The news that the respected sociologist Steven M. Cohen had repeatedly sexually harassed numerous women in his field left me completely stunned. A professional colleague and personal friend for nearly a decade, he never struck me as the sort to take advantage of his gender or his stature, ever.
But the preponderance of evidence in Hannah Dreyfus’s well-reported story in the New York Jewish Week, along with Cohen’s own admission of guilt and vow of contrition, left no doubt that the substance of the allegations were true. Many women were hurt over many years, their pain prolonged by a culture of silence and fear. The stain on Cohen’s character is impossible to ignore. The Jewish communal organizations that employed him, especially if they knew of his behavior and did not act to stop it, have serious reckoning to do.
So does this feminist.
It is a reckoning both personal and professional.
Personally, I am grappling with the emotional and cognitive dissonance of being forced to look at someone in a new, unflattering light, and to see in that refraction a friend behaving very badly in an arena at odds with what I perceived to be his values and lived experience.
Cohen surrounded himself with strong, independent women, and advocated for female professional advancement long before #MeToo hashtags were even invented. He was the only male board member of a non-profit created to bring about a more equitable workplace for women in Jewish organizations. Its founding president, Shifra Bronznick, told the Jewish Week that she knew of no allegations of sexual misconduct during Cohen’s tenure at the now-defunct organization.
Had she been aware of any, she said, she would have cut ties with Cohen “decisively and immediately” — and anyone who knows Bronznick knows that she means it.
Confronting this duality, this unnerving moment when someone appears to be the opposite of what you thought, can shake you to your core. “It’s an ordeal,” one friend confided, when he learned of the workplace sexual misconduct of another Jewish icon, someone very close to his family. “I struggle for analogies, but it’s like learning that a friend has a drinking problem and has injured some pedestrians or bicyclists while driving drunk.”
“I feel for the victims,” he continued, “but I don’t know the victims; the driver should of course be prosecuted, but I’m not the prosecutor and don’t know all the circumstances of the accident; I wish I could help my friend but it’s hard to know how.”
For me, as a journalist, the Cohen story presents additional complexity. I was on vacation when the story broke, and asked that we remove his name from our list of contributing editors right away (which we did.)
More challenging is the painful recognition that Cohen had become the go-to source for our newsroom on all manner of stories involving Jewish demographics; religious, social and political trends; Israeli-Diaspora relations, and so on. A prolific researcher and author, he has written numerous opinion pieces for us. He and I were both advisers to the Pew Research Center’s landmark survey of American Jews, released in 2013.
Our reliance on Cohen was both understandable — he was, after all, considered one of the premier researchers of contemporary American Jewry — and, frankly, convenient. He would pick up the phone. He was always ready with an interpretive quote.
One of the quieter but significant learnings to emerge from the #MeToo movement is how easily dependent we all are on a few male experts, granting them legitimacy, publicity, resources and stature, often at the expense of equally qualified women.
Part of my personal and political reckoning is to actively address that failing.
But it’s not only journalists at fault here. The Jewish community writ large — the schools and seminaries, the federations and foundations — turned to Cohen and a few other (male) sociologists to conduct research that would help inform the communal agenda.
Some women writing on our pages drew a bright and damning line between Cohen’s sexist personal behavior and a political agenda emerging from his work, which has framed the decline in marriage and fertility among non-Orthodox Jews as a challenge to the future of liberal American Jewry.
“Put simply, how surprised can we be that a man whose entire worldview hinged on women having more babies turned out to have no respect for women when it came to personal sexual boundaries?” wrote Rokhl Kafrissen.
Moreover, Kafrissen and others assert that the bias inherent in this work has skewed the communal agenda in an anti-feminist direction, somehow limiting women’s roles to baby-makers and nothing else.
I think this is a misreading of the data and an exaggeration of the power of Jewish communal organizations. That’s not the core problem in Cohen’s approach. Rather, it’s the fact that he and a few other select sociologists evolved from being dispassionate researchers and analysts to advocates for policy solutions.
“I think the Jewish community has gone too far allowing social researchers to both collect data and to propose policy implications,” Pearl Beck, a colleague of Cohen’s, told me. “The Jewish community first gave [Cohen] permission and encouragement to do so and he took it one step further. There is a mutually symbiotic relationship between some researchers and the community that is inappropriate. I believe the community should do some soul searching about that.”
Whether examining marriage and family, education and employment, religious observance, relationship to Israel, what have you, researchers ought to research and analyze, and leave the advocacy to others, lest the research itself be perceived as biased and compromised.
And clearly it has here. Which is the communal tragedy.
We must figure out how to separate the misdeeds of individuals from the work they have accomplished or we will have dangerously thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. It’s one of the central challenges as #MeToo sweeps through so many aspects of American society. I’m not convinced that we should silence Shlomo Carlebach’s songs. Or banish Ari Shavit’s book.
Or disregard Steven Cohen’s work.
Rather, we should view these contributions for what they do to illuminate and enrich our lives — even if the men behind them did some reprehensible things, even if their victims deserve our continued support, even if the institutions that enabled them must be held to account.
Even if we need to wrestle with the fact that one of them happens to be a friend.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner. Sign up here for her weekly newsletter, Jane Looking Forward.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.