I was ambushed yesterday. And it left me shuddering. And it gave me a deeply distressing glimpse into the workings of the Jewish boys’ club. The ambush had a very pretty mask. And it is terrifying.
A guy asked me for a meeting for networking. He had all the trappings of being a Nice Guy – he had an easy smile, gentle voice, clean cut appearance, beard and knitted kippah, and a generous use of flattery. I should have recognized this. He did all the classic, effective getting-to-know-you stuff: He said he knows my work, he has read my research, he is a Reform rabbi and studied at HUC and is interested in my current experiences there, he knows my husband, his wife knows my husband, and wouldn’t it be great to connect. It all sounded so normal. I said I don’t have a lot of time these days, so he suggested coming to my school and meeting me during my tight one-hour lunch break. I said okay.
After ten minutes of smiling and chatting, he uttered a sentence that began, “The real reason I wanted to meet you with such urgency.....” That should have been a red flag. If I have an agenda for a meeting, I put that agenda up front. If someone asks to meet for one reason but actually has a totally different reason, that could be a sign of manipulation. It isn’t always. After all, if someone wants to ask me for something easy and innocuous like a recommendation or an introduction, then it is fine to bring that up at the meeting and not in advance. But if you want something big from another person and want to take their much-needed one free hour for that request, you had better be honest about that.
So what was the urgency?
“I got a call from a colleague I know,” he began, “a man who is concerned because his name appears on a list of men in the Jewish community who are accused of sexual abuse.”
The backstory is this: In one of the groups online dealing with sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement, some people decided to create an anonymous sheet for collecting women’s experiences with sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This initiative came out of the realization that the only reason why the Harvey Weinstein story came out at all was because of a sheet like this in which women were able to post anonymously about their experiences of sexual abuse. Within a matter of days, certain names came up frequently, and then some reporters decided to dig further into those names, which eventually led to the New York Times story. The reason why this was so crucial in that movement is victims are very reluctant to come forward. Their lives were ruined once by their abusers, and coming forward means that they may have their lives ruined once again. Think Anita Hill.
This is not speculation or an exceptional incident. This is the norm for how sexual abuse works in our society. Until recently – like, a month ago – sexual abusers were kept in place, given promotions and lots of money and big offices with secret locks and a lot of power to decide who stays and who goes. Victims’ lives are tossed around like candy at a bar mitzvah, their fate unknown, while their abusers or even rapists thrive. The fact that Matt Lauer was fired, as were others under this spotlight, is a new and welcome change. But it wouldn’t have happened without a way for victims to tell their stories without any repercussions. Things have changed a little since Anita Hill, but only recently and not entirely.
Meanwhile, nothing like this has been happening in the Jewish world. I bet you can’t name two men in the Jewish organizational world who have been taken down by #MeToo. Yes, lots of Jewish men involved. Harvey Weinstein, Leon Weiselteir, Dustin Hoffman, etc. But the Jewish community as a whole has not yet cleaned house.
And we know why. Just this week, The Forward released its report on gender in the Jewish communal world and found that the gender gap is awful and getting worse. Women are stuck at constituting a mere 17% of Jewish leaders, and those women who do hold top positions are making 60% of average of what men make. Jewish communal leadership is still the penultimate boys’ club.
Anyway, all this is why the list was created. Somewhere out there is a list in which some victims of sexual harassment by high-profile offenders in Jewish communal life have written the names of their abusers and a description of what they did. This list was started to try and get victims talking despite what they are up against when they do. This is so important: Finally telling the truth. For victims whose lives have been ruined by these offenders, it is a first window of light. It is a starting point for addressing the sexual abuse that is rampant in Jewish life. (Rampant? Yes rampant. See my Facebook page for constant testimonies). Anyway, this is a kind of anonymous tip line for victims of harassment. Yes, it needs follow-up. No, the list is not being made public. I didn’t create the list but I was asked to share it in this group, and I did.
And apparently some of the men whose names are on this list are nervous. They should be.
