Ari Shavit: 'I Was Blind to the Power I Had as a Privileged White Man'

Twenty months after he disappeared from the public eye and left Haaretz, journalist Ari Shavit met with Dr. Orit Kamir, the lawyer and legal scholar who drafted the Israeli law against sexual harassment, for a frank and fraught conversation about the affair in which American Jewish journalist Danielle Berrin claimed he harassed her, the lessons he learned and his journey of Tikkun

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Ari Shavit with Dr. Orit Kamir.
Ari Shavit with Dr. Orit Kamir.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Every so often a news story appears about a man who, after achieving great success, engages in an act of sexual harassment, and thus brings about his own downfall. When I read such stories, I ask myself, is this behavior a means for self-destruction for these men? Is it an act of tempting fate, by someone who wants to see just how far he can go before they are stopped? In other words, is it a chronicle of hubris foretold?

The news report published about Ari Shavit in October 2016 seems to fall into this category. It is the tale of a successful journalist and political commentator, who embarks on a promotional tour in the United States for his bestselling, award-winning book. He is happily married and widely respected. One night he meets a young journalist who had read his book and hoped to interview him, at a hotel bar. The encounter ends without incident, but two-and-a-half years later, she describes in her newspaper his belligerent and coarse behavior toward her that evening. The reaction is swift and loud. Shavit’s good name is tarnished and he withdraws from public life.

Six months ago, I had the opportunity to speak about Shavit on the radio, remarking that ironically others who had done far worse, had occasioned a far more lenient response. Following the broadcast, Shavit contacted me, and we developed a dialogue. At a certain point, the idea arose to publish some of what we discussed. It seems to be relevant not only to Shavit’s case, but to the dramatic sea-change sweeping our world concerning sexual harassment and gender relations.

Orit Kamir: Ari Shavit, you apologized publicly. Did you also apologize privately?

Ari Shavit: I did. The day the story broke, I asked a friend in the U.S. to call Danielle Berrin to ask if she was willing to speak to me, to hear my apology. Soon after, I sent her an email. Sadly, we did not speak directly then. Over the next year, I was consumed by the thought of how best to reach out to her. Time after time, I wrote heartfelt letters of apology, but I did not send any of them, fearing that they would not be well received. About six months ago, we were able to make contact. I do not want to elaborate here, because these were personal communications. But I can say that I had the opportunity to apologize to Berrin in writing, by telephone and face-to-face – and that we began a process of reconciliation.

Can you explain to me and to yourself why you acted improperly? Were you tempting fate? Was it hubris with a dose of self-destruction?

Over these last 20 months, I have asked myself again and again, how could this have happened? How is it possible that a woman was intimidated in my presence. I looked within myself, tried to be as honest as possible. Hubris? No doubt. An act of self-destruction? Maybe. That evening at the bar, I thought that Berrin’s interest in me was personal, not professional. I made a terrible mistake, which stemmed from my arrogance. I was inattentive, and I completely misread the situation. These are patterns of behavior I am determined not to repeat. But in my first public discussion about this, I don’t think the focus should be on my character. The important thing here is not me, but those who were hurt by me. The real story is the courage to expose sexual impropriety, not the difficulties I might have experienced due to my inappropriate behavior. I am not forgoing my narrative, but I try to be far more attuned to the narratives of those whose lives have intersected with my own.

What I can tell you is that the most meaningful discovery I made about myself is that, strangely, until this happened, I never saw myself as a figure of power. Sure, I had an ego. But because I wasn’t in a formal position of authority – a [government] minister, a CEO, a general, a producer or even a newspaper editor – who appoints, promotes or dismisses people, I didn’t recognize the power my career had given me. And I didn’t internalize the responsibility inherent in this power. Mistakenly, I thought I was part of the opposition, not part of the coalition. So I couldn’t even begin to imagine that when I thought I was exuding warmth toward others, I might instead be causing distress.

During that wretched evening at the hotel bar in Los Angeles, I thought I was playing on a level playing field, where everyone was equal. This was my failure, my mistake. And for this mistake I take full responsibility. I bear this responsibility now and always.

Perhaps I should further explain why I agreed to take part in this conversation – and to make it public. When Berrin published her account of that evening, you chose not to deny, not to disparage, not to attack. You took responsibility. You apologized publicly. You said you would withdraw from public life in order to begin a process of self-examination. You stepped away from writing in the newspaper and appearing on television. You acted competently different than Haim Ramon, for instance, who did something illegal, attacked the person who complained about him publicly, was convicted for his actions by a court of law and is trying today to silence his critics.

