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Jewish Studies leader resigns amid backlash

The president of the Association for Jewish Studies resigned on Monday after acknowledging that he took part in controversial invitation-only gatherings with Steven M. Cohen, the formerly prominent sociologist accused of sexually harassing female colleagues.

In a letter emailed to the academic association’s members Tuesday morning, Noam Pianko, a historian who chairs the Jewish Studies department at the University of Washington, apologized for his “lapse in judgement” in joining a March 11 conversation with Cohen and other colleagues.

“In my leadership capacity as AJS President, I should have recognized the power dynamics at play and realized the ways that my personal involvement, regardless of my own intention, would reflect on our organization,” Pianko said in the resignation letter. “I sincerely apologize, as well, for the many ripple effects of my action in our AJS community, and particularly the ways in which this affected those members who have been previously harmed by abuses of power.”

Pianko, who was elected president of the group in 2019, declined to comment further when reached on Tuesday morning.

His name was notably missing from a statement that the association put out on March 24 criticizing the private academic gatherings involving Cohen that were first revealed in a March 23 article in the the Forward.

Cohen lost his academic position and other public roles in the Jewish community in 2018 after five women accused him of sexual misconduct connected to the workplace. But earlier this year, several prominent Jewish Studies professors held at least four invitation-only conversations about the state of American Jewish life with Cohen, prompting backlash from many feminist scholars about the pressure junior colleagues might face to participate.

In the March 23 statement, the executive committee of AJS highlighted the “harms and risks” of such meetings, which were seemingly intended to rehabilitate the formerly prominent Cohen.

“Such engagements opened still-painful wounds for those who were harmed by Cohen and put others at risk professionally if not personally,” read a similar statement released by the AJS Women’s caucus.

Initially, Pianko did not disclose that he had personally taken part in the invite-only academic gatherings. Rather, he sent a letter to colleagues explaining he had not signed the initial AJS statement because of his “longstanding personal and scholarly relationship with Steven Cohen.” In a subsequent statement sent to colleagues on April 1, Pianko first disclosed his participation in the March 11 gathering.

“My participation was certainly not intended in any way as a “rehabilitation” of a sanctioned scholar,” he said in that email, “nor did I view it as an extension of my AJS role or as taking place under the AJS umbrella in any way.”

The Tuesday morning email to AJS members said that Jeffrey Shoulson, vice provost at the University of Connecticut and vice president of the association, would step into Pianko’s role until his term ends in December.

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