Presidential Sex Scandal
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If Moshe Katsav were the prime minister of Israel, or even just the ranking politician he once was, rather than the country’s president, he would not only command more power, he would be facing less embarrassment.
We don’t expect high moral standards from our politicians. We expect them to be cunning, manipulative, and sufficiently unscrupulous to never let a principle stand in the way of a smart decision. When they get involved in a sexual scandal, we take it as a confirmation that they do, after all, have “balls.” Not even Bill Clinton’s hairy escapades with Monica Lewinsky could cost him the affection of most of the American public.
But the president of a parliamentary democracy like Israel is not at all like the president of the United States. He is a national symbol, a personage reputedly above the political fray who represents his country on formal occasions and is expected to be, if not a paragon of virtue, at least a reasonable facsimile of it. Such a president who has lost his virtue in the public eye is about as useful as a flag with a rip in it.
So it is sad to see the president of Israel embroiled in a scandal about sex, even if it is so far a very modest one. Turning to Israel’s attorney general week, Mr. Katsav complained that he was being threatened with blackmail by an unidentified woman who had worked in his office and was now demanding money to hush up the fact that she had been sexually harassed by him. Mr. Katsav says the accusation is a trumped-up one and that he has tapes to prove it. The woman’s lawyer has so far declined to comment on whether her client had, or was asked to have, a sexual relationship with the president. Judging by the early reviews, this is a show that may play for a long time.
And yet once upon a not very long time ago, Mr. Katsav could not have been blackmailed — if this is indeed what happened — on a charge of sexual harassment because there was no law in Israel outlawing such acts and the Israeli public did not consider them sufficiently reprehensible to get very upset about them. This all changed with the passage by the Knesset in 1998 of a Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment, which — like a great deal of legislation in Israel — was heavily influenced by similar laws passed in Europe and the United States, as well as by a local feminist lobby. Among other things, this law forbids, and makes punishable by to up to two years imprisonment, all “repeated propositions of a sexual character to a person, where that person has shown to the harasser that he is not interested in the said propositions;” all “repeated references directed toward a person which focus on his sexuality, where that person has shown to the harasser that he is not interested in the said references;” and “any intimidating or humiliating reference directed toward a person concerning his sex, or his sexuality.”
One can question whether legislation of this sort, which may be suitable in America or much of Europe, where social mores disapprove of openly direct, aggressive, or revealing verbal behavior, is also suitable to a Mediterranean and Jewish country like Israel, in which conversation, including that between the sexes, tends to be freer, sharper, and less inhibited. In any case, it was legislation which landed in Israel from without, as it were, and it caught much of the country unprepared. When former general and cabinet minister Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted on such a charge in 2002, making him the law’s most publicly prominent convictee to date, his stricken look and behavior were those of a man who has been informed that the rules of the game were changed without warning and who must now pay the price of not having realized that. It is one thing to pass or even enforce a law. It is another to change a country’s way of doing things that have gone from being legal to illegal overnight.
Worse yet, the 1998 law is so vaguely written that it could mean almost anything. How often does a “proposition” or “reference” have to be made to become a “repeated” one? Does showing that one is “not interested” mean vocally objecting, or is it enough to respond by saying nothing? What makes a statement “humiliating” or “intimidating?” As the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment is phrased, if President Katsav twice made remarks of a sexual nature to the woman in question and she twice didn’t answer, or if he even once made a sexual comment that hurt her feelings, he could conceivably have to serve a jail sentence. Israel needs laws against sexual harassment just as does every country, but it does not need laws like this, which can just as easily encourage false claims of harassment, or extortion based on such claims, as discourage harassment itself.
There is something to be said for laws protecting women against male sexual aggressiveness. But there is also something to be said for women protecting themselves by letting men know directly where the line needs to be drawn and telling them so, rather than first enduring it silently and then running, or threatening to run, to the police. In a country like Israel, where women tend to be as outspoken as men, this is not a difficult form of behavior to encourage. Meanwhile there is only confusion. Although the facts of his case have yet to come to light, they may demonstrate when they do that President Katsav has indeed functioned here as a national symbol after all.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.