‘I can’t believe that the vociferous public censure you received did not bring up some less-than-noble feelings. You must have been filled with anger.’

Orit Kamir

I didn't know you, we'd never met, but reading about your response, I thought you acted admirably, honorably. I thought that that was the way it should be done, the proper way to respond. I hope that perhaps your choice will inspire others who find themselves in similar circumstances to admit wrongdoing and leave the stage, instead of denying and denigrating. Are you at peace with your decision not to fight back?

Yes, I am completely at peace with my decision. As far as I’m concerned, there was no other way. I didn’t have any second thoughts. When news of Danielle Berrin’s article reached Israel, some friends advised me to do what others had done: take a polygraph, rebut, denounce. I immediately said no. It wasn’t even an option. I would not deny, I would not vilify, I would not sling mud. I would not contest her experience. Because if a woman felt as she felt – my behavior was the cause of those feelings. I cannot dismiss them, disavow them. There is nothing I wanted more than to apologize, to ask her forgiveness.

Today we are focused on the stories of the victims of sexual harassment. There is historic justice in this focus. But I am also interested in how things look from your vantage point. Tell me about your most difficult moments.

Facing my beloved wife, who supported me despite the pain I caused her. Sitting down with my young sons, whose world was suddenly shaken. Noticing that some people I thought were friends had turned their backs on me. Realizing that the public discourse in Israel does not distinguish between me and other men who acted totally different. Watching helplessly as my world collapsed around me overnight.

I cannot deny the torment and shame I felt when the media storm erupted. One day, I might say more about my experience, which I wish on no one. But I believe the time has not yet come, either for me personally or in a wider social context. This historic moment belongs to women. What is truly important are the voices of millions of women who are finally being heard after so many years of inequity, misogyny and exploitation. I support this historic process wholeheartedly. Because of my personal failure, I found myself on the battlefield of this revolution. But what I went through did nothing to change the fact that I am emphatically in favor of this revolution. And I know that I am not the victim. So, I prefer to keep most of my experiences to myself, at least for now.

You say that in Israel, you were wrongly put in the same basket as men who had done far worse. And that brings me to say what I often do: The United States and many other countries do not have a clear and decisive legal definition of sexual harassment. The boundaries between permissible and verboten are not explicitly determined by law. This is one of the reasons the #MeToo campaign erupted in America. Women who were sexually harassed felt they had no other recourse but to expose their harassers and hope that they would be tried in the court of public opinion.

The results have been astounding: Speaking up has helped women share their harrowing ordeals, while informing and galvanizing public discourse and raising awareness. Alas, there have also been some troublesome developments. For instance, that relatively mild cases received the same level of public exposure and condemnation as far more grievous ones. This is lamentable. It obscures important differences and does not recognize degrees of severity.

It is also a situation that may allow sexual puritanism to take over public discourse, because if so much can be construed as sexual harassment, then the best thing may be to avoid all contact. And that’s not the goal. Sexual puritanism is not feminist, it does not serve the feminist cause. The feminist struggle, like any other struggle for liberty and human rights, is a struggle for autonomy: for human dignity, for equality for all. It is not a struggle for modesty, for distancing the sexes, or for separation that could lead to the exclusion and oppression of women.

In Israel, the situation should have been different. We have the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Assault, passed in 1998, which clearly determines what acts are considered forbidden sexual harassment. They are defined in accordance with the values spelled out in the law itself: human dignity, freedom, privacy and promotion of equality between the sexes. So in Israel, every man and woman should seemingly know what is allowed and what is prohibited.

The problem is, almost no one is familiar with where the law draws the line. This is an educational failure that hinders the profound social and moral change the law has spearheaded. And it is especially frustrating for women like me, who fought ardently for the passage of this important legislation. I wish the public discourse in Israel surrounding your case – as well as other cases – would take into account what our law actually says. That people would ask themselves, did what he did rise to the level of what the law forbids, or is it simply a case of disgraceful behavior? Such a discussion would help create and establish a scale of severity in the public’s mind. And in your case, it would not have automatically placed you in the same category as men whose behavior was far more grievous.

As you can imagine, I have given a lot of thought to these issues, but it is women who should be leading this discussion. Men, for their part, should take up the struggle to eliminate the deeply ingrained behavior of oppressing, excluding and exploiting women. The challenge for women is to further the revolution they are leading. Because I am an optimist, I believe they will succeed.

