At a memorial last month for Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi, held on the 16th anniversary of his assassination by Palestinian terrorists, just 34 MKs – only four from the opposition – showed up.
While events like this are not necessarily well attended generally, many of the MKs who skipped the memorial said they did so because of the multiple women who accused Ze’evi of rape and sexual assault in a news program last year. As a result of the allegations, some lawmakers have tried to cancel the state-sponsored ceremonies in his honor.
In his speech at the memorial last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the allegations “hurt his family, because Gandhi is unable to have his say.... This is a clear attempt to blur or erase his merits and his legacy, but it won’t happen.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, meanwhile, said the accusations cannot be ignored: “Obviously, if the allegations were brought up when Gandhi was still alive, he would have had the right and the opportunity to respond and react to them. This will remain an unfinished chapter, in which the dead cannot clear their names.”
Many were shocked when the women’s claims surfaced last year, sullying the reputation of a revered though complex man.
Ze’evi is far from the first man to be accused of such things after his death. In 1998, four years after the death of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Lilith magazine published an exposé on the beloved hassidic singer and his repeated molestation of young women.
Over the past month, women and men around the globe have been speaking out about assault and harassment they suffered in the past. Some have brought up events from decades ago, including about men who have been dead for years.
When an allegation of this kind is made about somebody no longer living, how should we react? Criminal charges can’t be brought, they can’t lose their job – and they can’t defend their own name.
And how should media outlets report on stories when the subject can’t comment?
Last week, a veteran Israeli journalist, Sylvie Keshet, claimed that Tommy Lapid tried to rape her in London in 1963. Keshet made her claims in a Facebook post, where she shared details of the evening in question and how, she said, Lapid knocked her on the ground and ripped her dress.
Lapid, who at the time was a journalist and later became an MK and then minister, died in 2008.
Asked to comment the day of the accusation, Lapid’s son, Yair, a former finance minister and head of Yesh Atid, had just one sentence to say: “There is no way to react to a story from 54 years ago” – the year, in fact, that Yair himself was born.
He later elaborated, in an interview with Channel 2 News, that Keshet’s story was sad and painful and he “has nothing intelligent to say about it.”
“I can’t ask my father; he’s been dead for nine years,” Lapid said. “I’m sure he would have something to say.”
Separately, an accusation of an incident involving Elie Wiesel surfaced several weeks ago. In an online post, one woman accused the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate of grabbing her rear at an event in 1989. Unlike with Lapid, news organizations were very slow to pick up those claims.
In a column titled “Why we waited before publishing that story about Elie Wiesel,” Andrew Sillow-Carroll, the editor-in-chief of JTA, said the newsroom grappled with “the wide chasm between Wiesel’s public persona and accomplishments and the sordid nature of the alleged act.”
Those considerations, however, were not what made JTA wait, said Sillow-Carroll. Instead, amid “heated debate,” it was the need to meet its own journalistic standards – the same ones JTA would apply to any story. When the story advanced – and the Elie Wiesel Foundation denied its veracity – JTA went ahead.
“On a purely practical level, at least in the United States, you cannot libel the dead,” said Alan Abbey, a former journalist who lectures on media ethics. “They don’t have a reputation that can be harmed.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t still need to look carefully into any allegation and “put it through the context of how they were in the rest of their lives,” said Abbey, the media director for the Shalom Hartman Institute, who previously worked for The Jerusalem Post and Ynet.
“Should we not ever say anything bad about Elie Wiesel because of who he is and his legacy – I think a lot of people would say yes,” said Abbey. “If that was the case, the first book of the Bible would be very, very short. There isn’t a patriarch or even a matriarch who has an unsullied reputation.
For Sue Fishkoff, the editor of J. The Jewish News of Northern California, there are clear standards that need to be met for publication.
“It’s not a matter of believing the woman or not believing the woman,” she said. “From a journalistic point of view, it should be: Is this a story and how does this advance the conversation? If it’s a public figure, then the rules are a little more lax than if it’s a private figure.”
For accusations to be worthy of publication, said Fishkoff, who previously worked for JTA and the Post, there needs to be “either intentional physical assault or a pattern of harassment that involves a power relationship.”
When it came to Carlebach, she said, “multiple women made accusations that showed a pattern of ongoing harassment that involved a power relationship. He was their rabbi, he was an adult and they were a child – those were power relationships.”
In the case of Wiesel, however, “I would not have published it,” said Fishkoff, a board member of the American Jewish Press Association.
“Not because I don’t believe it happened, but because it is one case that had come forward, that to me did not demonstrate either intentional assault or a man abusing a power relationship – because they had no relationship.”
And in a case where “the accusee cannot respond, because he or she is dead,” she said, “we have to hold the story to an even higher level of scrutiny.”
Abbey said that “in this day and age of social media, where the story can rocket around the world in minutes... it hasn’t changed the need for strong journalistic values.”
The Wiesel story, he said, “played itself out in a way that caught a lot of people by surprise,” said Abbey. And Jewish news organizations struggled with how to handle it – with The Forward publishing a story and then deleting it.
“It’s less important in a story like that,” he said, to rush to publication.
“Especially such a revered figure – it’s better to be right than to be first.”
When it came to Lapid, he said, he understood the rapid coverage, not just because he sees Israeli media as “looser with checking and attribution.”
“I don’t think a mainstream Israeli news outlet has the luxury of ignoring the story,” he said. “Tommy Lapid still casts a very large shadow in today’s politics, not just through his son but through the values he articulated that are issues of debate in this day and age.”
Both Fishkoff and Abbey agreed that every case needs to be separately, carefully and independently weighed. And they both saw a need for nuance in discussing such allegations as so many women continue to come forward.
“What’s going on now to me is a flattening of the conversation,” said Fishkoff. “We’re saying now sexual harassment and assault in one phrase – as if complimenting someone on their eyes is the same as attempting rape. For that alone I think we need to be very, very careful.”