By Robert Bank
Years ago, while giving a talk at a Jewish high school in New York City, I showed students a video of a Sesame Street skit from 1975 that demonstrated the relationship between “Near” and “Far.” As the #MeToo movement continues to build momentum in the United States and around the world, I am grappling with how we understand what happens to women who are very near to us – in our own families and in the American Jewish community – and what happens to women who live in parts of the world that feel far away.
As President and CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international human rights organization that is deeply invested in promoting the rights of women and girls around the world, I am mindful of our ever-expanding circles of obligation to preserve human dignity. My thoughts usually lead to questions:
When we read about women in the American Jewish community who suffered years of sexual abuse from men with power, are we able to feel greater empathy for women in India, Nicaragua or Uganda who were similarly violated? And, of course, is the reverse true?
When we learn that some perpetrators are people we had respected, are we able to hold them accountable as we would any other perpetrator of injustice?
When we consider what we believe to be the “right” solutions to achieving equity for women worldwide, are we able to listen deeply to those who have experienced inequity firsthand and may have other solutions to offer?
When we build partnerships for advancing opportunities for women and girls, are we including women of all races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities and class backgrounds?
I am hopeful that, in the near future, we can answer these questions with a resounding ‘YES.’ But I know that we have a long and twisting road ahead of us.
As a co-chair of SafetyRespectEquity – a new Jewish coalition to address sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the Jewish community – I feel indebted to women in the United States and around the world who have charted a course for change. I also know that, as a man, I must always participate with humility. I cannot champion gender equality without evaluating how my own actions, privileges, and behaviors hold women back.
Fortunately, other men are exploring how we can walk the talk. Last February, I traveled to India and met young men who, with the help of organizations supported by AJWS, are joining with their female peers to build a more inclusive and safe society for women and girls. These men are slowly unlearning the lessons of patriarchy: that being aggressive, controlling, and domineering is the masculine ideal. By building a healthier and more emotionally self-aware masculine identity, these young men have been able to repair their relationships with women and be partners for true equality. You can learn more about their work in a piece I wrote a few months ago.
In 1968, the Jewish lesbian poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Since that time, countless women have shared countless truths, as they do today. The world has most certainly split open. Now it’s our job to seize the momentum of courageous women who are speaking out and build a new world order together.
Robert Bank is the President and CEO of American Jewish World Service.