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The paralyzing rage of sexual harassment

A protester shouting slogans at a “SlutWalk” against sexism in Tel Aviv on March 22th, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

For the last 10 days I have not been able to think of the occupation or political mini-dramas of the new government. I read the New York Times every morning, but I can hardly recall the headlines. Even, god help me, the butchery in Syria and now the Israeli involvement seem further from my heart momentarily than a very local story.

It is so local, I wonder if +972 readers would or should care. It is so mundane, based on subtleties and slippery facts, that I wonder how I can possibly allow it rival the importance of towering life or death issues.

It’s simple sexual harassment – not a uniquely Israeli problem. One of the top television news personalities in the country, Emmanuel Rosen, has been accused by a large number of women of harassment over the years and there are rumors of rape. After a lengthy expose in Haaretz on April 26 (Hebrew) aired the claims of about 10 female colleagues, he went on leave of absence from Channel 10. The police began an “examination” which as of Monday turned into a formal “investigation.” Here in Israel it is a major news story making the headlines almost every day since it broke at the end of April.

But there’s nothing simple about it. Rosen’s womanizing personality  is known far and wide even to those like me, who don’t know him personally. Colleagues know him as a skirt-chaser at work too, and in the close circles of the Israeli media cliques, the current accusations don’t seem to surprise anyone – especially women.

Yet the whistle-blowing has been faint. No one went to the police, or (as far as we know to date) raised a formal complaint at his main current workplace – Channel 10, a private television station (he was active in other media outlets too). But Channel 2, his former employer and the highest-rated television station in the country apparently confronted complaints about him a few years back. It has emerged that he was let go for ‘unbecoming behavior,’ and subsequently hired by Channel 10.

The accusations were exposed by a group of women journalists who recently organized into a professional guild (Ta Itona’iyot, or the “female journalist caucus“). Vered Cohen-Barzilay, a feminist activist and former journalist who was involved from the beginning explained to me that they hadn’t  intended to focus on sexual harassment. But in the early meetings when the agenda was being formed, the issue just poured out naturally from participants at every one of 15 round tables (Hebrew), with about 40 who specifically complained about Rosen.

Since the story broke, senior press figures have now been in the odd position of both reporting on the news, while being talking heads – about themselves. Some have stated that the top execs in the field knew about his harassment and worse, but did nothing. Others, like Channel 10’s own Raviv Drucker (Hebrew) have tended towards “cover my ass” commentary about all the things they didn’t know while hinting that the firestorm might be exaggerated. Other male regulars in the press have taken to prefacing their comments with a sort of ritual confession explaining the degree of acquaintance or friendship with the fallen star as if appropriate distance inoculates him. One of the best voices, with whom I identify perhaps most closely, has been Haaretz’s fantastic and unrestrained reporter and commentator on feminism and gender issues, Tsafi Saar. I’d like to quote her now, but I wouldn’t know where to start. The interested reader can start by reading everything she writes.

In fact, I don’t know where to start writing at all. Should I begin by giving a pithy description of the fascinating social media dynamics, the frenzied debates between the genders running on Facebook forums? Should I describe the defensiveness and anger of many men, morphing into a quick deflection of the issue to a  media problem? “The media” is holding a “kangaroo court,” and “ruining his life,” which is what security reporter Roni Daniel said impromptu on Channel 2 news, as a media figure who has absolutely no expertise in gender issues. He was implying that Rosen doesn’t have a fair chance to defend himself (when the story first broke, Haaretz reported his repeated refusal to give a response; he then denied everything and spoke of a smear-campaign against him). Do I talk of the occasional woman who seems more interested in staking out a punchy “davka” counter-point, by joining the accusations against the media instead of those against Rosen? Or about the heart-warming men who simply get it?

Should it be the tales of trauma now being shared by an appalling number and range of women, an ever-spreading stain whose blackness and girth are still deepening and spreading? The strength and vulnerabilities intertwined in their cries? Or maybe I should tackle the hard-core pragmatic dilemmas: complain and you can ruin your life, reputation and profession and become the victim, again. Keep it quiet and you perpetuate the cycle.

