When will US Jews confront sexual harassment and other abuses of power?

Sexual harassment, perpetual one-man control, sky’s-the-limit salaries – is there is a common denominator in all these abuses of power?

December 23, 2017 21:22

European Parliament member Terry Reintke (C) holds a placard with the hashtag "MeToo" during a debate to discuss preventive measures against sexual harassment and abuse in the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, October 25, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN)


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More than two months have passed since the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse set off a wave of similar revelations about other public figures and inspired a serious reckoning in American society. Sadly, no such reckoning is yet underway in the American Jewish community.

In recent days, a few American Jewish institutions finally took some first, tentative steps toward addressing the issue. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism terminated its relationship with a senior staff member after accounts surfaced of his sexual abuse of United Synagogue teens in the 1980s. The Jewish Museum of New York fired its director of public programs after several staff members reported he sexually harassed them. And the 92nd Street Y apparently has canceled a planned talk by Israeli author Ari Shavit, an admitted sexual harasser.

But much more needs to be done. For example, is it plausible that not a single United Synagogue administrator, summer camp counselor, or other staff member ever heard anything about the multiple sex abuse incidents? The USCJ should commission a thorough independent review to determine who knew what, and when – and why nobody intervened.

The 92nd Street Y episode likewise has so far provided more questions than answers. Which staff member came up with the idea of inviting Shavit, who just one year ago admitted to harassing multiple women? Which other staff members approved the invitation? What consequences will they face for their disgracefully poor judgment? Part of the problem the organized American Jewish community faces in addressing sexual harassment is the paucity of accountability mechanisms.

For example, an American politician who engages in sexual harassment sooner or later will have to face the voters. In Alabama, enough citizens were repulsed by the evidence against Senate candidate Roy Moore to defeat him at the polls. By contrast, democratic elections are almost unheard of among American Jewish or Zionist organizations.

The few token elections that are held often involve only one candidate, or are so heavily stacked in favor of the incumbent that the “voting” is a foregone conclusion.

Something is very wrong in the Jewish community when the head of an organization can orchestrate changes in the group’s bylaws to eliminate term limits and thereby entrench his power, or increase his own salary or other material benefits.

Anyone who has spent time among the leaders of US Jewish or Zionist organizations knows that more than a few of them harbor a deep-seated sense of entitlement. Some see themselves virtually as presidents- for-life, much in the spirit of Third World tinhorn dictators.

Many of them apparently also believe that they are entitled to wildly exorbitant salaries. According to The Forward’s recently-published annual list of Jewish leaders’ earnings, the top 30 are earning between $409,000 and $818,000 annually. The next 10 on the list are earning at least $308,000. And that doesn’t include the many extra perks.

Compare those figures to the salaries of, say, teachers in Jewish private schools. It says something about a community’s values and priorities if those who spend their time making bombastic speeches and issuing verbose press releases are being paid 10 times as much as those who teach our children. The average salary for all private school teachers in the United States is just $47,000; and many Jewish day school teachers make far less than that.

Sexual harassment, perpetual one-man control, sky’s-the-limit salaries – is there is a common denominator in all these abuses of power? If so, perhaps it is the sense of entitlement, and the lack of accountability, that is all too pervasive among some American Jewish and Zionist leaders. Entitled to keep their jobs as long as they want. Entitled to take whatever level of salary they choose, rubber-stamped by their handpicked board members. Entitled to treat their staff members however they fancy, confident that those who fear being fired will never expose them.

Obviously not every one of these characteristics applies to every leader of an American Jewish or Zionist organization. But enough of them apply for one to conclude that abuse of power in the organized American Jewish community is a problem that requires serious attention.

What can be done? Here are a few initial suggestions.

• The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Zionist Movement and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs should require the president and executive director of each of their member groups to pledge in writing that he or she has never engaged in sexual harassment or abuse.

Anyone who refuses to sign the pledge should be barred from those groups’ meetings.

• Synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions should publicly pledge to refrain from inviting speakers against whom there have been credible accusations of sexual harassment or abuse.

• Hire more women. Does anyone doubt that having more women in the Jewish leadership would affect attitudes toward sexual harassment? In the Forward’s list of senior executives of Jewish non-profit organizations, there are only two women in the top 40.

• Many of us have heard from friends or colleagues about instances of sexual harassment and abuse within Jewish organizations. We should strongly encourage the victims to step forward – first by alerting the legal authorities, and then, if appropriate, by contacting the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership to discuss what can be done.

And surely there must be some Jewish attorneys out there who will offer their services, pro bono, to such victims. That would help counter the terrible imbalance of power between a victim with few financial resources and a Jewish executive with his institution’s team of lawyers behind him.

The long-overdue changes that American society is now undergoing with respect to the treatment of women create an opportunity to bring about similar changes in the American Jewish community – and to address broader questions about the lack of accountability, transparency, democracy and fairness in Jewish organizations and institutions.

The writer, a historian and author, is a member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.

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