Yeah, Sheryl Sandberg got me too.
When the Facebook COO published her feminist manifesto, “Lean In,” I was skeptical of her ability to truly understand the demands and pressures on most working women in America. Surely her fabulous wealth, fame and A-list connections meant she remained blithely unaware of the privilege that status conferred.
“To illustrate that she, too, has found herself in unexpected situations as a parent,” I wrote in 2013, “she describes a time when she discovered her children had head lice. What parent can’t relate? Except that Sandberg was on her way to a Silicon Valley business conference. On a corporate jet. Owned by the CEO of eBay.”
But when her husband died suddenly in 2015, hurling Sandberg into an emotional maelstrom of grief and confusion, I saw a different side of her emerge, more vulnerable and relatable. Even though that experience led to another book — this time, entitled “Option B” and, like her previous work, tied explicitly into Facebook — it also occasioned another look at America’s most famous widow, who was willing to present her struggles publicly and allow the cracks in her polished image to be on display.
In a conversation I had with her when that second book was published in 2017, I was impressed by her eager embrace of Jewish tradition and ritual in the mourning process and her willingness to speak of the positive role Judaism played in her life. “The structure was so helpful to me,” she told me at the time. “And the connection. The connection gives us meaning.”
I am sure that she meant what she said. But if Sandberg is going to pick and choose her Jewish values, then she is no different from all the many powerful men who have done the same and expected to have their hypocrisy excused. As the superb reporting in The New York Times revealed on Wednesday, Sandberg hardly cared about her “Jewish connection” when Facebook hired a PR firm that aggressively took on the company’s opponents, sinking so low as to smear George Soros — the all purpose Jewish villain of the anti-Semitic right — for the “broad anti-Facebook movement.” (Soros’ Open Society Foundations angrily took Sandberg to task.)
She cleverly exploited her Jewish connections when she lobbied the Anti-Defamation League to characterize critics of the company as engaging in anti-Semitism. (Those “critics” include a major Jewish philanthropist.)
More broadly, according to The Times, Sandberg and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg protected the company’s profits and image at all costs, ignoring hate speech and minimizing the danger of Russian interference, and then tried to pretend that they did otherwise. Somehow the central Jewish imperatives to act morally and to always pursue the truth were cast aside.
In a post on Facebook — where else? — Sandberg said of the PR firm, Definers Public Affairs: “I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have. I have great respect for George Soros — and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent.”
This strains credulity. Definers specializes in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations, and shaped Sandberg’s own public stance on federal legislation. The Times story indicates that it was Sandberg’s idea to go on the offensive and it’s hard to believe that someone so attuned to public image would countenance not knowing what was being done in Facebook’s name.
As Sheera Frenkel, one of the five Times bylines on the story, noted on Twitter, the reporters held a “no surprises” call with Facebook before the story was published — standard journalistic best practice, so that the subject(s) aren’t surprised by what the story reveals and are given a chance to respond. That means Facebook knew of the unsavory things Definers did, at least before the public did.
But, as Frenkel notes, “Facebook only fired Definers after the story came out.”
Zuckerberg has never positioned himself as much of a role model for anyone — he’s one of these unique wonder boys who cannot be replicated (which may be a good thing.) But Sandberg has cultivated a very different persona. With her high, thin voice, warm and disarming tone, and easy demeanor, she seemed naturally unthreatening. Her viral talks and addresses have become so inspirational and powerful that some were put on the syllabus at Stanford and Harvard.
“Sheryl is the real deal,” a Silicon Valley lecturer and venture capitalist told the Times in 2012. “Young women really want to be her and learn from her.”
Can she ever play that role again now that we know that she was willing to employ anti-Jewish tropes and enable hate speech to protect her company — and her wealth?
A woman commits no crime for being ruthless and calculating. That’s how men have ruled the business world forever.
But there is something deeply troubling about that woman when she preaches about honesty and transparency while presiding over an opaque, manipulative company with unprecedented global reach that knew our democracy was being perverted and did little to prevent it.
Yeah, Sheryl Sandberg got me once. It won’t happen again.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner. Sign up here for her weekly newsletter, Jane Looking Forward.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.