An NYU Scholar Is Accused of Sexual Harassment, and Top Feminist Theorists Come to Her Defense

Eminent intellectuals, including Judith Butler, have signed a letter defending Avital Ronell, a renowned NYU professor accused of sexually harassing a student. Critics say Ronell's supporters are victim-blaming hypocrites

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Avital Ronell.
Avital Ronell.Credit: From the European Graduate School Video Lectures Youtube channel
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

An unusual sexual-harassment case at New York University involving two former Israelis is causing stormy debate in the world of the humanities.

The uniqueness of the complaint – aside from the fact that both principals are Israelis – lies in the gender-role reversal at its center: The complainant is a man, a 30-year-old Ph.D. student, and the person against whom he has filed his complaint is a woman: Avital Ronell, 66, a world-renowned professor of German and comparative literature at NYU.

However, the real twist in the story – which has magnified it from a topic of departmental gossip into a huge controversy that could have major repercussions in the academic world – is the list of character witnesses for Ronell, about 50 eminent intellectuals, among them some of today’s leading feminist theoreticians. Their cries about a “witch hunt,” the call to avoid a “kangaroo court” and the emphasis on the achievements of the person said to be “the real victim in the story” are in many ways identical to the automatic reactions sometime heard to the accusations against men who are suspected of sexual harassment. However, when the signers of a statement in support of the accused are superstars like Judith Butler, the current high priestess of gender studies, and Slavoj Zizek, the moral conscience of international human rights and perhaps the world’s most famous living philosopher – the shock waves are far more powerful.

The complaint was filed in September at NYU’s Title IX office (the name refers to the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in federally funded educational institutions), the university department that deals with sexual harassment complaints. Insofar as is known, the philosophy doctoral student designated as M. and Ronell had an adviser-advisee relationship over a period of about five years. M. was an admirer of Ronell and according to the complaint, for her part she had a special affection for him, so much so that the boundaries between the professional and the personal became blurred.

It is known, for example, that Ronell hosted M. in Paris and introduced him to writer Pierre Alféri, son of Ronell’s mentor Jacques Derrida. The circumstances of the souring of the relationship aren’t clear, nor is it known if it was gradual process or if a single incident led to the rupture. People close to Ronell have said the filing of the complaint came as a “total shock” to her as there had been no hints that M. was about to “turn on her.” They noted that Ronell was appalled to discover that the complainant had accused her of “psychological abuse.”

Avital Ronell in 2014.Credit: From Deutsches Haus' Youtube Channel

Who’s the victim here?

It’s quite possible that the investigation of the complaint would have remained confidential had it not been the extraordinary letter colleagues of Ronell sent to the NYU administration. In the May 11 missive addressed to university president Andrew Hamilton and its provost, Katharine Fleming, they wrote: “We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.”

In the letter, Ronell is described as someone whose “influence is felt throughout the humanities.” Her colleagues praised her “intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues,” calling her the perhaps the most “important figure in literary studies at New York University.” Her colleagues also warned: “If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny.”

Therefore, the group urged the administration to “approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, [and] the international reputation she has rightly earned as a stellar scholar in her field.”

The letter was dated May 11. Two weeks ago, Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago Law School, published the text of the letter in his blog, “Leiter Reports.” He made his opinion of the intellectual giants’ rally to Ronell’s side perfectly clear: “Blaming the victim is apparently OK when the accused in a Title IX proceeding is a feminist literary theorist,” was the headline of his post. Alongside liberal critical voices that echo the values of the #MeToo movement, rightist-conservative writers have swooped down on the letter and a strange alliance has developed between the two extremes.

The cries about a 'witch hunt' and the 'the real victim in the story' evoke the automatic reactions to accusations against men suspected of sexual harassment.

At the ultra-right wing site Breitbart, they had a field day: “It’s important to note that these scholars are the architects behind most of the major women’s movements in America today. These are the same movements that advocate for ‘always believing victims’ of sexual assault. It seems, however, that they can not consistently apply the principles they espouse when the person on the receiving end is a colleague that they feel has been wrongfully accused of misconduct.”

However, even without going into the specifics of the complaint, it is impossible to ignore the irony of the way the letter subverts the basic and accepted principles for handling accusations of sexual harassment: Its authors vilify the complainant, give great weight to the record of the individual who is the subject of the complaint, and express their belief – without providing any evidence for this – that the charge is a false one.

Writer, translator and illustrator Shlomzion Kenan, who has maintained a close friendship with Ronell ever since the latter was her teacher many years ago at the European Graduate School, takes a different view. She believes that the attempt to expose the supposed hypocrisy of Butler and her feminist colleagues, reveals the true motivation of those who are censuring them.

