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Fighting Back: Victims of Sexual Assault Get Their Day in Court

In 2007, a far from run-of-the-mill plea bargain posed a major setback to women’s rights in Israel.  Former President Moshe Katsav was facing charges of rape.  In exchange for a suspended prison sentence for a confession of sexual harassment and indecent assault, the Attorney General agreed to drop rape charges against Katsav.

Last month, in a surprising twist, President Katsav himself decided to cancel the deal on advice from his lawyers that the police did not have enough evidence to make the rape charge stick.  Soon after, Israel’s Attorney General Meni Mazuz announced that Katsav would be indicted on charges of rape and assault, a move that the NIF family of women’s empowerment groups applauded.

Educating the Public

Until NIF spearheaded a campaign on violence against women in the 1980s and early 1990s, many Israelis simply insisted that there was no such problem in Israeli society. Now the subject is such a consensus issue that politicians scramble to champion the cause.  In fact, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 2007, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised an increased budget for combating violence against women. The Katsav plea bargain, however, sent the opposite signal in a society where patriarchal attitudes are still common.

In the wake of the scandal, reports of sexual assault, including rape, decreased across the country; it was clear that the plea bargain had a chilling effect on Israeli women’s belief in how seriously the justice system concerns itself with crimes of sexual violence.

In November 2007, a survey commissioned by the Authority for the Advancement of women in the Prime Minister’s Office gave the women’s movement additional cause for concern.  The survey found that the Israeli public’s knowledge about the causes and facts surrounding sexual violence was woefully inadequate.  Seventeen percent of the 500 respondents thought that the way a woman is dressed is one of the main causes of sexual assault, and 34 percent thought that daylight prevented acts of rape.

A Step Towards Justice

When the plea bargain was initially struck, the NIF Family of grantees immediately set to work to organize protests, argue against the legality of the plea in the courts and fight the troubling and widespread misconceptions the Israeli public held about rape and sexual assault.  With less than 48 hours notice, and little prior publicity, more 20,000 people participated in a protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.  The NIF family led the opposition with grantees the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI) and Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum among the organizations who appealed to the Supreme Court to cancel the plea bargain.  The Court narrowly upheld the plea in February 2008, making Katsav’s decision to cancel the agreement all the more shocking. 

With Katsav finally going to trial, the NIF and women’s organizations are hopeful that the downward trend of victims reporting their crimes to the police will be reversed, with more women feeling encouraged that justice can be served. 

Thousands demonstrate against President Katsav’s plea bargain agreement in 2007 in a protest organized by NIF grantees.

"The women in the Katsav case will have an opportunity to give testimony and prove their allegations,” noted Michal Rozin, Executive Director of ARCCI.  “A successful outcome to the trial for these women will influence others to go to the courts."

“The decision to indict Katsav sharpens the message that even the No. 1 citizen is obligated to keep his hands, and other body parts, to himself,” Yuli Tamir, Israel’s Minister of Education wrote in a Ha’aretz op-ed.  “It also constitutes a clear warning sign to all harassers, whether men or women, that no one is above the law and that the law is not on the side of anyone who exploits his or her position to harm others.”

Rina Bar-Tal, Chair of former NIF grantee Israel Women's Network commented, "Now the court can bring justice to light and decide without having to take into account dubious plea bargains; the wheels of justice are turning.”

For more information about NIF’s work on women’s issues, visit http://www.nif.org/issue-areas/womens-rights/

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$250 million to Israeli social change groups since 1979.