Everything you say sounds great, but perhaps a bit too constrained and self-controlled. I can’t believe that the vociferous public censure you received did not bring up some less-than-noble feelings. You must have been filled with anger.

I was angry. Especially at myself, at the fact that I had failed in my behavior toward others, that I had deeply disappointed my loved ones. And I was angry at certain men in positions of power who used the uproar to silence me.

Obviously, against Danielle Berrin, I have absolutely no grievance. Quite the opposite, I admire her courage and fortitude. I’d like to slap myself for my behavior. And I am deeply ashamed that I caused her sorrow. Toward other women who were hurt by my behavior – to whom I apologized publicly – I feel deep respect, and profound remorse.

Still, the dynamic that developed in Israel was problematic. In some instances, there was a chasm between the facts and the headlines. In others, there was no proportionality.

‘I would not deny, I would not vilify. If a woman felt as she felt – my behavior was the cause of those feelings. I cannot disavow them. There is nothing I want more than to apologize.’

Ari Shavit

Thus I found myself contending with two fronts simultaneously. On the one hand, all I wanted was to make amends to Danielle Berrin and to any other person I had hurt. To spend time with my beloved wife, who supported me throughout this ordeal, to protect my sons and daughter. To confront the tsunami that I myself had brought up from the sea, which was now threatening to drown not only me, but the people dearest to my heart.

But on the other hand, I saw how certain people, with certain personal, political and partisan agendas, were manipulating the situation in order to get rid of me. Thus I found myself torn between the saint (I discovered I was not) and the demon (I was made out to be). In this tumult, I tried to find my way toward the man I really am. A man with flaws attempting to reckon with them.

But I remember distinctly that just when everything around me seemed to be burning to the ground, I suddenly felt a strange calm, a new strength. It was then I knew that I would use this terrible time to begin again. Begin from within. Embark on a journey of Tikkun.

Twenty months have passed since this journey began. What have you learned about yourself?

One lesson is personal: There is nothing more precious than home, nothing more important than family. My loved ones are the core of my existence. I was blessed with a singular gift: Every one of the four beautiful souls who make up my nuclear family is extraordinary in her or his own way. My love for them is infinite. And yet I betrayed their trust. So I must do everything in my power to mend that which needs mending. I must be a better partner, and a more present, more supportive and more loving father.

The other is that I bear a profound responsibility toward Berrin, and toward other women I have hurt. I know myself, there is no malice in me. But the bottom line is that the responsibility rests on my shoulders. I must do my utmost so that never again shall my words, my actions, or even my presence intimidate anyone.

Are these insights the results of the public uproar, or of a process of self-reflection?

Both. It was a long process. Besides Danielle Berrin, the woman who opened my eyes is my eldest daughter. She is an impassioned feminist and human-rights activist. She is also one of the wisest, most moral women I know. On a bleak Shabbat, as everything around me seemed to collapse, we took a long walk together in a public park near our home. I was in shock. My world was ablaze. Yet, then and there, my daughter helped me begin my conversion. With great love and empathy, she illuminated for me what I had only begun to see. She told me how young women of the third millennium perceive my actions. She asked me how I would feel if she found herself in a situation similar to the one Danielle Berrin found herself in. Her plainspoken insights, together with what Berrin had written, shook me to my core. When we returned home, I began to see the world differently.

After that came a year of soul-searching. I spent time with my family, speaking with them and with others so that I could learn more about myself. I began to realize that I had been struck by a certain kind of blindness. I was blind to the power I had as a privileged white man. I had always thought of myself as an ordinary person with a certain aptitude for thinking, writing and speaking. I had not seen myself as part of the establishment, nor did I identify myself with a hegemonic group or a power center. And I did not see the way I was perceived by others – men and women. I was not aware of the responsibility entailed in the success I had achieved and in the power I had acquired. I did not understand that when I thought I was being amiably effusive, I might actually be spurring apprehension and unease.

And there was a certain blindness about womanhood. I have never been a typical macho male. I did not objectify or disrespect women. The opposite is true. All of the women in my life are strong, intelligent and independent. Almost all are feminists. And I, too, have always defined myself as a feminist. I believed in the power of women, in empowering women, and in women’s rights. I have always been committed to absolute gender equality.