Is there an Israeli angle here? A lag in the evolution of gender relations that many outsiders still view with a 1950s romanticism: sturdy sunburnt limbs in khakis side-by-side in kibbutz fields, or chicks with guns? Or maybe it’s not just a delay but a specific Israeli character to the troubled dynamic here, something that emanates darkly from the recesses of militarism and machoism that the Israeli establishment clings to with a death-grip. Maybe the troubled power-and-submission relation between the genders – in public institutions, in the bedroom (Hebrew), in religion – reflects destructive interactions in other obvious spheres.

Or should I tell my own story? Maybe it’s wiser to wait on the grand social analysis until the dust settles and in the meantime, explain to anyone who still doesn’t get it what it’s like to invest all your life and talents, stake all your energies and efforts, days and nights and weekends, suspend your fears and insecurities and convince everyone they don’t exist, to dive into a profession you believe in and fight your way to a level of confidence and possibly impact – and then to be slapped down to nothing. For the curse of being born a women, to be told, in effect (or literally, as I have) “all that’s well and good, but we know what you’re really good for.” And the entreaty that follows: Sleep with me. Go have babies. Let’s go to your place. Let’s get a place. Let’s have a non-standard relationship. I’ve met you once, but how’s your emotional life these days. I’m sorry, I love my wife, I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m sorry, I love my wife, but she hasn’t wanted to have sex lately.

Yes, I’ve conflated, paraphrased, forgotten and repressed some of the crap I’ve heard over the years. No, not all of them fall under the classic or legal definition of sexual harassment in (or out of) the workplace. Yes, I’ve heard them all in some form and each of those notions more than once. In case any man reading this thought we would think this drivel was unique – you are invited to stop embarrassing yourself with congenital unoriginality. And why do I even care about unoriginality in such a traumatic situation? Perhaps the pain is so deep that we search for the seemingly meaningless details so as not to cope with the awful feelings inside. Perhaps they highlight the filthy feeling of being reduced to one of a million anonymous, identical targets – replaceable. Maybe the insult to my intelligence – that you thought I would buy it – is too great to bear.

No, I never complained to the workplace and I am ashamed I wasn’t able to prevent or redress those situations, instead of what I did: stew in my humiliation and the wreckage of my self-worth, built from the ground with my own sweat and blood. Confuse my rage at him with rage at myself, for not telling him to fuck off, or even before that: for not projecting a personality so unfathomably wonderful that he could never countenance such disrespect in the first place.

This is why I have been powerless to write so far: emotions have taken over and there are very many serious, pragmatic, rational and vital angles to be addressed and I hope to write about them too in the future (in the meantime, Yossi Gurvitz has done a fantastic job articulating much of what I think about the current debate in Israel, sadly not yet in English). And in general, I don’t view my emotions about my personal life as appropriate subject for the public sphere.

But if that’s what it takes to communicate how bad this problem is, I feel I owe it to society. I’ll never forgive those men for forcing me to deal with their private parts, against my will, instead of what I came to work that day to do.

It’s becoming bon-ton this week to say that a few text messages Rosen allegedly sent to the unfortunate women is simply not so bad. It’s not rape, and come on, if you’re such a strong, empowered, educated woman, it’s not even really traumatic.

Wake up. It’s not the text message, fools. It’s the diseased manipulation and stinking dehumanization behind them.

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    1. ayla

      wow. Dahlia. Thank you. I don’t know how you managed to pull off writing a piece so raw yet incisive and insightful. When you pondered about why it should bother you that the come-ons were unoriginal, I was developing a response in my head about how they reduce us to cliches, but then I read on and you just nailed it, so beautifully. Since this is a universal problem/disease, I hope you’ll republish it, too, for a very wide audience (think bigger than usual and outside the usual political venues), just as it is.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Engelbert Luitsz

      It’s worse than the flu.
      Pentagon: Estimated 26,000 Sexual Assaults In Military Last Year

      Reply to Comment
    3. “It is so mundane, based on subtleties and slippery facts, that I wonder how I can possibly allow it rival the importance of towering life or death issues.”

