Why are Jewish intellectual sexual predators being honored in a new book?
Should admitted, unrepentant sexual predators who happen to be Jewish intellectuals be accepted by the Jewish community as if they had committed no offenses? That is the question raised by the disturbing inclusion of three admitted Jewish sex abusers in a soon-to-be-released book, “The New Jewish Canon,” by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin.
According to the table of contents on their publisher’s website, Drs. Kurtzer and Sufrin include in their anthology of texts and commentary works by Ari Shavit, Leon Wieseltier, and Steven M. Cohen, who were once significant figures in the Jewish intellectual world but who were dismissed from their professional positions after revelations of their serial sexual abuse of multiple women over many years. All three have made some admission of the abuse they committed.
Shavit, an Israeli journalist, was the first high-profile figure in the Jewish community to be exposed for sexual assault, just before the #MeToo movement emerged. Danielle Berrin, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, reported in 2016 that during an interview with him concerning his book, My Promised Land, Shavit “lurched at me… grabbing the back of my head, pulling me toward him.” She pulled away; he followed her to her car and forcibly embraced her. After another victim came forward, Shavit announced that he was “ashamed of the mistakes” he had made.
The following year, numerous women came forward to accuse Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, of sexual harassment. Some of the accusations involved forced kissing and other kinds of imposed physical contact. Wieseltier issued a statement acknowledging that he committed “offenses” against women with whom he worked.
Then, in 2018, in an oped in the Jewish Week, Keren McGinity accused an unnamed senior Jewish professional in her field of forcibly kissing her. She later revealed that it was Cohen, a prominent Jewish sociologist, and she was joined by seven more women who came forward saying that Cohen had sexually abused them, too. They told stories of touching and groping and sexual propositioning that spanned decades — nearly his entire career. Cohen publicly admitted that he had engaged in “a pattern” of “inappropriate behavior” towards women and issued a statement, which included the rationalization that he had hurt them “unintentionally,” as if his intent was at all relevant, much less exculpatory.
In all three cases, many (though not all) Jewish communal institutions took appropriate action. Several of the organizations that sponsored Shavit’s speaking dates withdrew their invitations and he resigned from his employer, the newspaper Ha’aretz. Under pending Title IX investigation, Cohen resigned from his positions as a professor at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University. The Association for Jewish Studies barred him from participating in its conference. And Wieseltier, a frequent speaker at Jewish events, appears to have stopped receiving invitations from Jewish communal venues.
Still, none of these men have made a full accounting of their abuse. They have not issued categorical, unconditional statements taking responsibility and apologizing for their actions, nor have they paid restitution to their victims.
Those steps should be the minimum required for rehabilitation and re-entry to Jewish public space. And yet, though this reckoning has not been completed, these men are being accorded an authoritative Jewish “voice” in a publication such as the Kurtzer-Sufrin book.
The book is not an isolated incident. We have seen troubling instances of institutions offering platforms or other forms of inclusion to these men. Twice in the spring of 2019, The New York Times quoted Shavit about Israeli political developments without any mention of his sexual offenses. And in 2017, Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y advertised Shavit as the keynote speaker for its upcoming 2018 Yom Ha’atzmaut event.
Eventually, the Times stopped quoting Shavit; it turns out that there are quite a few other Israeli political analysts whose professionalism is not tainted by sexual abuse. And the Y was strongly criticized, leading to more of Shavit’s victims coming forward, and the speech was ultimately canceled.
And yet, recently, Cohen was admitted as a full participant in a Zoom discussion organized by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. His face appeared on the screen where it was seen by some of his victims; he participated in the discussion like anyone else, including those victims.
The Jewish community, in all its diversity and decentralization, must articulate and promote standards that prevent unrepentant sexual abusers from normalizing their presence in communal space, real and virtual. That space now very much includes digital space, where abusers re-traumatize their victims and make a mockery of their offenses.
Sexual predators who have failed to take responsibility, apologize unconditionally, and pay restitution to their victims must be treated as personae non grata by community organs. Victims deserve no less. It is they, not perpetrators, who must have communal priority, not least for purposes of prevention and deterrence. And if Cohen, Shavit, and Wieseltier fail to take the steps listed above, the Jewish community can manage fine without them. There is no dearth of first-rate sociologists, journalists, and literary minds to whom to turn, and a precedent must be set of minimal standards for participation in Jewish public life.
We do not see Kurtzer and Sufrin upholding any such standards in their new book. Their assumption of the mantle of “canonicity” all but anoints those they chose to include — while erasing the sexual predation of Shavit, Wieseltier and Cohen.
In response to complaints from us and others on Kurtzer’s Facebook page where he announced the project, Kurtzer and Sufrin reiterated their belief that these figures are central to the history of Jewish ideas they were seeking to present in the book. It’s “also the case that individuals accused of sexual violence may have contributed to the Jewish communal discourse on subjects unrelated (or related, depending on one’s perspective),” wrote Kurtzer. “In our introduction, we acknowledge the difficulty involved in this calculus of discussing the ideas advanced by these individuals at the risk of further celebrating or promoting the individuals themselves,” he wrote on Facebook. “We know, and regret, the harm that victims of sexual and other violence experience by the continued appearance of their attackers in public discourse and media.”
It is troubling, to say the least. If Bernard Madoff was an intellectual, would he merit such inclusion, in utter disregard of his crimes? Moving from the theoretical: Is mention ever made of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger without reference to his Nazism?
Since the book is not due for release until July, we hope they will address this moral lapse.
Prof. Shulamit Magnus and Dr. Rafael Medoff are historians and members of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, www.jewishleadershipethics.org.