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On July 30th, the second to last day of its summer session, Israel’s Knesset voted 39-7 to pass a law that imposes harsher punishments for sexual harassment, assault, and rape committed with “nationalistic motivations.” The law’s explanatory text hints at what this term means in context. “Every day,” it reads, “there are reports of women who were sexually harassed due to their religious identity”; it adds that across Israel, women are increasingly “afraid to go out for sports activities or to go out alone in the evening.”
On its face, such a law might appear to be a welcome addition to the legal code protecting women from sexual crimes. “If someone’s looking from the outside,” said Rachel Stomel, a spokeswoman for the Center for Women’s Justice, an Israeli nonprofit, “they could think that this was a progressive feminist take.” But both Stomel and Ori Narov, who heads the legal department for the civil rights group Israel Religious Action Center, told Jewish Currents that the language of “nationalistic motivations”—a legal term most often invoked in terrorism cases, which are almost exclusively brought against the country’s Arab minority—signals that the law is animated by a Jewish supremacist ideology. It was first introduced in October, and later brought for its second and third readings, by Limor Son Har Melech—a Member of Knesset from the extreme-right Jewish Power Party, which is part of Israel’s ruling coalition—and Yulia Malinovsky of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which is part of the opposition. (Six other members of the opposition joined Malinovsky in supporting the law.) Malinovsky has been asking the Knesset to address “sexual terrorism of Arab men against Jewish women” since at least 2016. Son Har Melech has also made it clear that the law is meant to target Arab men who harass Jewish women, saying in committee that the goal was to protect Jewish women by punishing those who defile their honor.
In expressing anxieties about “sexual terrorism,” Son Har Melech is speaking for the most extreme elements of the settler movement, which is committed to preventing intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. Son Har Melech especially seems to be echoing the anti-miscegenation organization Lehava—a Jewish supremacist group run by the avowed Kahanists Bentzi and Anat Gopstein, whose stated mission is to “save Jewish women” from dangerous relationships with Arab men. Narov said the language Son Har Melech is using is “one-to-one Lehava’s terminology.” Stomel situated the legislation on the same continuum, telling Jewish Currents that “this law does not see sexual violence as wrong because it’s a violation of women’s safety, autonomy, or personhood,” but rather because of the “impurity” associated with miscegenation.
The new law not only doubles the financial penalties for “nationalistically motivated” sexual crimes under Israel’s penal code, it also places such crimes under the country’s draconian terrorism law from 2016, which, according to the minority rights group Adalah, almost exclusively targets Arabs. Narov explained that if a judge deems a sexual crime to be “nationalistically motivated,” the case can now be prosecuted as “terrorism,” which drastically increases the maximum possible sentence to include life in prison. Studies show that Israeli judges already discriminate against Arabs convicted of the same crimes as their Jewish counterparts year after year; by basing punishments for sexual harassment and assault on the perpetrator’s identity, the new law is set to worsen that situation.
According to Amal Oraby, who works for the New Israel Fund in Israel, the law fits into a racist narrative that has been repeated throughout history. (I work for the New Israel Fund in the US.) “[This] attempt to label the minority, as a population, as sexual criminals has parallels around the world,” he said. “They did it to Jews in Germany and to Black people in America.” Israel’s new law stands to fuel a similar narrative against Arabs. Already, Jewish Israelis are suspicious of Arabs, and wary of being in social spaces with them. According to a 2018 poll, 74% of Israeli Jews are at least “a little disturbed” by hearing Arabic spoken in public. A full 88% said they would be “disturbed to some degree if their son were to befriend an Arab girl,” per The Times of Israel—and that number hit 90% when respondents were asked how they would feel about their daughter befriending an Arab boy. “This law is set precisely to ignite the prejudices that already exist,” Oraby said.
