Harassment Won’t Be SLAPPed Away

8 February 2018

The veteran religious feminist organization Kolech won a key victory in court last week. Kolech was sued for libel by a rabbi upset that the organization had published his history of sexual harassment. The organization won in District Court, where the judge ruled that there is a moral obligation on the part of an organization that deals with the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the religious sector to make public information about predators.

A veteran NIF grantee, Kolech and two of its leaders, founder Chana Kehat and psychologist Ayelet Vidar Cohen, were sued by the rabbi who ran the Rosh Yehudi organization, for publicizing the claim of a young woman that she was sexually harassed by the rabbi. Rosh Yehudi took the claim seriously enough to impose restrictions on his behavior in his teaching role and to suspend him from his executive job.

The rabbi had thought Kolech would be an easy target, and launched what is known as a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit to silence his critics. SLAPP suits are designed to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. They have become enough of a troublesome phenomenon in Israel that NIF has established a special legal defense fund to fight them on behalf of threatened activists. Kolech, seed-funded by NIF 15 years ago as the first feminist organization in the Orthodox sector, was a natural candidate for NIF’s support.

“The court has proven that the law protects those who act to eradicate sexual violence,” Professor Kehat told the Ynet news site. “We were able to prove that we acted out of public and social responsibility, and we succeeded in proving that it is impossible to silence the complainants and those who are fighting sexual harassment. There is a clear statement in the ruling that notification of receipt of complaints of sexual harassment is not libel, and this is an extremely important message, because notification and warning prevent further harm and saves lives.”

Kolech is also a founding member of Takana, a loose-knit coalition of leaders in the national religious sector who came together to fight sexual abuse and harassment in 2003. At a time when the #MeToo movement is making waves globally, this judgment makes clear that harassment will not remain a private matter between victims and their harassers, and that publicizing complaints will not result in material harm to organizations representing victims. In this case, the rabbi not only lost the case but was ordered to reimburse the court for the cost of the trial, which may send a signal to other SLAPP suit initiators about the risks of the strategy.

“I think that it is so important that there is a place you can come to and ask for help,” Professor Kehat said about her support from NIF. “In the beginning, it’s frightening to be sued. When you come to NIF, it’s like coming to the home that has to take you in and you’re not alone in the battle. It’s not just financial, it’s the mental stress and knowing that you have allies.”

Since 2012, NIF’s SLAPP Fund has funded 13 cases in which activists or organizations associated with NIF have been sued. Last year, two authors of an anti-settlement manifesto were sued for libel by a settler leader: the High Court ruled in favor of the authors. In another case, the extremist group Im Tirtzu sued a group of activists who had termed the group “fascist.” In this case too the courts rejected Im Tirtzu’s claims and a District Court judge determined that the group had “fascist attributes.”