      There are plenty of men out there who will say this without women joining in too. Never feel like you have to excuse or apologise for your anger on this one, especially as it IS a life or death issue. Rape, trafficking, prostitution, and domestic violence have taken or at least severely damaged millions of female lives – and these things didn’t just sprout up from nowhere overnight like woodland mushrooms. They’re nurtured by a culture in which casual everyday sexual harassment not only goes mostly unpenalised, but in which women are judged for complaining. “Lighten up, it was a compliment.” “You can’t expect me to ignore legs like that.” “Well, if you don’t want the attention, don’t dress like a tart.” “OK, be like that then, frigid bitch.” There isn’t all that much difference between this and the standard you-were-asking-for-it rape apologia. Both stem from a sense of entitlement roughly the size of the African serengeti, in which you exist for men first and foremost.

      It is very important to make these links between the harassment and objectification that have become mundane for all of us and the violence that is leaving women dead. There is nothing very subtle about these links and nothing slippery, but it is not easy to state them publicly, because your inbox has a tendency to start filling with rather graphic rape threats the moment you try. It is isolating. I think the solution is for women to get angry together, and make no apology for that.

      Reply to Comment
      • ayla

        I was waiting for your response to this piece, Vicky. Now I know why.

        Reply to Comment
        • After I made the comment about being angry without apology, I read the Ha’aretz article by Tsafi Saar that Dahlia links to. Immediately I am confronted with the headline ‘Men, we are not against you’ and a photo of a woman clutching a banner declaring FEMINISM IS HOT – in a lovely shade of pink, naturally. A woman wants to write about sexual harassment? She must reassure the men. Ensure that they don’t feel threatened by this horde of raging viragos who are stampeding down the street with the demand that they be able to go to work and do their jobs without being harassed by colleagues. Such a thing could easily overwhelm the male readership, so better assist them in their time of need by helpfully calling their attention to the ‘hotness’ of feminism. If we can’t sell it on the basis that it’s obvious and only right, we will sell it on the basis of its sex appeal. Is my pink paint pink enough? Did someone bring any glitter?

          We’ve all done it. I’m just as baffled as to why we do. A better expression of feminist sentiment: http://mod-ish.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/i-cant-believe-i-still-have-to-protest-this-shit.jpg

          Reply to Comment
    4. Good on you, Dahlia. Don’t let anyone take your private life from you.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Vicky, I just have to respond about Saar’s work. I linked to that piece simply because it was the most recent. I personally liked it because I do think it needs to be said, but if you don’t know the rest of her work I can understand your point. For her, this piece is that that 1 in a hundred that is just slightly out of character to keep things interesting. Trust me on this: keep reading her, or go back and read past stuff. She’s your woman. Unfortunately, I don’t think she always gets translated.

      Reply to Comment
      • I didn’t think she was responsible for the headline or for the illustrative photo, as I know that journalists usually don’t write their own headlines anyway. But someone must have thought that this title and that photo captured the essence of piece. This is unsurprising, because feminism these days is so often presented in such terms that even women buy into it. I will continue to read Saar’s articles, but I think this is worth highlighting.

        In the past I have explained to men that patriarchy hurts everyone and feminism is good for them too. I used to think it really needed to be said. But lately I have been starting to wonder – when somebody writes about the difficulties experienced by homeless people, or asylum seekers, would I expect them to devote substantial time to telling me how supporting these people is good for me too? Am I really so dreadfully important in that scenario? Applied to feminism, this is a pretty androcentric approach and it is making me increasingly uncomfortable. These days I would rather focus just on practical action for change. If men want to join in and support us, great. If they don’t, it can be achieved without them.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Sarah Linder

      Thank you Dahlia

      Reply to Comment