And yet, only now did I begin to understand that I had not really grasped some of the adversities of womanhood. I was not sufficiently aware that women live under constant threat, nor was I cognizant enough of the justified anger that many women feel because of thousands of years of relentless male aggression. My awareness of the fact that even in the 21st century, most women still experience discrimination and exploitation in all walks of life, on a daily basis, was intellectual, not emotional.

How do you explain the fact that only in your late 50s, you came to the understanding you’ve described?

Good question, and a difficult one. Beyond the fact that I never saw myself as a figure of power, there is something else: I was a late bloomer. I entered the public arena at a relatively old age. And seeking to make up for lost time, I lived a life of frenzy. This kind of relentlessness has many advantages: creativity, productivity, intensity, high yields. But it also has a price. I tried to do too many things at once, climb too many mountains. As a result, I lost much of the clearheadedness and attentiveness that had been a part of me in the beginning. And these are the qualities I am now striving to restore.

Is it possible to change? Do you really think you are a different man?

In Israel, we’re all a bit cynical, and that’s why I find it difficult to speak publicly about this sensitive process and the keen emotions it involved. But I want to believe that today I am more devoted to my loved ones – and to my core values. I want to believe that I am less arrogant, that I have embraced the virtue of humility. I try to be more grounded, more aware. No pretense, no bullshit.

‘The woman who opened my eyes is my eldest daughter. On a bleak Shabbat, as everything around me seemed to collapse, we took a long walk. I was in shock. My world was ablaze. Yet, then and there, my daughter helped me begin my conversion.’

Ari Shavit

Self-correction is not one-and-done. It is an ongoing process that will always be a part of me. And there are always difficult gray areas to contend with. It requires action: becoming more involved in my community, minimizing my ego as best I can, giving of myself to promote the best in all of us, without expecting anything in return.

Clearly, I would not have asked to go through what I went through. But in the turmoil I experienced, there was also something purifying and edifying. In many senses, for the last 20 months, I have been living in the desert, on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. I have had to ask myself, who am I? What is truly important and meaningful? How can I reconnect to the good in me?

You’re describing a process of purification. Does it have a practical result? Has your behavior changed? Do you see yourself taking part in projects promoting gender equality?

There are a few ironclad rules from which I will not waver: adhere to an absolute separation between the professional and the personal spheres; maintain full self-control; and be attentive to my surroundings and those around me. I try to be sensitive to the circumstances and feelings of the voiceless and powerless, and am fully committed to fostering real everyday equality.

Every day, I try to grapple with the blindness with which I was afflicted. After that eye-opening conversation with my daughter, I had a series of discussions with dozens of women of all ages – friends, acquaintances, colleagues, family members. I listened to their experiences, heard how the world looks from their vantage point. I was shocked to discover that almost every one of them had had a traumatic experience because of the way men had treated and mistreated them. I was saddened to learn just how great the challenges women still must confront – day in and day out – and how thoughtless and cruel to women the world we live in still is.

Obviously, because of this process, I will forever behave differently toward women. And I also hope that I can play a part, even a minuscule one, in striving toward a world in which women are true equals, who play the prominent, central roles they deserve.

How will I do that? I will be happy to give to feminist-humanist organizations, but perhaps a more meaningful contribution would be to share with others the lessons I’ve learned. I might be of value in a dialogue with women and men about this charged subject. I know that what happened won’t magically disappear, it will always be a part of my biography. And that’s why it is also part of my commitment to do everything I can to help women in the fight for their rights.

After such a long period away from public life, why have you decided to end your silence and speak about your experience with a woman who is identified with Israel’s sexual harassment law and the campaign for women’s rights?

In real-time, I knew I had to be silent, to disappear. To go into exile, as it were. I had my family and a circle of friends to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation for the way they stood by us. But I also knew that at some point, I would have to address my readers, especially the women among them. And it was clear to me that I should do so in conversation with a woman. It seems to me that this is the time, and you are the woman.

If you and I can hold this far from easy conversation – there is light at the end of the tunnel. I am well aware of the imbalance of power in our society, and I know there is no symmetry. But at the end of the day, both you and I are humanists, we have faith in the human spirit. And despite our differences, we are liberals who believe in human rights and human dignity.

I am eternally grateful to Danielle Berrin for agreeing to meet with me and hold a meaningful dialogue. And I am thankful to all of the women who agreed to speak with me so candidly. I pray that together, good men and women can work toward real justice for women – and bring a certain peace to the complex, fraught relationship between the genders