Michael Steinhardt’s #MeToo Scandal Is All About Jewish Continuity
Stay tuned for an alternative take on this topic from Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
On Wednesday night, the New York Jewish Week published an article outlining accusations of sexual misbehavior against Jewish billionaire and Taglit-Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt.
Some of the accusations are classics of the sexual harassment genre. For example, a lawsuit accused Steinhardt, an avid collector, of making sexual remarks and trying to kiss an art dealer.
But others were a little less typical. In one egregious example, an antiquities consultant says Steinhardt agreed to pay $2 million for an artifact if she agreed to have sex with a rabbi who was also in the room. (Steinhardt said he was joking.) In another, Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based strategist, recalled a humiliating episode in which Steinhardt “asked a roomful of participants at a Jewish leadership conference in Los Angeles to vote, by clapping their hands, on whether a leader of the conference in her 40s, who had just become engaged, should have a baby or not.”
These accusations don’t seem to stem from a desire to have sex. Rather, they reflect an obsession with other people having sex, with other people having babies.
Much like Steinhardt’s philanthropic work overall.
Earlier this summer, another major Jewish figure was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, also in the Jewish Week: Steven M. Cohen, the American Jewish community’s most important sociologist with high-profile appointments at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Stanford University. For years, Cohen terrified the liberal American Jewish community, proclaiming over and over that the non-Orthodox community was shrinking, thanks to a declining Jewish fertility rate and intermarriage.
In the article in the Jewish Week, Cohen was accused of forcible touching and kissing, but also of the kinds of things Steinhardt is accused of. Like Steinhardt, Cohen showed a prurient interest in the personal lives of Jewish women, exhibiting a feeling of entitlement to information about their romantic relationships, sexual history and childbearing plans — topics which related directly to his areas of research.
When the news of Cohen’s chronic abuse broke, many women argued in these pages that it’s impossible to separate out the disrespect he showed some of his female colleagues from the disrespect his sociological conclusions showed women in the Jewish community.
“American Jewish communal institutions have become reliant upon a form of knowledge about Jewish life that hinges upon sex and statistics — specifically, how many Jews are married to Jews, and how many children they have,” wrote Kate Rosenblatt, Lila Corwin Berman and Ronit Stahl, three Jewish academics, when the news broke.
“Cohen made a habit of simplistically reducing continuity to a biological exercise,” wrote Rokhl Kaffrissen. “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?”
Cohen’s misdeeds seemed to confirm what many had long struggled with: the Jewish continuity crisis, measured and obsessed over in a quantitative way, was sexist. It also rendered gay Jews, trans Jews, childless Jews, and single Jews inconsequential, if not downright problematic.
Not everyone — not even all feminists — see things this way. Jane Eisner, the Forward’s editor in chief, argued instead that we “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.”
And yet, the accusations against Steinhardt certainly give those questioning Jewish continuity as a biological imperative more grist for their mill.
For Cohen and Steinhardt are not only united in the accusations against them. For starters, Steinhard has paid for some of Cohen’s work. The two have collaborated on a number of studies, most recently a 2017 report on “Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews.”
More importantly, Cohen’s worldview is deeply embedded in the DNA of Steinhardt’s biggest contribution to the Jewish community.
In 1994, Steinhardt, along with Charles Bronfman, started Taglit-Birthright Israel, the free trip to Israel for young adult Jews living in the diaspora. Since then, he’s donated a reported $100 million to the program, bringing 600,000 Jews to Israel.
The program was originally the brainchild of Yossi Beilin, an Israeli politician instrumental in the Oslo Accords. Beilin saw the trip as a way of curbing intermarriage and ensuring Jewish continuity, or as he told The Nation, “to create a situation whereby spouses are available.” Beilin sold Steinhardt on the idea that the free trip would “plug the dam of assimilation” — an idea that turned out to be rather prophetic.
It turns out that Jews who go on Birthright are more likely to marry other Jews, a fact that Cohen was fond of pointing out, though it was first discovered by Len Saxe in a study funded by Birthright, along with other foundations.
It was also a fact that Steinhardt was fond of pointing out. He crowed about in a New York Times article in 2008.
“In Birthright there have been many successful matches, and that is the unintended but happy outcome of the trip,” he said. “We are demographically challenged,” Mr. Steinhardt added. “In the non-Orthodox world, intermarriage rates have soared, and generally the intermarried are less likely to have Jewish kids.”
Given this “happy outcome,” it’s hardly a coincidence that drinking and sex are encouraged on Birthright trips, even resulting in some sexual harassment and assault.
Those Jews having sex is supposed to lead to Jews marrying Jews, something Steinhardt was all too keen to reward. The same New York Times article has an interesting correction affixed to it; contrary to reports by a family representative, “Mr. Steinhardt does not in fact offer his villa in Anguilla to honeymooning Jewish couples who meet on a travel program he supports.”
But he does offer just such a reward. Despite the correction, the Nation reporter who spoke to Beilin also reported hearing Steinhardt promise “a free honeymoon to anyone who met that night and tied the knot within a year” at a Birthright open bar night.
The interest in Jews marrying Jews and having sex with Jews — on Michael Steinhardt’s dime, on Michael Steinhardt’s property — was always a part of Birthright from the beginning. From its inception, Birthright wasn’t just about bringing young Jews to Israel, but bringing young Jewish couples back to America.
It’s hardly a surprise that multiple accusations of sexual harassment have been leveled against the two major Jewish figures invested — literally — in Jewish identity as a biological matter passed through the reproductive organs of women who are increasingly unwilling to provide that service.
Needless to say, there are myriad ways of ensuring Jewish continuity. The American Jewish community figured out one on its own. It turns out that if you stop barring intermarried couples from synagogues, they bring their children, 6o% of whom are now being raised Jewish, a Pew Research Center study found in 2013. “In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans,” the Pew researchers concluded.
The focus on inmarriage and women’s bodies as the site where Jewish continuity must happen is sexist and homophobic. If you needed further proof, look to its financiers and executives; the two most important ones have been accused of sexual misbehavior.
It’s time for our community to move on.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay failed to identify Len Saxe as the first to point out the link between Jewish inmarriage and Birthright. We regret the error.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.
Stay tuned for an alternative take on this topic from Forward Editor in Chief Jane Eisner.