So this guy is sitting across from me, a guy who I just met who himself holds a position of power in the Jewish world, says, “You have to do something about this list.”
I listened to him for a full five or ten minutes. I just listened. In my mind I am reeling from the shock that this is not a networking meeting but a twist-my-arm meeting. Had I known that this was what was to come, I would have never taken the meeting.
Then I was thinking: How should I respond?
Should I just nod and smile and play the game? Listen politely and ignore? I did that for a bit. But then the fire began to rise in me, along with the realization of what is really happening here. Staying silent is not an easy thing for me, even though I practice this every day. I practice listening and accepting and just being present instead of reacting. It’s a good practice and I need it. It is hard for me to not speak my truth. I need to learn to be more political. I need to learn to share space with people like this, the ones don’t see the world the way I do. I need to learn how to network and smile even with people who make me feel very unsafe. I need to do this. I sat quietly and listened for as long as I could.
But as I sat there, watching this, experiencing this, listening to this man who has all the trappings of being a Nice Guy, declaring to me that he is a big ally of victims of sexual abuse, while siding with a potential abuser who is desperately worried about his reputation – my mind was struggling with the cacophony of this.
“What if someone I fired badly 15 years ago decides to put my name on this list?” he said, slightly agitated.
You know, if you are worried that someone you treated badly may hate you enough to risk their entire life and livelihood in a vengeful, lying act like that, then perhaps we should be discussing what you did to that person.
As I contemplated asking him what he has done in his life to make his so nervous, he said, “I’m really bad at firing people.”
He’s bad at firing people. Poor guy. What kind of person can say that? Only someone who has a lot of experience firing people, someone who has been in positions of hiring and firing for a very long time, someone whose comfort zone is in locations of power. And his complete lack of awareness about his own privilege was stunning.
He was worried, for himself and for his friend, whose name is on the list, even though the world still doesn’t know about him. I don't even know who he is referring to. Yet through all this, he had not given one thought to the woman who posted the story. And when I tried to point this out, steered from talking about his friend.
“This list. It’s wrong. It’s against halakha. It’s unethical. And it does damage to the cause.”
How do you respond to all this? How should I have responded?
First, I told him that his facts about the list are wrong. I didn’t create it, I just shared it in a closed group on sexual abuse, as well as privately with people who I know have had experience with this issue, most of whom are victims themselves. I don’t know who is holding this list now. I haven’t looked at it since that first week it began. It is not publicly available. Nobody is creating blog posts about it. It is like a tip line, the beginning of an investigation. Nobody is randomly writing and publishing things that aren’t true.
“But the list,” he said, “it’s wrong. Why don’t you just ask the victims to talk to reporters?”
I tried to explain to him about the dynamics of sexual abuse, which he clearly has no clue about. Why would victims talk to reporters? Does he have any idea how coming forward ruins your life? Does he comprehend how these women have had their lives ruined once by their abusers, who not only abuse them but also block access for them? Does he understand how women who make accusations are cast as mentally unstable, as problematic, as not-team players, as angry, as having a chip on their shoulder, as having an agenda, as unemployable?He was so willing and eager to take all this time to help his friend keep his reputation. But when did he or anyone like him ever do that for women who experienceed sexual abuse? Never.
I was thinking about the Harvey Weinstein dynamic, in which men control women's careers and can easily say, Do this if you want the job. Men who not only see women as objects but who also stand in the way of the things that we want in our lives.
But I was also thinking about this meeting. I came because I thought it was about networking. Instead this.
There are so many ways in which men's desire for power blocks women's desire to live and work freely.
Anyway, I don’t know what he thinks about the lives of victims of sexual abuse, because all he kept saying was, “The list. It’s so wrong. Tell the victims to tell their stories another way.”
As if that is even in my power. As if I would ever tell victims how and when to tell their stories.
When I realized that he was using that toxic tactic of repeating the same line without any regard to what the other person is saying – one of many tactics of verbal and emotional abuse that I have been researching over the past two years – I realized that I needed to get out of there.
