It should have been a simple errand. The 26-year-old female J Street staff member was tasked with picking up Israeli author Ari Shavit at the Baltimore train station and driving him to speak at a J Street event at Johns Hopkins University to promote his bestselling book “My Promised Land.”
But the encounter that April 2014 morning turned out differently than the staff member expected. After she picked him up, she said Shavit suggested coffee before the event. The two sat down at a cafe in the campus bookstore, a Barnes & Noble. Shavit began asking the staffer — who asked the her name be withheld to protect her privacy — questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wanting to know her personal connection to the issue, she said.
Midway through the conversation, she said, Shavit reached his hand across the table, as if to shake her hand. The young woman found it “weird,” but shook his hand back. Then, she said, Shavit’s hand seemed to grow limp. He began rubbing her hand with his in a style she called “hand groping.”
“I was very uncomfortable,” she said. She took her hand away.
Shavit told the staffer that he would love to see her again when she visits Israel, she recalled. She leads tours to Israel, she responded, and she was sure that a group would enjoy meeting with him.
“I was thinking about the relationship with him from a professional standpoint,” she said.
But Shavit apparently wasn’t. “He said, ‘No, alone.’”
The staffer said that she was very busy on such trips, but could perhaps make time for coffee. She recalled Shavit didn’t like that idea. “No, I want to get drinks,” she said he told her.
“There was no misinterpreting” what he wanted at that point, the staffer said.
The J Street staffer, now 29, was moved to go public with her story after reading Danielle Berrin’s account in the Jewish Journal of being grabbed against her will by an unnamed famous Israeli writer during their interview in his Los Angeles hotel.
“Her interaction with him up until the part he grabbed her head feels like mine,” she said.
When the J Street staffer read the article, published on October 19, she knew instantly that the perpetrator was Shavit, who later confessed in a public apology in Haaretz.
“I think that in order to act as a deterrent for future abusers they need to see the consequences of their actions.”
Berrin, in turn, was inspired to go public with her story by the release in early October of an “Access Hollywood” recording on which presidential candidate Donald Trump made lewd comments about women, including boasts about his ability as a celebrity to commit sexual assault with impunity. Subsequently, upwards of ten women stated that he had indeed sexually assaulted them.
“My actions are my responsibility and I am very sorry,” Shavit said in a statement to the Forward about the incident with the J Street staffer. “While I just learned of this situation from your inquiry, I want to be clear about the need to show my respect for the dignity of women and all people at all times.”
At the time the J Street employee was interacting with Shavit, her feelings were very similar to what Berrin described in her article. They both wanted to escape.
“Oh my god, this is happening,” the J Street staffer said she was thinking at the time. “I need to get out of this situation.”
Their conversation ended and Shavit went upstairs to give his lecture. But the staffer was so shaken she couldn’t bring herself to watch it. Shira Frank, a J Street colleague, asked her what was wrong. The staffer answered that she was petrified to drive Shavit back to the train station alone.
“I am scared out of my mind,” the staffer said.
“She did not feel safe to be alone with him,” recalled Frank, who offered to join the car ride. Frank spent the entire ride back engaging Shavit in friendly conversation. She called herself the staffer’s “human shield” against Shavit.
When Shavit left the car, the staffer said he gave her a “firm, professional handshake.”
Afterward, she was shaking. But she was also relieved, thinking that the episode was over and she would never hear from Shavit again.
She was wrong.
She said Shavit called her cell phone that evening — he was given her private number by J Street to coordinate his pickup at the train station — when the staffer was in a parking lot outside of the conference venue. He expressed disappointment with “how we had left things,” the staffer said. “He wished we had more time together or something.”
“I was so shocked he was calling me and I was pretty scared,” she said. “I got off the phone as quickly as possible.”
The staffer reported what happened to her supervisor. J Street senior staff decided to not sponsor Shavit again as a speaker. (Read more about J Street’s policy regarding Shavit here.)
She never heard from Shavit again.
The interaction stuck with the J Street staffer. She said that ever since she has been uncomfortable in certain work settings, often wondering if older professional contacts have ulterior motives in wanting to meet with her. She said her suspicion comes from her encounter with Shavit.
“In the back of my mind I am always wondering: Do they really think what I have to say is important? Or are they also trying to slowly and insidiously first make me feel like that and only later flip the script and hit on me or whatever?”
The J Street staffer said she felt “lucky” compared to Berrin: “I didn’t know that he could take things that far. I knew that I felt unsafe but now I feel lucky.”
On October 27, Shavit apologized for “misinterpreting” his interaction with Berrin, which he thought was a just a “friendly meeting” with “elements of courtship.” Berrin didn’t accept his apology as genuine. The J Street staffer didn’t believe he meant it either.
“If he can do that in a coffee shop on a college campus mid-morning, I don’t think he misinterpreted anything,” she said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.