Grace After the Fall: The Aftershocks of a Scandal, and How Our Community Can Respond

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By Shaul Ben David

When Danielle Berrin published her essay in the Jewish Journal about her experience as the victim of sexual assault by an unnamed but prominent Israeli thought-leader, she did so explicitly motivated by the mainstreaming of sexual assault into the public conversation by the presidential election, and with the hope that her personal account could invite meaningful reflection on this issue as it affects the Jewish community.

It is on us to take up that challenge, and to not allow the moment to pass with only whispered conversation about the problem of predation in the hallways of Jewish organizations, or by simply allowing time to go by until the next set of accusations sets off the rumor mills and stirs up the media. Donald Trump’s victory signals the urgency of moral and character education as a critical enterprise for Jewish and other forms of public leadership. There is every reason for this kind of conversation toward ethical change to take place in public – to invite the voices of the many stakeholders in Jewish life to participate in shaping a new culture of how our leaders lead our institutions.

In that spirit, I want to lay out two courses of inquiry raised by this episode and which should constitute an essential activity right now for Jewish leaders. I am pseudonymous, because I believe this conversation should be depersonalized, as Berrin hoped her approach would be, as well as for reasons that will become clear in the arguments below. Suffice it to say that I am a male leader at a Jewish communal organization, and I fear for our community if we fail to lead in making change on these issues.

First I want us to consider a set of technical problems that lend themselves to concrete courses of action. Foremost of these is a lack of clarity and education about what constitutes abusive behavior, and what conditions – besides amoral individual actors – create an unsafe breeding ground for abusive behavior to grow. This includes a lack of clarity about the range of unsafe behaviors as well the absence of a coherent taxonomy to understand the spectrum of behavior, ranging from “lecherous older man,” all the way to “predatory abuser.” These are not the same, even as both can leave victims in their wake.

Ari Shavit may be taken at his word that he thought he was engaged in a courtship, not to exonerate his behavior, but to remind us that the dynamics of power imbalances and the nexus between power and sexuality are in need of public, transparent elucidation translated into standards of practice and behavior that feature prominently as part of a revamped code of ethical conduct which should be mainstream in Jewish organizational life. Such codes of conduct also must include transparency about policies to protect employees from retribution for reporting such incidents. Berrin describes in her story that she feared losing access to Shavit and the consequences for her career. Though in this case the Jewish Journal editor and publisher emerge as heroic for publishing Berrin’s account, one can easily imagine that Berrin’s peers in the Jewish community would not be so lucky. This massive loophole needs to be closed.

A second and equally pressing technical question relates to the matter of liability. Many people have been murmuring since the revelations by the Forward about Shavit’s having been banned by J Street from speaking on their behalf, and asking whether J Street was sufficiently diligent in warning their peer organizations about Shavit’s predilections. Here the shadowy nature of the accusations against Shavit intersects with widespread confusion about the nature of legal liability as it comes to talking about such stories, which impairs our ability to act collectively to prevent a problematic individual from moving across organizations in spite of his actions.

Is an institution legally liable if it initiates a whisper campaign against a former contractor or employee? What set of actions are so egregious that they allow for a legitimate whisper trail? When does the rumor mill cross a legal and ethical line? The reverse question is also true: does an organization share culpability (morally, if not legally) for knowing of a threat but allowing it to go unchecked? Absent rigorous analysis and collective action, the Jewish community will continue to limp through these issues doing what it does now: hoping their icons are not felled by a similar scandal, doing damage control when they are, and passing along the problem. To the extent that the issues we face are systematic, they are going unaddressed.

Beyond these meaningful technical challenges, the bigger matters for us to confront are the adaptive challenges: the considerations raised by a scandal of this magnitude which force us to ask about the nature of our work and the ways in which authority is transacted and amplified in Jewish institutional life.

First, it must be said: if you work in Jewish education, or Jewish leadership, or thought-leadership, and you are not thinking regularly about the risks inherent on a regular basis in the ways you transact with others who are under your direct or indirect influence, you may be part of the problem. Much of the success of public thought-, institutional-, or educational-leadership as it is commonly and currently expressed, relies on qualities essential in a media age but not inherently essential to the quality of the ideas themselves – namely, charisma and the associated charms and capacities that excite people to want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Put differently, the pitfalls of personality and the risk of predation are in some ways built into the skillsets that yield success in these fields. There is a tendency when such stories break, for other Jewish leaders to pronounce their indignation in response, and this is well and good. We should be proud that most of our leaders are not predators. But to utter such indignation, and to act as though the temptations to manipulate others are not part of what success in education and leadership looks like, makes light of the problem.

Beyond comforting ourselves that in this case it was the named transgressor and not someone closer to us, what safeguards are we putting in place around our own forms of leadership with their attendant temptations, to name that while this form of assault may not be inevitable, other forms of abuse of power may be in our midst? The lessons of Shavit cannot simply linger with Shavit and those who knew about him; they force us to ask in what ways we are vulnerable to the limitations and temptations that inevitably accompany power, authority, and influence.

