Steven M. Cohen, shunned by academy after harassment allegations, makes stealthy comeback — and provokes uproar
Emily Sigalow, an executive at UJA-Federation of New York, was shocked at the email she received on Jan. 25 inviting her to participate in an “off-the-record” conversation about the “current state” of American Jewish life. The invitation came from an esteemed professor at Brandeis, where Sigalow had received her PhD, and one of the four scholars slated to participate in the conversation was Steven M. Cohen.
Cohen, a leading Jewish sociologist, had been forced out of his tenured position at Hebrew Union College in in 2018 amid allegations of sexual assault and harassment that dated back decades. He did not contest the allegations at the time, but expressed remorse and intentions to apologize to his accusers. On Monday, Cohen declined to discuss the recent “conversations,” but said: “In general, I have avoided all public appearances.”
Sigalow said she declined to participate in the Jan. 25 conversation, one of at least four involving Cohen since the start of the year that have made a number of women in Jewish Studies cringe.
“For me, participating in these conversations did not feel benign —it felt like an act of forgiveness, of normalizing Steven’s voice and presence at the table,” Sigalow said in an interview. The conversation about “if, when and how” Cohen rejoins communal conversations, she added, should be had between “him and those he hurt” and not between “me, Steven alone, or his close friends.”Word of the invitation-only gatherings surfaced on social media last week, prompting outrage among Cohen’s accusers and their supporters, and reviving ongoing debates about the rehabilitation of prominent figures accused of sexual misconduct, racism and other offenses. On Tuesday afternoon, the Association of Jewish Studies Women’s Caucus released a statement condemning the conversations with Cohen, which it described as “re-hashing old ideas about Jewish continuity in an effort to capture philanthropic funding.”
“This attempt to re-center and rehabilitate a disgraced and ostracized scholar has real consequences,” the statement says. “The Women’s Caucus views these efforts as unacceptable and deeply troubling, because they jeopardize the position of junior and contingent scholars as well as re-victimizing women targeted by Cohen.” Several prominent academics and Jewish community leaders that either helped organize the sessions or attended them said in interviews that the matter should not be subject to public scrutiny.
“I’m free to speak with whomever I want to speak with in my private time and personal conversations,” said Rabbi Dan Smokler, who runs an innovation program financed by Hillel International, and whose name was included in emails recruiting others to participate in the sessions.
Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, a department chair at Brandeis University and board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is spearheading the gatherings, along with Jack Wertheimer, a history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Steven Bayme, a staff member at the rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.In an email interview, Barack Fishman said the events were “personal, private conversations” that were not associated with any “institution, organization, or other sponsors.” She described herself, Wertheimer, Bayme and Cohen as “longtime friends” who “keep in touch via Zoom during these COVID times,” adding: “Occasionally, our conversations include others.”
But several prominent female academics said the idea that these were private conversations among friends was belied by the fact that the invitations came from university email addresses, and that the power dynamics of the academy made the invitations from established scholars intimidating to many who received them.
Prof. Susannah Heschel, chair of the Jewish Studies program at Dartmouth College, said she had heard concerns from junior colleagues invited to the sessions who said they did not want to “expose themselves to a predator” — referring to Cohen — but were “anxious about what it might do to their careers if they did not attend.”“These are probably among the four best known figures in the field of Jewish studies, with strong connections to Jewish organizations and donors,” Heschel said of Barack Fishman, Bayme, Wertheimer and Cohen. “Them joining together and saying ‘Come, we just want to have a conversation with you,’ is like the story of the Big Bad Wolf.”
Keren McGinity, an interfaith specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and one of several women to accuse Cohen of sexual assault, said that learning of these sessions in recent days has caused her tremendous pain.
“It pours salt on open wounds to learn that scholars and communal leaders are collaborating with him in any capacity,” she wrote in an email interview. “His cadre’s perverse tactics are antithetical to 21s Century Jewry, whose hallmarks are diversity, inclusion, and treating everyone b’tzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image).”
McGinity, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, said in a 2018 interview with The Jewish Week that Cohen had lured her to a candlelit dinner at an academic conference in 2011, then followed her to her hotel room and forcibly pushed her up against a wall and kissed her neck. Four other women have come forward alleging Cohen harassed them, primarily in the form of intrusive sexual questions and offensive remarks, though there were also allegations of unwanted touching and propositions for sex.
Cohen, formerly described by colleagues as ‘the gatekeeper of Jewish academia,” lost all official titles, roles and affiliations with Jewish and academic institutions after these stories surfaced, but he has neither faced criminal charges nor civil lawsuits in connection with the allegations.
The backlash against these exclusive scholarly sessions echoes a similar uproar that erupted last year over the inclusion of work by Cohen and others accused of sexual misconduct in “The New Jewish Canon,” an anthology co-edited by Yehudah Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin.
At the time, Kurtzer acknowledged in a Facebook post “the harm that victims of sexual and other violence experience by the continued appearance of their attackers in public discourse and media.” But, he said in the post, that it’s “also the case that individuals accused of sexual violence may have contributed to the Jewish communal discourse.”
Wertheimer, one of the organizers of the sessions, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for his employer, the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the institution was “not familiar with these conversations” and that “JTS has not had a formal relationship with Steve Cohen for many years.” Similarly, the vice president for communications at Brandeis said the university “is not involved in any discussions as you have described.”At least one leader who participated in a conversation with Cohen, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, said in an email Tuesday that he wishes he had not done so. “I realize that my participation could be interpreted as an endorsement of Steven M. Cohen’s harmful behavior,” he said in an email. “I regret my decision to participate and I apologize,””
Lau-Lavie, the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul NYC, said he had agreed to participate in one of the off-the-record gatherings “to challenge the problematic assumptions” of their framing, and was “dismayed to learn” that his name was “being used to generate further support for their project.”Rabbi Avram Mlotek, who is both Orthodox and progressive, explained his decision to participate in a session last month this way: “Sylvia Barack Fishman was my professor at Brandeis and, as a rabbi, I talk to all different kinds of people, including former white supremacists.”
But Melissa Weininger, associate director of Jewish Studies at Rice University and a co-chair of the women’s caucus at the Association for Jewish Studies, said attempts to created a “closed and secretive network to rehabilitate Cohen is really an attempt to reinscribe the power dynamics that are central to harassment behavior in the first place.” Such action, she said, “re-victimizes his victims and creates a danger for the people in these spaces.”
Weininger, like Heschel, said she had heard from younger colleagues who received invitations and felt deeply conflicted.
“It’s hard for junior and contingent faculty to say ‘no’ to senior scholars who might be reviewing their tenure, or editing a journal they want to contribute to, or reviewing a manuscript they hope to get published,” Weininger noted. “This creates a very real dilemma for more junior scholars because of how academia works.”
Jennifer Thompson, director of Jewish studies at California State University, Northridge, called the conversations an effort at “reputation-laundering.” But she said that she has been encouraged by the backlash on social-media as word of the meetings emerged. Watching “Jewish feminist academics mobilize quickly and assertively has been amazing to see,” she said. “It is unpleasant to have to keep doing this work, but if we don’t it will clearly keep on happening.”
Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is an ombudsman on the Association for Jewish Studies’ Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which was created in 2018 after allegations against Cohen became public. She said the fact that the conversations were kept small and private, and that many have refused to participate, “shows that a culture change is taking place.”
“The fact that people like this need to seek a platform outside the established structures means we’ve been effective,” Rabbi Wasserman said. The “formal organ of our discipline in Jewish studies has drawn a line,” she added. ”A person who objectifies colleagues excludes themselves from academic discourse.”
Hannah Dreyfus is a freelance journalist based in New York.