November 13, 2011 · 0 Comments
Moshe Katsav didn’t just commit crimes, as the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in throwing out his appeal against his conviction for rape and other sex offenses. The former president also made a great many mistakes. His first was being born 50 years too late. A few decades ago, if someone in such a senior position had exploited, harassed, assaulted and raped women, he probably would not have been brought to trial. The Supreme Court’s ruling attests that those times are gone forever, which is of enormous significance for women (and for men).
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that Moshe Katsav is a felon, a rapist. The justices emphasized that Katsav’s victims were trustworthy, while the former president was not. At least four times the justices repeated the words “failing to tell the truth” or a similar phrase.
This is an achievement for all women. The court emphasized the right of every woman to lay red lines, at all times and in every situation; noted that a friendly acquaintanceship does not mean consent to sex (it turns out that some people still need to be told this ); and noted the difficulty women have opposing those who are in positions of authority over them. It also emphasized the serious psychological harm to the victims, which in some cases cannot be healed. One after another, the court refuted Katsav’s claims in his appeal.
And Katsav himself?
When he entered the courtroom, it was obvious that he was maintaining a facade. He offered a tight smile through pearly white teeth. To his confidants, he seemed optimistic. As the verdict was being read out, his right shoulder gradually rose as his left shoulder sagged. As the judges read the last part of the verdict, he embraced his right knee with both hands; a kind of nonchalantly disdainful posture. When Justice Edna Arbel read out her part of the verdict, Katsav spoke to his son, who was sitting next to him, and when Justice Salim Joubran, who criticized both former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and the media, noted that Katsav had slandered the complainants on television, Katsav interrupted him and shouted, “I never gave an interview to any television [station].” A rather peculiar comment, given that his notorious 2007 press conference is hard to forget.
After Joubran stated that the court had rejected outright Katsav’s appeal of both the conviction and the sentence, Katsav’s lawyers asked for an extension so the former president could prepare to enter prison. Their request was granted: Katsav will begin serving his sentence on December 7 – definitely a lengthy extension – said Justice Miriam Naor, who also named the prison. The defense attorneys asked her to add, “Unless it is decided differently.” “Decided differently by whom?” Naor asked. “The Prisons Service,” they mumbled. She agreed to add, “Unless a different place is set,” and added, “not a different date.”
Yesterday’s ruling put the final seal on a stormy and lengthy public affair, one filled with vicissitudes. It began with a complaint by Katsav himself, who claimed in 2006 that someone had attempted to extort him. But soon the alleged extorter, a woman, came forward, followed by more and more women, all of whom testified that Katsav had harassed and assaulted them. Katsav was charged with rape and other sexual crimes, tried and, in December 2010, convicted, and three months later sentenced to seven years in prison for two acts of rape, indecent acts and sexual harassment.
Katsav made countless tactical mistakes, from rejecting the plea bargain negotiated in 2007; presenting contradictory and false versions of events; handling the media poorly; and worst of all, conducting a smear campaign against his complainants.
Now, we can be proud of Israel’s judicial system, which tried and judged severely a former president. Yet we can also note that Katsav nonetheless enjoyed excessive privileges. Among other things, an ordinary convicted rapist would surely not have been released to his home pending a hearing on his appeal.
One of the gravest aspects of this case is that in the political arena, people knew for years that Katsav was sexually harassing women. Politicians knew, and journalists knew. That did not prevent him in the least from getting ahead as a politician, nor, to our great shame, from being elected president. In the powerful boys’ club, evidently, it isn’t considered a stumbling block at all. We can hope that that, at least, has changed.
Is Israeli society different now than it was before the Katsav affair?
“Since the president of the state was involved, we have to look beyond the fate of that particular person and his actions,” says Dr. Orit Kamir, an expert on law and gender. “And one of the most important processes that have been taking place in recent years is that Israeli society is learning to identify sexual harassment. We began learning this from Yitzhak Mordechai [a former government minister who was convicted of indecent acts in 2001]. I think that in this respect, which is critical, we have made huge strides.”
