Uncovering Sexual Harassment of Israel’s Poor

12 May 2017
Sara Assolin Testifying 2017

An attractive single mother who sports a blond ponytail, Sara Assolin grew up sleeping on the floor of a two-room public housing apartment with her parents and 12 siblings. When she went to Amidar (the government’s public housing company) to take over the lease after her parents died, she encountered an official who was more interested in her personal life than her housing issue.

According to Sara’s testimony before the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women, the official suggested they go outside for a smoke, asked her personal questions, and invited her out for coffee. When she declined, he told her he was also divorced, and realized she needed support and understanding. He asked if she had a boyfriend.

“In short, he offered himself to me,” Assolin testified. “I knew that in order to get the status of a continuing tenant I had to respond to his advances.” What she didn’t know at the time was that his actions constituted sexual harassment.

Assolin is one of several women whom the Shatil-led Public Housing Forum brought to testify at the Knesset about being sexually harassed by housing officials. NIF provided the Forum with an emergency grant to create a film with additional testimonies. The Forum and the women had the strong support of housing committee chair, MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, a public housing champion.

“We brought to the attention of the Israeli government and public that the desperate need of single mothers for decent, stable housing has been translated by some of the housing companies’ officials as a license to sexually harass women and to make basic services, guaranteed by law, dependent on the provision of sexual favors,” says Lev Aran, Shatil’s public housing coordinator.

Indeed, on May 7, the Disciplinary Tribunal for Civil Servants convicted a senior Housing Ministry official of forcing himself sexually on a public housing resident.

As a result of the women’s testimonies and pressure from the Public Housing Forum, Housing Minister Yoav Galant announced he would purge public housing of the sexual harassment inflicted on residents at the hands of public housing representatives and appointed an expert committee to look into the women’s complaints. Last month, the committee publicized new protective guidelines that housing employees and their subcontractors must follow when talking to or visiting women in public housing.

Like the other women who testified, Assolin didn’t respond to the official’s advances. Then one day, she received a letter declaring her to be an illegal resident in her own apartment. Assolin said she ran shaking and crying to Amidar and asked the same official how she could possibly be an illegal resident in her own apartment. She said he got up, went towards her, and whispered in her ear: “Only I can evict you from your apartment.”

“That’s when I understood that this was his revenge against me for rejecting him,” she told NIF News. “He was making me pay, and I paid with 10 years of my life.”

After a decade of struggle, including against an eviction notice, Assolin finally received the status of a continuing resident. Her bitter experience and the knowledge she gained in the process of protecting her rights transformed her into an activist who helps others.

Shatil is intensifying its work to ensure the dignity of women in public housing with new trainings for women on how to advocate for easements in criteria for single mothers to receive public housing and to protect their rights vis-a-vis the housing companies.

The new government guidelines, whose implementation the Public Housing Forum will monitor, will go a long way toward preventing additional anguish caused to Israel’s most vulnerable women.