Should We Normalize Jewish Intellectuals Who Are Sexual Predators?

By Shulamit Magnus and Rafael Medoff 

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 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 ShavitLeon 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 abuses 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 based Jewish Journalreported 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, Dr. 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. He issued a quasi-apology 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. 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 appropriate restitution.

Those steps should be the minimum required for rehabilitation and re-entry to Jewish public space. And yet, though no such reckoning has taken place, these men are being accorded an authoritative Jewish “voice” in 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.

After protests by our Committee, 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. The Y was strongly criticized, leading to more of Shavit’s victims coming forward, and the cancellation of the speech.

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 appropriate restitution must be treated as personae non grata by community organs. Victims deserve no less. It is they, not the perpetrators, who must have communal priority, not least for purposes of prevention and deterrence. 

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 social scientists, 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 canon-makers all but anoints those they chose to include – while erasing the sexual predation of Shavit, Wieseltier and Cohen.

In response to pressing questions from Avigayil Halpern, us, and other scholars on Kurtzer’s Facebook page – where he announced the upcoming publication of the book and invited comment – Kurtzer and Sufrin consistently declined to say whether the three men’s record of sexual abuse was even mentioned in the book, let alone addressed as a serious social and intellectual concern.

There was nothing on Kurtzer’s page objecting to its contents being quoted. Subsequently, he stipulated that his permission would be required to quote from it, so what follows are paraphrases. Readers interested in seeing the comments in the original wording on his Facebook page can see that for themselves there.

In composing their book, Kurtzer and Surfin say that they deliberately chose to omit any biographical information about the individuals whose texts they have canonized, Kurtzer’s preference being that any such mention come up, if at all, in book tours. In other words, he prefers to privilege these men’s canonization and marginalize the question of their sexual abuse. 

Kurtzer claims that elevation of the three admitted molesters to canonical status might prompt readers to reflect on why the professional work of these sex abusers came to play so influential a role in their respective fields. He says it will also lead readers to consider why reporting their sexual abuse was so difficult for victims to do, as if what is needed at this moment is further weight given to the power imbalance between these men and their victims, which was the prerequisite for the abuse in the first place. He also refers to these men as having been accused of sexual violence, when all three have admitted to this. Why raise doubts about it?

Kurtzer says that in the book’s introduction, he and Sufrin admit the problem of honoring unrepentant, admitted sexual abusers in the book and realize the hardship this will cause victims – as if there is no choice but to include them. After several years of open public discussion of the plague of sexual abuse of women in professional settings, Jewish and otherwise, we would have hoped for far more awareness of the social responsibility of scholarship. Not least to readers, present and future, who may not know that authors presented as canonical were sexual predators.

For a book that claims to present an authoritative reading of contemporary Jewish thought, Kurtzer and Sufrin betray a surprising lack of awareness concerning the role of gender in what intellectual authorities anoint as “knowledge.” This role is well established  in contemporary thinking and it is shocking that the editors of this volume seem oblivious of it.

Since the Kurtzer-Sufrin book’s publication date is not until July, it is not too late for them to address seriously, as an issue in its own right, the problem of sexual abusers in positions of intellectual and communal authority and the relationship of their behavior to their scholarship and writing. Indeed, we think this subject worthy of its own canonical text and commentary, both of which exist and can readily be included in the book.

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

This is an updated version of an essay that appeared in The Forward on April 26, 2020.