Israel: Are Peace Activists Harassed by Palestinian Men Being Silenced?

Israeli human rights activists, who regularly join Palestinian demonstrators in Bil'iin and Sheikh Jarrah, are recently blamed for ignoring and even silencing an allegedly common phenomenon of sexual harassment of women activists by fellow Palestinian demonstrators.

In the beginning of August 2010, Haaretz gender columnist Tsafi Saar stirred a feminist bloggers discussion on a problematic request raised by the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration organizers, asking Israeli women to dress up modestly for mutual demonstrations in East Jerusalem. Saar writes:

“…They raised the old outrageous argument that feminists should restrain themselves and give up a few things for the greater, more important cause, of fighting the occupation. The organizers stressed this request came from Palestinian women who felt uncomfortable in the presence of fellow women with bare shoulders. The activists who resisted this request brought up the problem of the Palestinian women status in their society, and pointed out that this request is oppressing by nature.”

A week later, feminist activist and blogger Hannah Beit-Halachmi, revealed the existence of a “secret” low profile workshop offered to women and transgendered activists on coping with sexual harassment at human rights demonstrations. Beit-Halachmi captured a screen shot of the workshop details that was quickly removed from Israeli Indymedia website, which reads:

“Israeli men, women and transgenders protest on weekly basis with their bodies against the occupation. Within this field of solidarity and mutual risk-taking lies a phenomenon of sexual harassment of activists and transgenders… within the field of direct action against occupation there is a role reversal in the power relations between occupiers (feminine tense in Hebrew – C.V) and occupied, dominant and dominated (feminine tense in Hebrew – C.V).”

Beit Halachmi reacts:

“The existence of this workshop shows sexual harassment is a common phenomenon in left wing demonstrations. The demonstrators against occupations accept this reversed occupation because it doesn't really concern them – the victims are women. These women shoulders could be covered so the demonstrators could continue feeding their self-righteous allegedly liberal egos and carry the torch of social equality struggle. I recommend that women condition their participation in these demonstrations to the complete stop of any demonstration during which a sexual harassment occurs. The demonstrators should not demonstrate unless they reach an agreement with their Palestinian counterparts that there will be zero tolerance to this phenomenon and he who harasses should be shamefully and publicly banned from the demonstration. I am sorry that there is seemingly no real left wing in Israel and that left wing women are cooperating with this phenomenon”.

Last week the issue was raised again by lawyer and publicist Roni Aloni-Sadovnik in a column she wrote for News First Class website titled ” The left wing betrays its raped activists“. Sadovnik mentions a case covered earlier by Haaretz of an attempted rape of an American peace activist in Beit Lechem. According to Haaretz, the Palestinian Authority has pressured the activist not to press charges in order not to undermine the public opinion supportive of the struggle against the occupation.

In her provocative column, Sadovnik speaks of another rape attempt on an Israeli activist that was also pressured to put it aside for the greater purpose, and refers to both as raped. She writes:

“When Pacifist movements need to prioritize their agendas, it's clear that ending the occupation comes before protecting women. Are we finally facing the naked truth that these movements are actually pro-Islamic disguised as humanitarians? As a feminist, I feel the hypocrisy and loss of moral conscience in the galloping left wing persistent action to end the occupation, while they are dumbstruck facing this horror they encourage and collaborate in hiding it”.

In response to those allegations, The Sheikh Jarrah demonstration organizers wrote a note on their Facebook page denying it:

“We take every case of harassment seriously and will stand against it as we stand against the breaking of every human right. The first rape attempt was made public due to the assistance of Israeli activists that helped report it. We have no knowledge of the other case and the allegation against us as accomplices to such silencing is slandering. We respect Sadovnik's reputation of feminist activism but we warned News First Class that if they do not delete this column we will consider pressing liability charges.”

Many of the supportive comments on this note on Facebook claimed these allegations are a sophisticated attempt to sabotage the struggle against the occupation, planned by right wing elements.

The above links were shared by many Israeli Facebook users over the last couple of days, spiting similar debates between activists who claim this impossible based on their personal experience, and women who stress that sexual harassment is an everyday phenomenon that can be found in any place and context and we shouldn’t be surprised it is found among human rights activists as well. (Links to many of these additional debates cannot be provided due to user's restricted Facebook privacy settings).

Some linked this debate with an earlier affair that stirred the blogosphere in February 2010, as blogger Eshkar Eldan Hacohen confessed in a personal testimonial on being raped 20 years ago by a well known humanist.

As other women who identified the attacker added their own testimonials, the Press picked up the story and revealed the alleged rapist and serial harasser to be no other than famous publicist, poet and peace activist Itzhak Laor. That affair has sparked a similar discourse within the blogosphere on the disconnection between human rights and women rights.


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