I told him I needed to go. I was going to be late for class. He kept talking. I started to get up. But then I stayed a little longer.
“This list. It is so wrong. It is lashon hara,” he said. “You can’t just spread things about people like that.”
I told him that the rules of lashon hara – the laws against spreading slander and gossip – do not apply in the situation of abuse. Because so often the offenders use this argument to keep the victims silent. Victims are constantly pressured not to ruin the lives of their offenders, and this silencing is often packaged in this language of Jewish law. Like, Jewish law says you can’t say a bad thing about anyone else. So don’t talk about your abuse.
I told him that this is wrong. Lashon hara does not apply when it comes to outing abuse. When I become a rabbi, I will write a full responsa about this. It is on my todo list.
But he ignored this. I think he was incapable of hearing anything that deviated from his planned script. “The list. The list is wrong. It is against halakha and it is unethical, and why aren’t you concerned about outing an innocent man? Why doesn’t that bother you?”
Because it’s not what is happening here. There are no innocent men here being outed. Even the guilty ones aren’t being outed. Can you even name one man who leads a Jewish organization who has been outed as an abuser since #MeToo? Can you name one? Of course not. The Jewish world has not yet cleaned house.
“And anyway, why would a woman put herself through all that on a lie?” I asked him. “Do you have any idea what women go through when they speak about sexual harassment out loud?”
“But the list,” he said, again, “it’s just wrong. Let the victims tell their stories another way.”
As if there is another way.
And plus, why do you believe your friend over the victim?
This is the essence of what was wrong with this conversation. “A woman has posted something about your friend,” I said to him, “and you are here with me twisting my arm to get her to stop talking about him. Why don’t you think even for a second that she might be telling the truth?”
He stared at me.
“Think about your own role here,” I said. “You are part of this network, the one that enables abusers to silence their victims by doing things like this.”
No, no, no, he said. He doesn’t see himself in those terms.
He’s just a nice guy doing his job, helping his friend. He is not a power-weilder.
He looks and acts like such a Nice Guy. He is gentle in his voice, soft-spoken, articulate, put-together. He and his wife – whom he speaks of adoringly – are dedicated to Jewish life and Jewish education. These are Good People.
He may be a Nice Guy. But he is doing a terrible thing. And he is couching it in the language of Jewish law and ethics. Which makes it even worse.
“This list,” he said again, “it’s just wrong.”
Have you heard anything I said? No, because you are accustomed to the effectiveness of the toxic tactics.
“This is not a conversation,” I finally said. “This is bullying.” I got up to go.
He was surprised. I was late.
“I hope you won’t let this disagreement we have get in the way of our being able to work together in the future.”
Disagreement? Is that what this was? No. This was an ambush. An exercise in arm-twisting. It was an event of gneivat da’at, of stealing a person’s mind, of lying to them about why you want their time. It was me losing out on a potential network and on my much-needed lunch break to be mansplained to by a man who has no idea where he is in the chain of Jewish male privilege. It was me facing the real world of the Jewish Men’s Club, in which Jewish men in positions of power back each other without question. Where they will take time out of their days to support each other, even when the other is being accused of sexual abuse, but would not take their time out to actually help a woman or a victim of sexual assault. This is what the Jewish boys’ network looks like. It is this. It is men who may even seem like really nice guys – maybe they are nice guys in some settings – who wield power on behalf of each other. Who work hard to keep their own reputations tarnished. And do not have much care for what is really happening in women’s lives.
I left the meeting shaking. And late to my class. I took a few moments to try and compose myself, and then walked into the classroom, where I apologized for being late, and where my teacher, another Jewish man with power, fully shamed me for it. “You’re not sorry for being late,” he said. “I saw you in the cafeteria taking your time.” That is what my teacher said. How do I even begin to explain to him that this was the opposite of a fun time for me? I couldn’t. And how do I explain what it means that he saw me in the cafeteria and didn’t see anything at all? I took my seat and went on with my day.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org