“To the best of my understanding,” said Kenan this week in a telephone interview, “in this investigation [of Ronell], there is no more than a disgusting perversion of the law, which occurs in all revolutions when the dogmatists [the opponents of Butler, et al] take matters into their own hands. There is no more successful example of this than a targeted assassination of an important feminist deconstructionist to dress an old pursuit in new garb – once again they are hunting down the women and the queers and this time on behalf of the new sexual McCarthyism.

“Leiter and his ilk say that this law [Title IX] is exactly the same law the feminists have applied to the world. ‘By what right do the feminists, of all people, aspire to be superior to it? Now they are kicking the ball into their own goal and the #MeToo movement is imploding.’ But that isn’t so. This is a kind of persecution that reflects nothing but good old misogyny. Avital is precluded from discussing the matter, and therefore she cannot defend herself. It’s only natural that anyone who values her intellectual integrity and her moral stance will devote herself to her defense in this case. There is no privilege here and no ‘field of power.’ Those who have always been in the field of power remain there,” she says.

Dr. Ilan Safit, a visiting comparative literature scholar at NYU and a friend of Ronell’s for two decades, also believes that “there’s no intellectual hypocrisy here.” However, he acknowledges that “the letter has not done a good service because it implied the statement: ‘We know she is all right, leave her alone,’ while the essential true statement at its base was that on the basis of their long-standing personal acquaintanceship with Avital, the accusations against her are simply inconceivable.”

Slavoj Žižek, left, and Judth Butler.Credit: Getty Images / University of California, Berkeley

There is now an initiative underway to send another letter to NYU, this time from “the field.” The signatories of the second letter will be students who have studied with Ronell over the years and other academics whose names may not have the aura of celebrity. Kenan says she is “in contact with former students of Ronell’s, among them Ph.D. students at NYU, and all of them are absolutely shocked by this story and are defending her. It isn’t only intellectuals in power positions who are coming to her defense, but also ‘ordinary’ students.”

Kenan prefers not to comment on the details of the complaint, but she is convinced that Ronell did nothing wrong. She says: “I am not familiar with the details but the sensible deduction is that she is a good, warm and collegial person. It is untenable that it is impossible to have friendly relations.”

“Avital is exceptional in her approach,” adds Safit, “and tends to rebel against received opinions. She says things that are supposedly not uttered in academia, like ‘You’re so wonderful’ and ‘I’ve missed you’ and ‘I love you.’ Her relationships are always warm. And to people who don’t know her, this could appear to be over the top. In any case, I’ve never had the impression that she had crossed a line. Attributing sexual exploitation to her sounds ridiculous to me.”

Another close associate of Ronell’s who is a partner to the second letter initiative is Raphael Zagury-Orly, a philosopher and the curator of the “Night of Philosophy” sponsored by the French Institute and the Goethe Institut in Tel Aviv last month. Zagury-Orly invited Ronell to participate in the event. When asked this week about his impression of her state of mind during her visit to Israel, he replied: “She is feeling terrible, really terrible. This looks to me like quite a dirty story. Apparently there’s some effort here to destroy her. In my opinion, they are conducting a targeted assassination of someone who built up the [German and comparative literature] departments, devoting herself entirely for 30 years to bringing the best scholars from Europe to New York.”

This automatic defense is disturbing.

“It’s not automatic. There are things we can’t talk about and Avital herself can’t publish because of the legal prohibition.”

'Once again they are hunting down the women and the queers and this time on behalf of the new sexual McCarthyism.'

Shlomzion Kenan

But even Ronell’s most devoted fans have a hard time coming up with a more straightforward alternate explanation for the Ph.D. student’s complaint. Nonetheless, they also perceive as suspicious the thorough investigation the university is conducting, the prolongation of which does not bode well for Ronell.

One person who is close to her has offered what appears to be a weak hypothesis to the effect that the university’s great zeal in investigating the complaint stems from personnel changes at the top of the institution. In this version, the current administration is controlled by elements that have no great sympathy for the humanities and would be glad to see the funding for Ronell’s appointment cut and her salary omitted from the payroll.

Her colleague and friend Safit suggests a more fundamental explanation. “It has to do,” he says, “with the cultural background of these times. Everything is in any case very fragile in the United States and the general spirit is to accept a complainant’s version as is. At NYU, they want to be ‘holier than the pope.’ That is, to show that even though the complainant here is a man and the complaint is about a woman, and moreover one of our superstars – we will see to it that justice is done.”

