Center Field: Fight sexual assault with moral vision

My respect for women stems from my respect for people – which is missing in the Republic of Nothing Donald Trump represents and the boundary-less Republic of Everything many universities create.

Sexual harassment victim [Illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Sexual harassment victim [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
In 1998, I appeared at the Palm Beach Book Fair with Marilyn French, who wrote the feminist manifesto The Woman’s Room. As I had just published Mr. and Mrs. President: from the Trumans to the Clintons, someone asked about Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. French laughed it off, saying “boys will be boys,” adding that the 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky had been a “consenting adult.”
“Ms. French,” I said, “you’ve been a role model to an entire generation of us, male and female. You taught us to take women seriously. The message coming from the Clinton White House to my female undergraduates is that if you work as an intern there, you will be judged by the depth of your décolletage not the quality of your memos.”
The mostly Democratic audience froze. Their sympathies were with Clinton and French, who was the famous one on the podium and was peddling her poignant memoir A Season in Hell, about overcoming cancer. She paused, stared at me, then said: “You’re right, I hadn’t thought about that.” We then talked about how important it is to respect women at work, even if you’re a pro-choice politician.
I share that admittedly self-serving story because all this “what do you expect, they’re men” talk explaining sexual assault insults those of us who don’t speak like that – inside locker rooms or out. And now, in our interconnected world, with the Trump scandal 9,000 km. away having disgraced a local, let’s move beyond the cheap one-liners and simplistic analyses.
As a male who treats women friends, colleagues, relatives and students seriously, with the dignity we all deserve, I resent that Democrats who forgave Clinton bash Trump, while Republicans who chided Clinton forgive Trump. I am disappointed that J Street’s leaders, so quick to judge Israel, collaborated in the culture of silence by not warning other organizations that it had banned Ari Shavit since 2014 because he treated a staffer boorishly.
And I am, most of all, sympathetic to the women harmed by these two men – and so many others – while disgusted by this creepy behavior treating women so crudely.
I regret that Shavit is not the mensch he purported to be. Shavit has advocated effectively for Israel on campuses, while his balanced columns break the Haaretz groupthink that ignores Iranian and Palestinian hatred. Those of us on the speaker’s circuit, given the privilege of representing the Jewish people, must behave in ways that elevate rather than cheapen. Just as during professorial office hours I keep my door open whenever a student enters, I never meet strangers in my hotel room when traveling, insisting on the lobby or restaurants. I keep my hands to myself and conversations on topic.
Unfortunately, most discussions about sexual assault are sterile, behavioristic. The emphasis is on what not to do – just as universities combat sexual assault and alcohol abuse by banning particular actions rather than cultivating good judgment. Without blaming victims, just as the culture of alcohol abuse feeds sexual assault, our amoral, hyper-sexual, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, if-it-feels-good-do-it culture of hookups and libertinism breeds sexual abuse.
My respect for women stems from my respect for people – which is missing in the Republic of Nothing Donald Trump represents and the boundary-less Republic of Everything many universities create.
Judaism, Zionism and other moral systems create a Republic of Something, of values, of restraint, of self-discipline, of mutual respect, not epidemic contempt for oneself and others. To build that, we need more superego, less id. Let’s stop hiding behind anonymity, assuming we can get away with anything. Let’s act as if we are being scrutinized – and our actions count. Once, a driver asked the Ba’al Shem Tov to act as a lookout when they passed an orchard. As the driver approached the trees to snatch some apples, the rabbi shouted “we’re being watched!” The driver ran back, looked around and snapped, “there’s nobody looking!” The great teacher replied: “God is...always.”
Beyond refusing to do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read about in the newspaper (as one friend says), believing we are all created in God’s image teaches us to treat everyone with the respect such lofty origins deserve. Trump’s campaign shows how aiming low reduces us all; we should aim high.
The great Zionists translated these religious values into compelling notions nurturing national virtue. Ze’ev Jabotinsky celebrated “hadar,” bringing glory to oneself, others and the Jewish people by acting like the princely, priestly people we were and are. From the Left, the early Halutzim followed strict behavioral codes, including the Socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair’s Spartan Ten Commandments.
In the Palmach, on the kibbutz, in my Young Judaea youth movement experience decades later, sharing a goal, having a sense of mission, building community, encouraged healthy relationships not abusive ones, even amid great intimacy.
I’m not naïve. No one is perfect. We lapse (and lapsed then, too). But modern culture emphasizes those who slip up rather than those who step up. The resulting lowest- common-denominator culture kills aspirations and mocks role models. We’re not even good hypocrites anymore.
Hypocrites at least have standards.
We need ethical ambitions. We need heroes. We need communities and common missions. We need faith in ourselves and others to act properly – and we need a culture that brings out the best in us, fostering mutual respect and high ideals rather than a nihilistic no-impulse-control crude culture because we don’t believe in ourselves, anyone else, or anything else.
The author, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.