. Instead, we make our foundation work inside our community and the community we work with. This is what we believe in, and this is how we operate.”
Shapira states that the handling of the attempted rape at Umm Salmona was done throughout with the knowledge and approval of the victim. The girl did eventually exercise her prerogative of filing a complaint with the Palestinian police, and the attacker was apprehended and spent several months in prison. Haaretz reported that he was released from his imprisonment after he had agreed “to apologize” (The shunning of the attacker by the village is reported here for the first time).
Shapira further states that the victim, who has since returned to her home in the United States, still retains a warm relationship with the activist community and that she had also thanked them in writing for their handling of the matter.
The column that ignited the internet storm mentioned another case of rape in Sheikh Jarrah. Following several communications by activists with First Class News, the phrasing was changed to “grievous sexual attack.” It should be noted that no one from the activist community is familiar with this case. Thus, it would be wrong to claim that a campaign of silencing had occurred about it. Despite repeated attempts by various people, no details have been revealed about this case, which no one had heard of prior to the publication of the column. The column itself gave no details about it, and the fact that the allegation has been removed from the site makes it possible that it could have been no more than a rumor.
All of the activists we spoke with were of the opinion that the nature of Adv. Sedovnik’s column reveals an intention to hurt the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. The article included a general attack against the women demonstrating against the occupation, regarding what she sees as their failure to protest anti-feminist laws of the Hamas. The notion that this should be part of their responsibility as well, say the activists, indicates the true purpose of the piece.
“If anyone even looks at me funny, I don’t keep silent”
Tal Shapira, who is one of the coordinators of the education and handling of this issue, says that there is no silencing about sexual harassment, certainly not in activities run by Anarchists Against The Wall at many villages along the route of the wall. In fact, says Shapira, “the very fact that everyone is suddenly talking about it and that cases are being reported is a direct result of our response to the issue. We are holding educational sessions and workshops, both inside the activist community and in the joint activities with the residents of the villages and communities we demonstrate alongside.
“Five months ago, when a woman wanted to complain she did not have all the tools or the specific avenues for complaint that we have developed since then. Nowadays, when we are on the bus to the demonstration, we read the first response and first aid instructions in case anyone is hurt, and at the same time we also say what to do in case of being sexually attacked in any way whatsoever, and we point out the specific people on the ground who handle this issue, so that they will know exactly who to talk to.”
[It should be noted that in the Bil’in demonstrations that I attended this spring and summer, this briefing was indeed delivered – N.S.]
“The claim that we are accommodating or somehow blurring the matter is simply incorrect. If anyone even looks at me funny, or at any other woman demonstrating with me, I won’t be silent. If anyone harasses anyone else, the harasser will be expelled from the demonstrations and handled by his community – and I want to state that in all cases that we came across, we have been impressed with the immediacy and firmness of the local popular councils. There was no whitewashing nor sweeping under carpets; quite to the contrary, they saw it as being just as serious a violation as we did. There was another serious case in another struggle zone (not in Sheikh Jarrah – R.B.) and there, too, the assaulter was expelled and handled, in consultation with the victim and while giving her needs top priority. As stated – after that it is still possible to go and file a complaint.”
Q: But there is a problem of sexual harassment, right? You do not deny that.
“Sexual harassment happens everywhere. I am sexually harassed in downtown Tel Aviv, people make comments and whistle at me, and in crowded places people try to touch me.”
Q: Yes, but in Tel Aviv the person who says a word or touches you is not one you are dedicating time, effort, and danger to join for a struggle for his rights.
“Yes, there is a phenomenon and that is why we started handling it. The vast majority is verbal harassment. I know of three cases where there was an actual assault involving touch. The rest involves inappropriate comments or ‘the unduly long handshake’, which many of the activists are familiar with. The problem is primarily with the young boys in the villages, who – like young men everywhere – sometimes do not understand the boundaries. And, as I have already said, the young boys in Israel, ones who are used to seeing girls in bikinis, are no angels, either. We are working at all levels – in letting the activists know what they should do, and that they should not tolerate it, and in working with the community of the assaulter, in cases when someone harasses or assaults, and also in attempts to prevent problematic situations, such as having activists sleep in the villages.”
“If there is no whitewash, what are they afraid of?”
Hannah Beit Halahmi, a well-known activists and feminist blogger, does not find that sufficient. “There is a systematic phenomenon of explicit violations of the law, and there is a legal response, set forth in the law, and that is what should be done,” says Beit Halahmi.
Beit Halahmi, who considers herself a leftwinger and critical of the occupation (but who doesn’t take part herself in the demonstrations), recently mentioned enraged responses that she and others received after they “dared” discuss the phenomenon. These included demands and even threats to avoid the issue. “That, more than anything else, makes them suspicious. What is so frightening that makes them burst out so?” She is not persuaded by what Shapira says about the handling of the matter having started as an initiative of the activists, and claims that “they tried to silence it and I foresaw that it would blow up in their faces.”
Beit Halahmi specifically accuses a Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity activists named Avner of calling her, shouting at her, threatening her and demanding that she stop publishing articles about the issue. Avner denies this. He says that he called Beit Halahmi, had a very short conversation with her, which was relaxed and conducted in a civilized tone, due to the fact that Adv. Sedovnik, who wrote the column that started the uproar, claimed in an email to him that she had received the specifics about a rape having occurred in Sheikh Jarrah from Beit Halahmi.
Beit Halahmi told Youpost that she does not have any information about specific cases of sexual assault, and that Sedovnik is the one who claimed that she has the name of the alleged rape victim. All attempts to locate the source of the information about the alleged rape or assault in Sheikh Jarrah came to nothing.
That was the Youpost article. I would like to add that Beit Halahmi and sever others still argue that the joint Israeli-Palestinian protest should stop, at least for now. Blogger and +972 magazine contributor Yossi Gurvitz wrote in his Hebrew blog that while he believes the joint activity should go on, he “would find it hard to invite new friends to join it.”
I disagree. Beit Halahmi’s and Sedovnik’s claim was that one group (women) was sacrificed in the struggle for the rights of another one. Even if you believe their accusations, wouldn’t stopping the protest be just the same, with this time the Palestinians sacrificed in the name of the battle for Jewish women’s rights? Demonstrations should go on, and sexual crimes should be reported, exposed and dealt with.
Finally, I wish to quote another paragraph here, from a post written by two activists from Anarchists Against the Wall and Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, which makes a point not mentioned in Berman’s piece.
Lihi Rothschiled and Silan Dalal write [Hebrew]:
“Sexual violence occurring in political activism comes not only from our Palestinian partners or even from the Israeli ones, for that matter. In many cases, the violence is imposed by the Israeli security forces, in all its guises. As activists working both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, we are repeatedly exposed to sexual harassment on the part of policemen, soldiers, and border patrol forces, and our repeated complaints about these cases are neither investigated nor handled. This fact was entirely omitted from Ms. Sedovnik’s column. Apparently, she feels that this information is less attractive, or perhaps it does not serve quite as effectively the slanderous goals of the column itself.”