In the past decade, only a handful of rape cases were classified as “terror” by Israeli authorities; the incidents were so highly sensationalized by the right that in one case, the victim came forward to demand that her story no longer be used to “feed racism.” Activists say the new law should be understood in this context. Narov, who closely observed the committee discussions, said that when opposition Members of Knesset asked representatives of the police and Ministry of Justice for data on sexual crimes committed with “nationalistic” motivations, they “didn’t have anything to bring,” leading Narov to conclude that “there was no ‘there’ there.” Stomel agreed, adding, “If this were happening, we’d need to figure out how to deal with it—but it’s not happening.” Stomel noted that the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, an umbrella organization of nine support providers, had also opposed the law, telling The Times of Israel that there was no evidence for a rise in “nationalistically motivated” sexual crimes. But the right-wing legislators behind the new law have seldom been interested in listening to women’s rights experts. When Son Har Melech held the inaugural conference of her Religious and Haredi Women’s Caucus in July, Stomel said, the lawmaker refused to send invitations to some of Israel’s most prominent Haredi women’s organizations, such as Nivcharot and Stomel’s own organization, the Center for Women’s Justice. The rape crisis centers were also not invited. Instead, Son Har Melech invited Anat Gopstein of Lehava.
The need for legislation that actually addresses the safety of sexual assault victims is pressing, said Aida Touma Souleiman, a veteran women’s and Arab rights activist and a Member of Knesset with the left-wing Hadash Party. “We know that [conviction] numbers are very low—between 8% and 12% of men who are accused of sexual assault are ultimately indicted,” Touma Souleiman told Jewish Currents. The lawmaker has noted elsewhere that Arab women are particularly vulnerable to violence due to police neglect as well as legal and economic discrimination. The Israeli right has no plan to address these issues; instead, Son Har Melech and her Jewish Power Party have actively weakened protections for women. In March, they were instrumental in shooting down a law that would allow the use of electronic monitoring bracelets on men who have been convicted of sexual assault, with Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is the head of the party, saying that such bracelets infringed on men’s rights. (Ben-Gvir recently managed to get a significantly watered-down version of the law passed; women’s rights activists called it “pathetic.”) Ben-Gvir is also working to overhaul Israel’s gun licensing system to increase the number of armed Jewish civilians, a move women’s rights groups say will increase instances of fatal or near-fatal domestic violence.
In its most revealing act against women’s rights, in December 2022, the Jewish Power Party joined other parties on the far right to oppose ratifying the Istanbul Convention—an international agreement seeking to eradicate violence against women—because it would have allowed non-Jewish women to seek asylum in Israel. Stomel said that this move showed that the Israeli right’s hatred of foreigners “was stronger than the priority of protecting women.” The Istanbul Convention also requires schools to teach a curriculum on gender equality and gender-based violence, which was another deal-breaker for the far-right parties. “For them it was like the Israeli version of ‘woke’ culture,” Stomel said. “They see it as foreign—not ‘Jewish values’ as they interpret them.”
Some Haredi women’s rights groups have argued that the new law will make it harder to hold Jewish perpetrators of gender-based violence responsible. Esty Shushan, the founder of Nivcharot, told Jewish Currents that the insularity of the community already makes it difficult to deal with sexual crimes, especially when the harm-doers are well-known community leaders. She pointed to the example of Chaim Walder, a famous Haredi children’s author and therapist who assaulted women and girls in his care. In his case, “there was complete disbelief in the beginning,” Shushan said, with many blaming the victims for trying to ruin him instead of taking their allegations seriously. Shushan believes the new law will make matters worse by “turning [sexual crimes] into a story around nationalism.” “It’s much easier to blame an Arab for rape—it has purchase,” she said. But such narratives do not help “when there’s someone who is important in the community and there are lots of people who believe he’s ‘not like that.’”
According to Oraby, the new law is poised to fail at protecting women because its real goals are to prevent racial mixing, criminalize Arabs, and legally encode Jewish supremacy. In this, he said, the legislation is continuous with other recent laws promoted by the Jewish Power Party: multiple bills that would make it illegal to wave a Palestinian flag, a law that gives Ben-Gvir unprecedented power over Israel’s police, and a bill that would give him, personally, the power to detain citizens without trial. Looking at the sexual violence law in “the big picture,” Oraby said, one can see that Son Har Melech “wants to take the logic of the settlements and apply it to all of Israel.”