Second, our community has a lot of well-intentioned moral indignation about the misbehaviors of Jewish leaders, but it is a total mess, lacking a hierarchy of inappropriate behavior and a modulation of tone to reflect degrees of severity. So for instance, the Forward annually publishes a salary review for executives in Jewish organizations, and annually invites opprobrium – much of it justified – about pay gaps in the Jewish community, and an oft-repeated trope that many male CEOs are overpaid. The problematic gender dynamics in Jewish communal life, in other words, produce a variety of moral transgressions.

Unfortunately, there is relative tonal consistency across the board, a culture of anger and moral indignation against Jewish leaders very broadly, which lumps together disparate problems – pay scale and sexual predators – with the same degree of volume and venom.

Tragically, however, I believe that this creates more clutter than good – making it possible (if still inexcusable) for well-meaning Jewish leaders to not interrogate the nuances of their and their institution’s behavior to lead to clearer standards of conduct. Our organization has on occasion been savaged by a Jewish media publication seeking to amplify a scandal and just simply doing bad reporting in order to make a stink. This kind of irresponsible mudslinging paradoxically is a disincentive to transparency. Creating a calculated and responsible “hierarchy of scandal” will help us name the more pressing problems, and to devote resources to addressing them, rather than catalyzing defensiveness in Jewish organizational leaders who feel that they cannot succeed in the public eye.

Moral indignation also impedes progress when it comes to weeding out sexual assault in another way. There is likely not an institution on the map that does not have a misbehaver on its staff today or in its institutional history. This is not a blanket accusation; this is the truth of what an epidemic looks like, especially when we include in our list not just the predators but the letches, the philanderers, and the harassers. I read a lot online about why there was so much silence by Jewish leaders after Shavit. I suspect part of the silence came from the fact that no institution is fully “clean,” and therefore Jewish leaders are reluctant to speak out, lest they be accused of hypocrisy.

In my own institution we too have skeletons in our closet. We have tried hard to root them out, to change the culture, and to create working conditions where such problematic individuals can no longer flourish. But I would not put my name on this piece for fear of public vitriol against me or against my institution for lacking the credibility to participate in, much less lead, this conversation toward change. Part of the process of cleaning out our collective closets will require us to allow institutions and individuals associated with past checkered histories to participate in the cleaning efforts. Otherwise, we risk diminishing from the outset the capacity to make change system-wide.

To this end, one of the least productive set of responses to the allegations against Shavit was when Shavit’s ideological opponents on both left and right jumped in to express with a combination of smugness and schadenfreude how these allegations against his person compromised the integrity of his ideas. On the left, Shavit’s opponents drew a line between his erasure of women in My Promised Land and his assaulting of women in real life; on the right, Shavit was attacked for being as loose with his actions as he was in telling the “truth” about the massacre that he described transpiring in Lydda. In both cases, the underlying accusations against Shavit’s scholarship and credibility as an author may be rooted in legitimate arguments; in this context, however, they are debilitating in the battle against sexual assault. Individuals can have extraordinary ideas and deep flaws in their interpersonal conflict; juxtaposing the two makes it seem that personal peccadillos are predictable, and makes all debates about ideas destructively personal and oriented toward ad hominem accusation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly: the Shavit story is tragic in at least two ways. It is tragic for the victims, primarily, for what they had to experience; and it is tragic for many in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities who located in Shavit and in his book a voice of reason that articulated their complex attitudes about Israel and Zionism.

People need intellectual and spiritual heroes, and having such heroes is not a sign of weakness. In many cases of predatory abuse it is important to differentiate between the legitimacy of the craving for a mentor-mentee relationship by both the perpetrators and those on whom they prey, and the predatory behavior as a violation of the integrity and importance of that very relationship. We are not served well by dismissing out of hand the power of iconic individuals, ideas, and the kind of spiritual and intellectual heroism that is on display when extraordinary people can wield sway over others. We are bidden, rather, to take seriously the brokenness that many in the world of liberal Zionism are experiencing in feeling that their strongest ambassador is felled by his own failings, and to find ways to support these communities even as we indicate clearly that having good ideas is no substitute for proper human conduct.

Finally, there are implications for the broader community that creates the market in which charismatic leaders operate. We have a lot of work to do in changing the attitudes of Jewish leaders and learners to recognize that multi-vocal leadership is both wiser and more ethical than the commodity we have attached to extraordinary and iconoclastic individual leaders. This idea is a hallmark of the rabbinic tradition, whose de-emphasis of the individual in favor of the more sustainable wisdom of the collective has to be granted some of the credit for the extraordinary legacy of Jewish continuity. Too often we value the extraordinary and charismatic people who offer good ideas more than the ideas themselves. This raises the stakes around the moral successes and failures of those individuals, and it locates too much power in them rather than in the communities from which their power is meant to derive. The challenge before us is not just to weed out the deceptive individuals in our midst who manipulate the power at their disposal to take advantage of others; it must also be to change the culture around how power is assigned to individuals, and to devalue the currency associated with charismatic leadership. This is a collective responsibility, not an individual one.

I hope this will be a useful trigger for a conversation. The bravery of some – in this case, Danielle Berrin and the many women who have followed in her path to tell their stories publicly for the first time – challenges us to build a communal ecosystem that honors their courage, and which creates the conditions with a new and healthier normal. This has been a moment for America, and now it is time for the Jewish community. We must be better.

Shaul Ben David is a senior professional at a Jewish communal organization.