The Lanzmann syndrome

Time to differentiate between innocent interactions and genuine cases of sexual harassment.

Man touches woman 311 (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
Man touches woman 311
(photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
The great Claude Lanzmann, one of the world’s most prominent writers and thinkers and the man responsible for the groundbreaking series “Shoah,” was recently arrested just before he was due to board a flight from Israel to Paris. Lanzmann was interrogated over sexual harassment claims made by a security employee who accused him of hugging and kissing her.
After getting fingerprinted and answering questions at the police station, Lanzmann was allowed to board his flight and return to Paris. Had the police officers been a little harsher—or if they were American–Lanzmann would have spent a night - perhaps several - in an Israeli prison.
I know Lanzmann. His love for Israel and the Israelis is boundless, as expressed in his books and films. An effusive man, he’s been known to warmly embrace people he meets. I, for one, complete believe his refute of the charges. Lanzmann claims that a female security employee checked and rechecked his hand luggage together with his assistant’s backpack. Apparently, the woman had behaved in that unpleasant “security personnel” manner that many of us know too well.
When Lanzmann was finally allowed to proceed to the check-in counter, he attempted to make amends with the woman, and turning to his companions, said, “Look how nice she is.” He then proceeded to give what was obviously a friendly hug to the security employee.
Catastrophe. The woman immediately ran to her boss – also a female - who in turn sprang at Lanzmann, and as she yelled at him she grabbed his passport before delivering him to a nearby member of the police force. She had caught a sexual harasser! And a dangerous one at that. Never mind the fact that he is 86 years old.
Mercifully, a somewhat more insightful police official quickly realized that the entire incident was little more than an ill-advised joke and he subsequently released the old man. Needless to say, Lanzmann, who is perhaps Israel’s best friend in the world of French intellectuals, returned to France gravely insulted by the whole affair.
I feel deeply ashamed about what happened to Lanzmann. Quite frankly, I’m getting rather fed up with the ever-growing obsession—in both the US and in Israel—of exposing crimes of sexual harassment at every turn. And I’m not talking about physical contact either. According to the rules—which only grow more bombastic with time—one can no longer even think about complimenting a woman on her dress or shoes without running the risk of being summoned to a criminal court.
No doubt these words will attract the ire of thousands of anti-harassment crusaders, but please, try to remember that unto everything there is a limit - and by equal measure - unto everything there is perspective. Consider the news alerts heard on the radio: In Syria, 200 people have been massacred. In Asia, Israeli diplomats have been attacked. In Iran, uranium enrichment is being produced at a perilous 20 percent. Yet on so many occasions, global crises such as these have been relegated to the end of news in favor of the far more crucial headline that some female office-worker from Hadera or Gedera or Kalamazoo suffered the torture of having a male colleague touch her shoulder.
I turn the TV on to watch the news and it’s the same story. No one seems to care about Syria or Iran or terrorism. Half the nightly news – along with its leading headline – is devoted to a particular employee of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet who either did or did not read his assistant’s mail.Gripping stuff.
I’m not saying that incidents such as this should not be reported or investigated. But for God’s sake, what happened to our sense of proportion or priorities?
When I arrived in the US to begin my tenure as a professor at an American university, I received an anonymous memo advising me on the institution’s do’s and don’ts. One of the points listed was that the door to my office should be left open during meetings with female students. The memo further recommended that the optimal scenario was to meet with the student in the hallway. I was also advised that under no circumstances was I to make favorable comments relating to sensitive matters such as the dress or hairdo or general appearance of a female colleague.
I didn’t take the memo or its suggestions too seriously. At least, not until a scandal exploded that shook every member of staff. A well-known and respected professor was having a cup of coffee with a female colleague and a student in the cafeteria. At one point the professor turned to the student, and, in reference the other professor, remarked, “Look how beautiful she is!”
Catastrophe. The female professor lodged a sexual harassment complaint and it climbed up the ladder until it reached the highest authority of the university. Each person that was presented with the complaint hurriedly passed it onto the next as if it were a hot potato. The entire faculty was in turmoil. What will happen to our disgraced colleague?
The accused man appeared in front of the board to face accusations of sexual harassment. He was a frail but kindly fellow who was considered to be the most inoffensive creature on campus. Oh, and he also happened to live with his boyfriend. Eventually, he was cleared from the charges. Yet how many other men, who don’t have the fortune of having an alibi of homosexuality, have been found guilty of these “crimes?”
Many expressions of sexual harassment – be they in terms of gestures or lewd jokes or else touching an unwilling woman – thoroughly disgust me. But not every action between two people of different genders can be classed as sexual harassment. By extension, not every heterosexual man is a potential criminal. Now’s a great time to put an end to this fanatic crusade that has injured and pained countless innocent men hurt like my friend - our friend - Claude Lanzmann.The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.