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Women Soldiers Find Harassment Common

March 22, 2001

JERUSALEM (AP) _During a 25-year army career, Hedva Almoge was promoted to brigadier general, Israel’s highest-ranking woman ever.

``I love the army,″ says Almoge, 52, who’s still a reservist.

But since 1999, she has successfully sued the military on behalf of women soldiers alleging sexual harassment, winning cases against three male officers, including another brigadier general.

In a country that drafts women as teen-agers, sexual harassment is a chronic problem. The issue was headline news Thursday, the day after former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted of sexually assaulting two women, including a young soldier.

``This sort of thing happens all the time in the army, so I’m really pleased Mordechai has been punished,″ said Noga Bar-On, an 18-year-old dressed in her olive-green uniform as she waited for a bus in Jerusalem. ``Maybe this will encourage others to come forward with their complaints.″

The army’s macho culture, combined with the presence of many young women subordinate to male commanders, creates a system with the potential for abuse, and the army hierarchy paid little attention to the problem for many years, women say.

Israeli women are particularly sensitive to the issue since many are required to serve nearly two years upon graduation from high school. Men serve three. Women soldiers are often assigned mundane tasks and clerical jobs, though some combat units have opened to them in recent years.

The army says it’s dealing with the harassment problem.

Commanders get ``sexual harassment prevention kits,″ which include a 15-minute video, slides and printed material outlining legal issues. They deliver lectures to troops twice a year.

Last year, women soldiers filed 250 sexual harassment complaints.

Almoge, now president of Naamat, Israel’s leading women’s rights organization, brought her first lawsuit two years ago after the army ignored a letter she wrote urging that a brigadier general not be promoted because of his alleged sexual misconduct with a female soldier.

Brig. Gen. Nir Galili lost the case and resigned from the army. Since then, her group has won two similar cases and has two more pending.

The army is also beginning to take the initiative, she said, noting that more than 20 officers were dismissed last year because of sexual harassment.

``The army has made important steps, but they still have much to learn,″ she said.

In 1987, when Almoge was named head of the army’s Women’s Corps, she launched the military’s first formal course on sexual harassment. The senior male officers were indifferent, she said.

``Then I asked, ’How many of you have daughters in the army?‴ she said. ``This seemed to be the only way they were able to relate to the issue at the time.″

The male officers would often tell Almoge they saw themselves as father figures to the women soldiers.

``We just want to give them a hug and a kiss,″ she quoted them as saying.

``This is the army, you can’t go around giving them hugs and kisses,″ she replied.

Carmela Menashe, the military correspondent for Israel radio, said attitudes have begun to change.

``In the past two years, (male commanders) have been petrified to do anything that can be construed as sexual harassment,″ she said. ``There was a lot of harassment and women were afraid to complain, but now there is greater awareness.″

The army also has regulations designed to head off potential problems, including a ban on having sex at a military base.

Still, some women say it remains a serious problem.

Danit Goldfarb, a 20-year-old soldier, is the daughter of two army officers and was warned what to expect, but was still surprised by male officers’ attitudes.

``I know of someone who complained about sexual harassment, and instead of dealing with the problem, the army discharged her,″ Goldfarb said. ``We get mixed messages _ we are told to complain but then the complaint is not investigated.″