No ‘business as usual’ for unrepentant sex abusers

It’s impossible to specify a number of years that an unrepentant abuser should be ostracized.

The sun peaks over the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013  (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
The sun peaks over the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013
How should the public relate to unrepentant sexual abusers who are also prominent professionals?
This important question arises because many cases of sexual harassment and abuse can be addressed only in the court of public opinion, not courts of law. Statutes of limitation and the reluctance of victims to undergo the ordeals that follow disclosure often shield abusers from the legal consequences of their actions. That leaves it to the public to decide at what point a perpetrator is worthy of being welcomed back as a member of civilized society rather than treated as a pariah.
Case in point: Twice in the past month, The New York Times has presented Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, an unrepentant sexual harasser, as a respected commentator on current events.
In an April 11, 2019 front-page news article regarding the Israeli elections, David M. Halbfinger, chief of the Times Jerusalem bureau, quoted Ari Shavit, whom Halbfinger described only as “a Jerusalem-bureau journalist who has followed Mr. Netanyahu throughout his career.” Halbfinger allotted two paragraphs to Shavit’s observations.
Similarly, in a March 11, 2019 article regarding the Israeli election campaign, Halbfinger quoted Shavit extensively. In that article, Halbfinger called Shavit “an author and former columnist who has followed [Prime Minister] Netanyahu throughout his career.”
Halbfinger omitted the reason Shavit is a former, rather than a current, columnist. Shavit resigned in disgrace from his position as a columnist for Haaretz because it turned out that Netanyahu is not the only one Shavit has been following, and that when he “follows” women, he doesn’t always keep his hands to himself.
In October 2016, Danielle Berrin, a staff writer for The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, reported an incident in which Shavit “lurched at me like a barnyard animal, grabbing the back of my head, pulling me toward him.” She resisted; he followed her to her car and forcibly embraced her.
A few days after Berrin’s article appeared, a staff member at J Street revealed that Shavit had sexually harassed her during a speaking tour co-sponsored by her group. (Sadly, J Street’s leaders did not share that information with the other groups hosting and underwriting Shavit’s tour.)
A year later, Shavit tried to make a comeback. In late 2017, Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y began advertising Shavit as the keynote speaker for its upcoming 2018 Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) event. The Y was strongly criticized, and more of Shavit’s victims came forward. The speech was canceled.
It’s impossible to specify a number of years that an unrepentant abuser should be ostracized. Indeed, time alone cannot be the determining element in when or if such a person is readmitted to public discourse. Certainly, one crucial element in consideration is whether the person has come clean, or is still concealing, denying, minimizing or rationalizing his crimes. Shavit, for one, has never provided a full public accounting of his behavior or taken complete responsibility.
Another crucial factor is whether a perpetrator has expressed unqualified remorse of his actions. Shavit has fallen far short in this respect, too. While he has admitted some of his behavior, he has also claimed that some of his victims “misconstrued” his sexual aggression; and that his behavior consisted of “flirtations” and “misunderstandings.” In one case, he asserted that his accuser was guilty of perpetrating a “blood libel” against him. As far as we know, he has never apologized to his victims individually. Berrin, for one, has said she has received no direct apology.
There is also the matter of restitution. A sexual molester shouldn’t be allowed to just say “Sorry,” and move on. He should pay appropriate financial restitution to his victims. As far as we know, Shavit has never done that, either.
But is it the job of The New York Times to play judge and jury? This is an important question. After our Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership criticized David Halbfinger’s quoting of Shavit, a former senior official of a major Holocaust museum challenged us: “The Times also quotes thieves and murderers, dictators – Stalin, Mao and Hitler among them – mass murderers, child molesters and all sorts of political leaders of any sort,” he wrote in an email. “I am not sure that quoting someone is rehabilitating them. It is quoting them.”
One would hope that individuals associated with prominent Holocaust institutions might exercise a bit more caution before bringing Hitler into the discussion. In any event, our critic’s analogy is not persuasive. Yes, newspapers quote the words of major international political leaders “of any sort.” That’s reporting the news. And naturally, The New York Times quotes the words of a thief or someone who committed financial fraud if the crime they committed is the subject of the news story. That, too, is just news reporting.
But what if the person involved in theft or fraud happens to also be a political – or any other kind of – scientist? Should a reporter just turn to that person for political comments, as to any other source? Why does sexual harassment get a pass in this situation?
Editors and reporters have a crucial role to play in this process. Their publications reflect and help shape public opinion. By turning to Shavit for his comments, The New York Times, in effect, removes him from the category of people who should be ostracized and bestows de facto absolution for despicable deeds that, at the very least, violate elementary professional norms. Rehabilitating an unrepentant perpetrator as a respected professional whitewashes abusive behavior and makes a mockery of victims.
We should not be seeking ways to let sexual harassers off, or to smooth their way to a comeback. The onus for earning rehabilitation is on abusers. The fact that a newspaper columnist had to resign or lost some speaking engagements, does not mean that he has paid an appropriate price for his actions. Likewise, the fact that someone donates a lot of money to a certain cause, or has political opinions with which one happens to agree, is not sufficient reason to look aside when such a person engages in harassment or abuse.
Organs of public opinion, as well as academic and professional organizations, need a strict, principled standard that demonstrates zero tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse and sets minimal requirements for rehabilitation, whether the abuser is a Jewish mega-donor, an American Zionist leader, or an Israeli journalist.
For abusive behavior to end, perpetrators must undertake more than a brief period out of the spotlight before returning to business as usual.
The writers are historians and members of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership,