Opinion

The Jewish World's #MeToo Crisis Is Much Deeper Than Ari Shavit and Steven Cohen

Working in Jewish organizations worldwide, I internalized a gender hierarchy that took years to disassemble. The Jewish institutional world suffers a sickness of ingrained, unethical gender and power relations, and sexual aggression is just one of its consequences

People wear kippas as they attend a demonstration to denounce an anti-Semitic attack on a young man wearing a kippa in the capital earlier this month, in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018.
\ FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

It’s been a troubling fortnight for those already concerned about the place of women in Israel and the broader Jewish community.

Last week, a pre-eminent scholar of the American Jewry, Steven M. Cohen, was accused of sexual harassment by five women. Cohen says he is now engaged in a process of "education, recognition, remorse and repair."

Two weeks ago, Ari Shavit gave an interview in Haaretz, detailing his "journey of tikkun" after a retreat from the limelight following allegations of assault by journalist Danielle Berrin in 2016.

Straight on the heels of publication, another accusation surfaced, describing Shavit gripping the neck of his daughter’s ex-partner. The Shavit of cerebral restraint in the interview - who declared he was "blind to the power [he] had as a privileged white man" - responded with a hysterical and incriminating loss of control, live on national radio.  "What was done to me is cold-blooded murder." He furiously hurls allegations back: the accusations against him are "radical and disproportionate," a "blood libel."

The Jewish community ponders what to do, as the intellectuals it celebrated fall from grace. Yet what should focus our attention is that , although the #MeToo movement has done much to break taboos of silence, there are clearly more stories that haven’t come to light.

That’s because the Jewish institutional world suffers a sickness of ingrained, unethical gender and power relations. And power, not sex, lies at the heart of #MeToo. 

Shavit writes he had no idea of his elevated position, nor of the correlation between his status and perceived sexual entitlement: the worldview, as one accuser puts it, where "both knew he was deserving." Steven Cohen also enjoyed a lofty perch. Described as the "gatekeeper" of Jewish academia, if a woman chose not to work with him, her career was over.

How dispiriting that collaborators and interlocutors of those accused have tried to lay "disproportionate" blame on their alleged attackers , despite the status those accused enjoyed.

Interviewing Shavit, Kamir was sympathetic to the danger of disproportionate blame, expressing concerns of conflating "mild" attacks with severe. Academic Sylvia Barack Fishman, Cohen’s colleague, cautioned the "dishonest" nature of failing to "distinguish between ambiguous and egregious situations." That echoes the apology made by actor Henry Cavill, after he had complained about the difficulties post #MeToo of "wooing and chasing women.. I don't want to go up and talk to her, because I'm going to be called a rapist or something." 

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

But we know better. Men are not so bewildered, they cannot differentiate courtship from aggression; not least, academics, who make a living from identifying nuance.

No one can feasibly mistake flirting with grabbing someone’s neck. They are capable of recognizing when they inflict more subtle forms of harassment – when lines of over-personal questioning, directed at female colleagues, are inappropriate. A staffer of Cohen potentially had to tolerate enquiries regarding her plans regarding the occupancy of her womb, ludicrously warranted by his interest in continuity, how he "would justify his invasive questioning."

Claims of hysterical disproportionality let men off the hook. The true danger lies in denying the problem’s sheer scale.  

We need to examine entrenched power dynamics in the Jewish world. For if a women is inferior, it’s not a jump to denigrate her. It’s not much more of a leap to assault her, either.

I’ve worked in Jewish organizations, worldwide. I’d love to write that being passed over for promotion on the bogus pretext that a man was "more political" was a defining moment. It wasn’t. I internalized a hierarchy that took years for me to disassemble.

The Jewish woman is vulnerable because she is invisible in a way the Jewish man is not. The Jewish woman is unequal in a way the Jewish man is not.

The Jewish woman, as Berrin wrote, jeopardizes "jobs, social standing or even the opportunity to convert" in naming sexual aggression. Cheryl Moore wrote recently of her decision to leave the Jewish non-profit world, where she felt she was being "pimped out" to engage with rich male donors with wandering hands, and that their "public, outrageous and/or crude comments and behavior" was "observed by others, but questioned by no one. It was machismo at its core." 

As Jews we recognize everyone has a right to ask for forgiveness, and we have an obligation to forgive. But this cannot be the community’s main concern. To agonize over how we can still appreciate the leadership of accused men is morally dubious: it prioritizes salvaging egos over realizing the human suffering those accused have caused to others. It deters us from recognizing talented women who feel they’ve had no choice but to leave the Jewish community's institutions.

Wringing our hands dissuades us from a critical reckoning. Recent events should keep anyone who cares about Jewish community policymaking up at night. Who have we let set the agenda? What are the ideas, who are the people we as a community have disenfranchized?

Prof. Steven M. Cohen
Edeet Cohen

How far have agendas been pushed to reinforce, in, ironically, Shavit’s own words, "inequity, misogyny and exploitation," the power structures that already exist?

Ari Shavit was lionized by the U.S. Jewish community as an iconic voice of liberal Zionism. Yet "My Promised Land" was told by an Ashkenazi man about, mostly, Ashkenazi men. Even its description of the social protests of 2011 was narrated through the eyes of men, not the women who largely led its cause.

As a community, we unthinkingly granted an academic the power of a policy maker, who told women, in effect, to fill Jewish baby carriages, and led a movement that prioritized reproduction over meaningful Judaism.

Chauvinism has distorted those we choose to laud, those we’re able to hear; the thinking we’re exposed to, and the ideas that shape our community.

#MeToo offers Israel and the Jewish community in America and elsewhere a precious opportunity to push back against how normalized defective gender relations have become. Undoing this is not just women’s work.

The issue isn’t whether we should pardon the men we hallowed, too readily. Rather than pining for their mythic return, we must find and celebrate women and men, with the inclusive and innovative thinking we so desperately need, to inspire us. We must examine the entrenched gender assumptions on which our Jewish lives are built.

And we must tackle the inequalities and abuses of power that lie at the heart of our Jewish community.

Clare Hedwat is a writer and trainee psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Clare has worked worldwide in Jewish education and community development. Twitter: @Clarehed