The Silence of Male Rape: The Case of Jonathan Heilo

By Jane Derishu

The occurrence of male rape is too often ignored by society. However, this is a reality that takes place worldwide. According to combined statistics from the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office for National Statistics, in the UK, between 2009/10 and 2011/12 there were an estimated 9,000 males victims of rape. In the US, as reported by RAINN, approximately 10% of all victims of sexual assault are men. The silence of male rape must end in order to properly address this issue, otherwise we risk overlooking victims of gender-based violence.

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In one of the courses that I assist with, the Professor recently raised a question asking why it is forbidden for an individual to kill whilst the state has the right to do so. Some students argued that in the specific case of self-defense, the court might find the killer not guilty. The Professor responded by saying that they should try telling that to Jonathan Heilo. Although the class carried on, discussing Plato’s philosophical ideas, I couldn’t help thinking about the gendered aspects in Jonathan Heilo’s case.

Since most of you probably don’t live in Israel and are unlikely to have heard about this case (although it was all over the Israeli news at the time), I feel like I should give you some background knowledge. Jonathan Heilo is a 23-year-old Jewish Ethiopian man who killed another man, Yaron Eileen, who sexually abused, raped and blackmailed him.

Sapir Sluzker-Amran, who covers Jonathan’s struggle online, described the sequence of events that led to the killing. Heilo was blackmailed – not for the first time – by his attacker who asked him for 1000 Shekels (approximately £150) whilst being verbally sexually abusive towards him. Heilo, who did not want his friend who was with him to hear the comments, asked his abuser to come outside with him to discuss it. After Jonathan begged for his life and asked him to let go of the ‘fine’, Eileen threatened to kill him if he was not paid but Heilo didn’t give him the money.

Eileen demanded that Heilo come with him to a dark parking lot, 100 meters from where they were. Just as had previously happened (and two weeks after the last rape), Jonathan followed his perpetrator, paralysed – a common response of many rape victims. Eileen once again verbally abused Jonathan in a sexual manner and exposed his genitals to him. However, based on previous incidents, Jonathan anticipated what was going to happen soon after, and using the fact that Eileen had turned his back to him to pee, he killed him. A few hours later, Jonathan went to the police and confessed to the killing. In December 2013, Jonathan Heilo was convicted of murder while the court rejected his claim of self-defense and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Those who fight for Jonathan’s freedom often use another case of self-defense to point to the injustice made by the court – the Dromi case. Shai Dromi, an Israeli farmer, was charged with manslaughter after shooting an intruder on his ranch. This case led to a major public debate over a person’s right to shoot a trespasser in their own house. Dromi, who had a strong agricultural lobby behind him and enjoyed the support of many politicians, was acquitted. Moreover, this case led to change in legislation and created the ‘Dromi law’ which protects those who commit similar acts in similar conditions from a criminal conviction by using a claim of self-defense. Sapir Sluzker-Amran justifiably asks how come damage to one’s property can be justified as self-defense while ‘damage’ and danger to one’s body and life cannot? This exact question continues to bother me.

If there is one thing that I learnt from studying Social Sciences, is that for every social case, we can find plenty (the more accurate word would be infinite) of explanations. Therefore I would like to suggest one answer to this question that has already been suggested by others and two new answers that I came up with, which I find intrinsic to the debate.

The central argument regarding the injustice is that race and class differences are instrumental in the explanation of the unjust ruling. Dromi is an Ashkenazy Jew, who as I already mentioned was widely supported by politicians and the agricultural lobby. Compared to these privileges, Heilo comes from a low class and has a much less privileged status as an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel. It is more than possible that these differences led to the different outcomes and sadly this won’t be the first or the last time that this happens.

Another possible explanation relates, I believe, to the conflict reality in which Israel exists. Dromi killed an Arab and Heilo killed a Jew. It is possible to argue that a justice system that serves a country that engages in occupation and oppression of Arab people will treat the killing of a Jewish man differently in comparison to a killing of an Arab man. Even though it might be hard for most of Israeli Jewish society to accept this explanation, this is still a valid consideration.

Nonetheless, there is a new, gendered explanation that I believe may provide another explanation to the ruling’s differences. I believe that it relates to the fact that Jonathan Heilo broke the pact of silence regarding men’s rape in the Israeli society. Since I am a member of the Israeli society, I can speak for this society only and claim that, in Israel, rape is gendered in such a way that the rape of a woman is not perceived to undermine her femininity in the same way that the rape of a man infringes upon his masculinity. Male rape is an issue that is still muted in the Israeli society and one that is rarely discussed publicly. Heilo is guilty of breaking this silence. One cannot help but wonder if Heilo’s crime of putting the issue of men’s rape in the spotlight impacted, in some way, on the court’s decision. Is this Jonathan’s punishment for somehow exposing the Emperor’s nakedness? The answer, of course, is maybe.

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