‘Eccentric relationships’

Avital Ronell is the only child of Evelyn and Paul Ronell, a musician and a diplomat, respectively, who lived in Tel Aviv until 1952. For her father, who immigrated from Germany, this was a second marriage, after the death of his first wife when he was a young father. Ronell has a half-brother and a nephew who live in Israel and she spends lot of time with them on her frequent visits to Israel. She spent her early childhood in Prague, where her father was posted. After four years there, the family moved to New York. The experience of immigration left a deep mark on Ronell, who as a young girl was already taking part in public protests against anti-Semitism and xenophobia. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, and earned her doctorate in philosophy at Princeton. She became close to French philosopher Jacques Derrida and feminist theorist Hélène Cixous and studied with them in Paris. From there she went on to the comparative literature department at the University of California, Berkeley, where she lectured alongside Jean-Luc Nancy and Judith Butler. She has been at New York University since 1986. Among her fields of expertise are continental philosophy, moral theory and feminist thought.

Some of her former students describe her as “an academic lighthouse” and an “intellectual giant,” a combination of endless erudition, mesmerizing rhetoric and charisma.

New York University.Credit: BLOOMBERG NEWS

“Her classes, even the big lecture courses, had a mystical dimension and the feeling that you were part of some spiritual apprenticeship experience,” said one of them this week. Ronell’s unusual appearance – a prickly hairdo, a tendency to wear dark colors and her fondness for using yoga terminology – have added another exceptional dimension and the intimate seminars she gave often brought to mind a religious convocation of sorts. She gathered around her a coterie of admirers, with some of whom she conducted “eccentric relationships,” as the former student said. These were manifested, for example, in small dinners to which her favorite students were invited.

Thus, notwithstanding the powerful demonstration of support that Butler, Zizek and others organized to express shock at the attempt to besmirch Ronell, not everyone in the small world of academic German studies in Europe and the United States was surprised by the publication of her name in such contexts. On a number of Facebook pages where the affair is being discussed, there are those who say that the mixing of the professional and the personal is a known tendency of hers, and has been evident for years. A well-known professor of humanities who remembers Ronell from the early days of her university career, though he was not in her class, relates: “The talk was always about very non-standard relationships, but not of a sexual hue or inappropriate contexts. I’m talking about phoning at very strange times of day, asking for unusual things and creating some sort of dependency relationship.

“We know the typecasting of men taking advantage of this closeness for an affair or a sexual connection, but in academia there is also a female version of this and its manifestations are sometimes different,” adds the professor. “She would bring into her orbit certain male and female students, nurture them and sometimes this would end in bitter disappointment. There was a pattern there of becoming close and then an explosion.’”

Ronell gathered around her a coterie of admirers, with some of whom she conducted 'eccentric relationships,' a former student said.

The narrative of becoming close followed by an explosion is a good description of the case of M. Five years ago, when he began to send out feelers about working with Ronell, there were those who warned him of the unconventional relationships she tended to develop with her students. These warnings quickly turned out to be prescient. “The relationship was very intense from the get-go,” says one of M.’s friends. “At first she complimented him and he sought this closeness, until at some point it became oppressive and he began to suffer.”

Though the internal investigation at NYU is continuing, at least officially, in recent weeks Ronell has been telling people close to her that she thinks the university is leaning toward a decision to sack her.

“She’s had very uncomfortable meetings with [university] lawyers, who implied a very clear message of ‘We’re coming to get you,’” relates Safit. In any case, he notes, despite the feeling that the deal is done, Ronell is determined to fight to the very end. “She doesn’t have any alternative because even if NYU comes along and tells her, ‘You’ve ended your career here,’ there is her reputation. It is untenable that 40 years of a career go down the drain. For what? What they are doing to her is real violence.”

Avital Ronell has told Haaretz: “In response to your inquiry regarding my involvement in a Title IX inquiry at NYU, suffice it to say that this has been an isolated, difficult, draining and exhausting experience for me. Although it raises a host of issues, legal, ethical, political, gender and identity among them, it is not an experience I want to revisit.”

The complainant, M., has said that he is precluded from responding in the matter, as the inquiry process is still underway. Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler did not respond to queries from Haaretz. John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, did not respond to detailed questions and confined him to a general statement: “We cannot comment specifically; generally, I can say that NYU is committed – as it carries out its responsibilities to prevent, reduce and respond to sexual misconduct – to respecting the rights and dignity of all involved and to ensuring the fairness of the process.”

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