Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Is this the case or Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen?

'War in the religious world'

by Ariella Ringel-Hoffman
July 4, 2006,7340,L-3270928,00.html

Not only did Dr. Kahat dare to set up a religious-feminist organization, she also brought to expulsion of a rabbi from the Bar Ilan University, after a student complained of sexual harassment. Then Kahat was fired.

At first glance, the case is a simple one: A wronged employee is suing to retain her job. However, the burning issue of a woman's place within Orthodox society lies directly beneath the surface. Dr. Chana Kahat of Gush Etzion, a lecturer at the Orot Yisrael Academic College in Elkana and founding director of the feminist Kolech organization, sits serenely at the eye of the storm, which has divided her friends, colleagues and neighbors.

For now, the labor court has accepted Kahat's arguments, and her dismissal has been stayed.

The controversy began in 2002, four years after Kahat founded Kolech in order to promote women's rights in the national-religious world. At that time, a Bar Ilan University student complained to Kolech that one of her rabbis had sexually molested her.

"I was broken, and I cried day and night," the student, who wishes to remain anonymous, says. "I had reached out for help, and I was thrown into a deep, dark pit. I had never touched a man before that, and no man had ever touched me."

Ricki Shapiro, Kolech's attorney, claims that the organization offered to hush up the student's accusations as long as the rabbi agreed to leave the university. According to Shapiro, the rabbi did not respond, and the story hit the fan.

Before long, the rabbi's lawyer sent Kahat a letter threatening to sue her for libel. In addition, he enlisted a long list of public figures, professors and rabbis, including Rabbi Neriah Gutal, a personal friend of the Bar Ilan rabbi.

Meanwhile, the university appointed law professor Yaffa Zilbershatz to investigate the charges. Based on Zilbershatz's suggestions, a committee, headed by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leader of the religious-Zionist community, was formed. The committee recommended that the accused rabbi be dismissed, and the university acted accordingly.


Some time later, Gutal was hired as dean of the Orot Yisrael College, where Kahat had been teaching for twelve years. Kahat's apprehensions that Gutal would use the opportunity to settle old scores were quickly realized. Immediately, her weekly teaching hours were decreased, and then, in March, she was informed that she was likely to be dismissed.

Kahat, who had just received a twelve-month grant from the Avichai Foundation in recognition of her contributions to Israeli society, decided to take a yearlong unpaid vacation. Her intention, she explains, was to give everyone a chance to cool off.

In January 2005, Kahat notified Orot Yisrael that she intended to return in the fall. Two months later, she had still not heard from the college, and she requested a clarification. Kahat was told that Gutal intended to make every effort to fire her, and the dean himself, she claims, confirmed this statement in March.

Sigal Pa'il, Kahat's attorney, filed an injunction and began legal proceedings. "This was a political dismissal," she insists.

In response, Moshe Lador, Gutal's lawyer who refutes Pa'il's charges, issued the following statement: "The fact that the petitioner teaches in the college is uncomfortable for a portion of the students. Should the petitioner remain on staff, we are concerned that the college's image will be harmed and that potential students will elect to study at other academic institutions. It is likely that students' rabbis and fathers will forbid them from attending courses given by the petitioner or even the college where the petitioner teaches."

'I am not settling old scores'

Lador claims that the number of registered students was already small. However, during the court hearing, Pa'il proved that this was emphatically not the case. In addition, she showed that the reason only a few students had registered for Kahat's courses was that Gutal had played around with the schedule.

Nevertheless, Gutal maintains that the attempted dismissal was not meant to be a payback for the Bar Ilan incident. "I am not settling old scores," he counters.

Kahat laments that her initial victory in court cost her dearly. "The message for women is: Next time, don't confront a rabbi, because if you do, you'll pay a price. Over the years, I have lost many good friends. Neighbors who were like family no longer speak to me. This is a war in the religious world."


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