A Silence that Speaks: the Missing Discourse on Safety, Respect, and Equity

By Guila Benchimol and Marie Huber

Eleven years after Tarana Burke coined the term MeToo to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, the hashtag #MeToo went viral. It drew attention to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse as well as gender discrimination in society. Two years later, many are asking, “What’s Next?” This question continues to echo within diverse Jewish communal spaces and communities as we recognize both progress made toward equity and safety, such as greater awareness of the issues and resources directed toward investing in change, as well as the significant gaps that need to be addressed to push real change forward.

Enter the Safety, Respect and Equity (SRE) Coalition’s research report, which both illustrates the lack of representation of the stories and experiences of survivors and victims of discrimination, harassment and abuse, while shining a spotlight on the role of public discourse in changing the narrative. Specifically, the report examines how public discourse in the Jewish community affects both narrative and perception of these critically important issues and how a Jewish lens used effectively can further the kind of positive change that is needed.

In the first few months since the report was published, the media coverage of its findings have largely focused on the experiences of survivors but neglected the significance of the role of public discourse. There are effective ways to discuss discrimination and harassment in the Jewish context, whether in media forums or in conversations among friends and colleagues, and we must do more to foster that dialogue.

Whether and how allegations and disclosures are publicly and privately discussed has the potential to provide opportunities for healing or cause further harm. Survivors are participants in the public sphere and are reading and listening to the public discourse around the abuses they have been subjected to. The conversations we have can help them feel validated and supported or leave them feeling alone, retraumatized, or afraid to come forward, even if we are not directly interacting with them. We found that the stories and ensuing conversations on perpetrators often focus on their accomplishments and contributions as philanthropists, community or religious leaders, and colleagues while looking away from the experiences of, and their impact on, survivors. We talk of the need to forgive without scrutinizing whether perpetrators have taken the necessary steps for teshuva, such as seeking out those they’ve hurt, apologizing and asking for forgiveness, and committing to change. Forgiveness conversations can also neglect considering that forgiveness really is up to the survivor alone and also fail to consider the teshuva that wider communities and organizations must do.

In Jewish spaces, the public discourse often relates back to the Torah’s prohibition on derogatory speech about another, or lashon hara. This focus on what we cannot say or discuss fails to reveal what Judaism compels us to do and how. As Elana Stein Hain taught at the SRE Coalition Summit, the very verse in Leviticus (19:16) that warns us not to be a talebearer also tells us to “not stand idly by the blood of [our] neighbor.” The next verse outlines the obligation to rebuke our neighbor and “bear no sin because of him.” While we must be careful with what we say and to whom we say it, when people are harming others we are obligated to act rather than look away. In fact, we are required to say and do whatever we can to prevent additional victimization as the Talmud (Shabbat 54b) explains: we are responsible for the sins that we did not stop when we were able to.

The public discourse we engage in must include a focus on the dynamics that have contributed to, or have not prevented, harassment, assault, and discrimination in Jewish spaces. When incidents of victimization have been reported in Jewish media, they tend to be treated in isolation. While many of the public stories have focused on what went wrong and on what individual people and organizations did not do when someone came forward – such as taking complaints seriously, investigating or acting on investigation findings, imposing meaningful consequences – they lack discussion of the broader, systemic issues that allowed individuals to cause harm. We need discourse that captures the imperative for structural change.

While the very public discussions of alleged and known abuses is an improvement from decades of silence, we need to ask whether simply bringing these truths to light is a sign of progress. We also need to ask what role individuals, leaders, and journalists can and should play in this public discourse and how we can all better discuss abuse and harassment from a victim-centered perspective. Survivors have done their part and we are grateful to them for coming forward to make Jewish spaces safer. Their accounts are not where the story ends, but where our role begins. We owe them, and those who remain silenced and afraid, our words and our actions.

To make meaningful change in this Safety, Respect, and Equity movement – and to shift culture, including public discourse and rhetoric – we must focus on what to do:

  1. Have public conversations about abuse and harassment in Jewish spaces. Whether writing a high profile news story, or talking to a friend over coffee, remember to Use the Right Words.
  2. Understand that our discussion shapes how we individually and communally respond to perpetrators and survivors. Remember that “No language is neutral; words and linguistic choices used by friends, family, community leaders, and media can haunt a survivor long afterwards.” Let’s reduce the cost that our communal reckoning has on those whose stories and experiences it comes at the expense of.
  3. Move from being passive bystanders to active upstanders: The Torah compels speech and action in the face of wrongdoing and provides us with guidelines such as rebuking perpetrators. Our actions and conversations can be informed by studying Jewish ethics, values, and texts and Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s principles for institutional courage.
  4. Ensure that our public discourse includes the systemic problems that require change.

To ensure safer Jewish workplaces and communal spaces, we must first publicly acknowledge where we have gone wrong and recognize that our responsibility lies in our ability to respond.

Guila Benchimol, PhD is an expert on sexual harassment, abuse and victimization in the Jewish communal world, and Senior Advisor to the SRE Coalition. Marie Huber is a research analyst at Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies. The authors give credit to femifesto for the Use the Right Words guidelines referenced above.