Kamir recalls a student “who recently said in class that he had just heard someone accused of sexual harassment responding to the charges, and it gave him a flashback to Katsav’s reactions. And this is a person who isn’t studying gender. As far as I’m concerned, all of the public suffering we went through was worth it for that flashback, because it means we’ve identified the elements of the story – that when someone says, ‘It’s a lie, I’m being persecuted,’ we know everyone says that. And that when there are three or four complainants, it is not a conspiracy. In the past people said, ‘Why did they wait until now?’ or ‘They were put up to it, someone paid them.’ Now people understand that this is how it works; that a harasser tends to be a repeat offender; that women wait to complain. They are afraid, and when one complains, others find the nerve. This is what this trial seared into us.”
In this affair, Kamir says, “we paid a heavy price. It was painful first and foremost for the victims, of course, and also for society. But as a learning experience, it was the best you could ask for. We learned from it and we will reap the benefits in the future, when these elements appear in future stories.”
The Katsav case, says Dr. Avigail Mor, a prominent researcher on violence against women, has indeed increased awareness about sexual assault and brought it into public discourse, but that is not enough.
“The problem is that we are talking about patterns that are so deeply ingrained that it will take more than one or two cases to achieve significant change,” she says.
“What has formed is fear,” says Mor, the head of the gender studies program at Tel Hai College and a clinical psychologist by profession. “Organizations are more concerned about what’s going on in their midst. I have encountered cases where the moment an organization is told that something borders on harassment or sexual assault, they immediately go looking for legal counsel.
“But the aspiration should be not to have organizations, or private individuals, be motivated by fear. We should aspire to have them be motivated by the understanding of why harassment or sexual assault is wrong, and that, in my opinion, has yet to happen. They understand that it is against the law, that it’s risky, and therefore you also hear things like ‘We won’t employ women, it’s risky, they could complain.’”
“It is very important to remember there are very few false complaints: 1-2 percent. Women face agony and horrific slander starting the moment they file a complaint. If people profoundly understood this matter, they would acknowledge this. There is intimidation and internalization of the danger involved, but no understanding of why such conduct is forbidden. And culture after all legitimizes the treatment of women as sexual objects.”
Mor continues: “The entire structure of relations between the sexes has to change. So it will be clear that you don’t cross lines; that a man does not enter a woman’s space without her consent – because he respects her, because it’s morally wrong, because it is her human dignity. That is where I would like us to get to. Not for there to be the sword of legal prosecution hanging over their hands. As an interim stage this may be unavoidable, but it is not the solution.
“The sentence in the Katsav case shows that the court has begun to internalize some things,” Mor adds. “For example, that a belated complaint can be totally reliable. And also: Katsav claimed he did not understand and did not know; the court came along and said: That is not relevant at all. It is your responsibility to make sure there is consent.
“As for the victims who brought work material to Katsav in an office or a hotel, and one who said she could not find it in herself to push him off of her and whispered a weak ‘no’ – the court understood and accepted that a woman does not have to show active resistance; that when confronted with sexual assault, many women freeze from the trauma. This is a very important statement. The message is that a woman who freezes is actually saying no,” Mor stresses.
Currently, 80-90 percent of women who are raped do not file a police complaint. Will this change in the wake of the Katsav case and the ruling?
“If there are more cases like this with a lot of media coverage, and powerful people are convicted and given appropriate sentences, more victims may dare to complain,” Mor says. “But a lot of other things need to change for us to see significant change. Among these, the treatment they receive at every stage in the process, from the moment they file a complaint – at the police, at the State Prosecutor’s Office, and in court.”
Mor, who as a psychologist also treats victims of sexual assault, notes that in the field, “few changes have occurred. Filing a complaint is a second trauma, a second rape. Therefore most of them prefer not to complain to the police. At rape crisis centers the decision is left up to them and they are not pushed to do so. At the police, or once the case has been transferred to the prosecution, the victims are made to feel that they must prove they are telling the truth. The police and State Prosecutor’s Office have failed to internalize the essence of the matter and do not address what the victim is really going through. All of this needs to change.”
Kamir states that the dramatic court ruling shows how important it is to strengthen the court at this time, when it is under attack by the very people who are supposed to safeguard it, including the justice minister himself.
“Only a court with full judicial independence can pass a judgment like this, which is an international precedent, and now people are trying to rob the court of that independence,” Kamir says.
“The politicians who are trying to clip the Supreme Court’s wings are afraid they will be the next Katsav, whether due to sexual corruption or financial corruption. The judiciary must be independent and strong, so that it can behave with the same courage the Supreme Court showed yesterday,” she says.
By Emma Brown