Sex scandal divides Israeli town

For several years, hundreds of teenagers came to Kiryat Gat to have sex with a 38-year-old woman. Now, the debate over whether she is a predator or a victim has the entire town taking sides.

One of the clearest signs that something was wrong in this small, blue-collar town some 40 miles west of Jerusalem occurred in March on an Israeli advice forum called Stips.

“How much does S from Kiryat Gat cost,” an anonymous poster wrote. “And where does she live?”

“She doesn’t cost anything,” someone replied, “but she stinks like hell.”

The posts referred to a 38-year-old woman, identified by Israeli authorities only as “S,” whom hundreds of teenagers had sought out for sex in a series of dilapidated apartments.

Earlier this month, Israeli prosecutors indicted the woman on seven counts of sodomy, saying she forced boys to have anal and oral sex with her, and she now faces a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison for what prosecutors described as her “insatiable lust.” Yet S says she was the victim of rape, and that the boys—and some adults—filmed their exploits and used the videos as blackmail to make her continue to sleep with them and their friends.

However, the details remain muddled and many in this hardscrabble city of roughly 50,000 are divided over just what happened.

S is in jail awaiting a trial date, which could take months or even years to be set. Her case comes after a spate of arrests and convictions in recent years, as politicians, musicians and prominent journalists—the type of powerful men who once seemed above the law in Israel—found themselves subject to charges of rape, sexual harassment and having sex with minors.

Yet critics say the case in Kiryat Gat is a sign that the progress that has been made in prosecuting sex crimes in this country of 8 million hasn’t benefitted those on society’s margins where silence about rape—as in many nations—remains all too common. As former education minister Yossi Sarid put it in a column in Haaretz: “Had they spoken up in Kiryat Gat, the punk kids of that city would not have harassed a troubled woman for many years.”

Perhaps the most complicated part of the case hinges on S’s sexual history. Though her psychiatric assessment hasn’t been made public, S’s family says she was sexually abused long before the teenagers in Kiryat Gat began visiting her apartment.

And what is known about her background indicates she was troubled. Two years ago, S gave birth to a baby boy on a park bench because she was afraid the police would take him away if she asked for medical help. The baby died in a hospital a month later. She also has a daughter, whom welfare workers took away, though it’s unclear why.

At one of her recent court appearances, S—wearing a T-shirt that read “Running Wild”—sobbed into her hands, her dyed blonde ponytail shaking as she heard the prosecutor accuse her of “causing a minor and other juveniles to commit acts of sodomy on her.”

“I’m an innocent woman,” she said, weeping. “I’m a good woman and I’ve gone through a lot in my life.”

That’s not how prosecutors see it. They allege that S wanted to have sex with teenagers and young boys, although they didn’t charge her with seeking them out. Instead, they all, apparently, came to her, lining up outside her door. Local police say that if the boys had been over the age of 14, they wouldn’t have bothered with the charges.

Critics, however, say the prosecution is blaming the victim. “She shouldn’t be in jail,” says Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive Director of the Jerusalem-based Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “She didn’t run after these boys. They came to her and knocked on her door. She should be getting help.”

More than once, the defendant says, she tried to get it. In 2011, she says she told the city’s welfare office she was having sex with teenage boys and wanted to stop. Nothing happened. She approached the welfare office again in 2012, as did her sister and mother. S never claimed rape, only that she knew sleeping with the boys was wrong and wanted to stop. Again, nothing was done. “She begged,” the woman’s sister said. “But the welfare authorities didn’t lift a finger.” The local police are now investigating what happened at the welfare service, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Still, it wasn’t only social workers who ignored S’s problems. For years, her troubles were apparently an open secret in Kiryat Gat. Located about half way between Jerusalem and Gaza, the city of 50,000 is a growing hub for Israel’s high-tech industry. But few high-tech workers actually live here. Unemployment is high, welfare is common and most residents are blue-collar workers whose families hail from Morocco or the former Soviet Union. It’s a small community, and residents say many knew what was happening with the boys, but no one tried to stop it.

That is, until a rumor spread that S was HIV-positive. Suddenly, dozens of boys—some with their parents—turned up at the Klalit Health Clinic in Kiryat Gat. “They were very tense, and some were even hysterical,” says Dr. Marina Drori, who runs the facility. “They all wanted an AIDS test.” (S has not tested positive for the disease.)

Some of the parents soon went to the police, which Israeli law enforcement says is the first they heard about what was going on. In a statement to the authorities, however, at least one of the teens said that S was abused. “I sat on the side and my friends ‘did’ her together,” he said. “They swore at her and beat her. My friend slapped her. Then she said ‘No,’ but he laughed and said, ‘Shut up, you whore.’”

The Public Defender’s Office filed rape charges on behalf of S. But that hasn’t stopped the case from going forward. During an appearance at a local court, S wept and muttered, thanking God from keeping her free of AIDS. It was a disturbing scene, but a psychiatric assessment has deemed she’s fit to stand trial.

S’s case comes at a time when analysts say there has been a clear shift in the way Israel treats cases of rape and sexual harassment. The reason: A 1998 law, which among other things, defined sexual harassment more broadly and set punishments for those who try and intimidate victims. “It’s a new era,” says Orit Kamir, an Israeli law professor who drafted the legislation. “There’s a huge change.”

Indeed, after years of rumors and allegations, in 2011, President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to 7 years in prison for raping a female subordinate. Last month, Silvan Shalom, was forced to drop out of the race for president because of allegations that he had sexually assaulted a former co-worker. And during the same election, allegations that Meir Sheetrit sexually harassed his housekeeper dogged the former minister, nixing his bid for higher office.

But Kamir says there’s now a backlash against the new rights accorded to women. A legislator from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for instance, has proposed an amendment to the law, which would allow women to be accused of rape, too. “Parts of the public feel it [the law] has gone too far,” Kamir says.

That part of the public, however, is actually less subject to scrutiny than the country’s upper crust. And over the past few years, a number of high-profile sex scandals have emerged, especially in ultra-Orthodox communities, which are among Israel’s poorest and most insular. The biggest case went to trial last year, when police arrested 15 ultra-Orthodox men in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood and accused them of molesting more than 200 children, though only one man was actually convicted.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities are often a world apart from Kiryat Gat. But S’s case, critics say, nevertheless reflects the fearful silence that surrounds sexual abuse in Israel’s poorest towns. “One in three girls and one in five boys suffer sexual abuse, and one in seven suffers from incest,” says Sulitzeanu of the Rape Crisis Center. “As a society, we don’t invest in confronting this problem even though it’s so widespread. Just as you fight terrorism, you have to fight sexual abuse. It’s also a kind of terror.”

This piece is written by Matt Rees, an award-winning foreign correspondent and novelist based in Jerusalem.

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