Israelis ignoring political correctness for men taken down by #MeToo

With visits by Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and Tony Robbins, why does it seem like Israel is embracing accused celebrity sexual harassers?

LOUIS C.K.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the news that comedian Louis C.K.’s three upcoming performances are selling out, the star-crazed media frenzy over actor Kevin Spacey’s visit to Israel this past week and motivational guru Tony Robbins’ recent popular and extremely pricey Tel Aviv appearance, it seems that Israelis are ignoring political correctness and embracing men who have been taken down by the #MeToo movement.
But is that perception a reality? It depends on whom you ask. 
Louis C.K. is a test case in this evolving cultural climate. In 2017, he was accused by a number of women of masturbating in front of them. He never denied this, but when he owned up to it, his response was deemed insufficiently remorseful by many cultural critics. His hit television show, Louie, was canceled. He used to appear at huge venues, but stopped performing for more than a year. And his movie, I Love You, Daddy, in which a character reportedly masturbated in public, has been shelved and will most likely not be released.
In late September, promoters announced that Louis C.K. would be returning to Israel to perform and it was reported that all his appearances had sold out quickly. Some saw this as a refreshing refusal to bow to political correctness, while others saw in it a worrying sign that Israelis don’t take sexual harassment seriously.
But before we rush to either conclusion, it’s important to look at the facts.
Hillel Wachs, a music promoter who runs 2b Vibes with Carmi Wurtman – which has brought such acts as the Black Eyed Peas, Boy George and Culture Club, Regina Spektor, The Pixies and many others to Israel – thinks it’s “an over-generalization” to suggest that Israelis do not care about Louis C.K.’s misdeeds. He points out that this time around, Louis C.K. will be playing at much smaller venues than he did in 2016, when he performed here last.
“In 2016, he did two shows in Jerusalem and they sold out at the Pais Arena,” which seats about 10,000 for performances.
This time, though, “He sold out two shows at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv, but it only seats about 2,000.” A third show, at the Toto Arena in Holon which seats 5,400, had not sold out at press time. 
“He has not made a commercial comeback in the US yet,” said Wachs, noting that Louis C.K. has done a few shows recently, but only at small comedy clubs. 
The sales in Israel show that “there is an audience for him here,” but aren’t evidence that “Israel automatically embraces everyone accused of sexual harassment or that the scandal hasn’t affected his popularity.”
But some find it troubling that Louis C.K. is returning to Israel at all. The fact that Kevin Spacey, the Oscar-winning actor who was writritten off his own television show, House of Cards, after multiple accusations of harassing boys and men, and Tony Robbins, the motivational guru, who has been accused by former employees of sexual harassment, were warmly welcomed here earlier this month has also raised concerns. 
DR. ELANA Sztokman, two-time National Jewish Book Award-winner, author and anthropologist specializing in Jewish feminism, who is currently working on a book about sexual abuse in the Jewish community, did not mince words when asked about this trend of Israelis seemingly embracing abusers. 
“I can’t speak for Israelis, only for myself,” she said. “I will say that I’m quite sickened that so many sexual predators are embraced in Israel,” she said, citing the ticket sales for Louis C.K. and the reception for Spacey and Robbins, who were welcomed in Israel “with great fanfare. All have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. Why do they feel so comfortable here? It’s awful, revolting, and disheartening.”
Sztokman puts the upcoming appearances of Louis C.K. in the context of Israel’s tolerance for Jewish criminals being prosecuted in other parts of the world, notably accused child sex offender Malka Leifer of Australia, who has found safe haven in Israel as she faces an extradition request from Australia. “And all this is happening in this same week that the justice system AGAIN failed to do justice with the victims of Malka Leifer, not only failing to extradite this serial pedophile but also releasing her from prison,” she said. “The victims, who have had no less than 60 hearings to try and get a trial started, would be right to feel like the Israeli justice system protects abusers. Israeli society as well. It’s a shonda.”
During Spacey’s recent visit to Israel, he received the uncritical press attention you would expect for any big celebrity. Tom Aviv, the chef of Coco Bambino, the restaurant where Spacey had dinner, gave an enthusiastic interview about his customer on television news, and admitted he had declined to bring up anything controversial when they met.
Said one Israeli entertainment professional who preferred not to be named in this piece, “It’s so typical of Israelis, to be totally star-struck by anyone famous, like it validates us that a big star would come here, no matter what they’ve done.”
Robbins, who is in the middle of his own controversy, involving allegations by staff members that he harassed them and charges that he has dealt insensitively with abuse victims in his seminars, was also lionized by fans at his recent and expensive Tel Aviv seminar.
Another divisive figure in the current climate, and one who has been embraced by the both the political and cultural establishment in Israel in the past is director Roman Polanski, who made such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. A Polish Jew who is a Holocaust survivor, Polanski accepted a plea bargain in 1978 for the crime of unlawful sexual intercourse, after he was charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in California. But he fled the US before sentencing and will be arrested if he ever returns to the US. When he came to Israel to promote his movie The Pianist, he was feted by politicians such as former prime minister Shimon Peres. The Jerusalem Cinematheque hosted Polanski at its film festival in 2006, when he won the Life Achievement Award. I attended press conferences on both of his visits and neither time did a single journalist, myself included, ask a question about the rape case. No one told us not to. We just wanted to get answers to our questions and there was a sense that Polanski would become hostile and refuse to talk if we did ask about it, as he had done at other press conferences around the world.
The following day, I received a phone call from a very well-known and well-respected Israeli politician who had an idea for a screenplay about the Holocaust he wanted to develop with Polanski. He had read my article and wanted to get contact information for the director. A few years later, I spoke to a veteran Israeli producer who had been trying for several years to get Polanski to film a screen adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, The Slave. Polanski is a very respected figure here, still, in spite of the scandal.
But he is also lauded around the world as well. In 2003, he won an Oscar for Best Director for The Pianist and this year, his latest film, An Officer and A Spy, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, in spite of the fact that some jury members admitted they would be reluctant to congratulate him if he won. If Polanski comes to Israel when the film opens here, it will be interesting to see how he is received, post-#MeToo. The movie currently has no Israeli release scheduled, in spite of the obvious Jewish interest. Interestingly, there is no US release date for this film, either.
The lesson seems to be that the Israeli response to those accused of and who have admitted to sexual offenses is as complicated as many aspects of life are here. Israel is a country where a recent former president served five years in prison for raping subordinates, after all. In certain ways, the times have definitely changed here.
WHEN MOSHE Ivgy, one of Israel’s leading actors, was accused of sexual harassment by numerous actresses with whom he had worked in 2016, his friend, actor Aryeh Moskona, defended him in an interview by saying he had never heard of Ivgy harassing anyone. To support this contention, Moskona said, that the two of them worked on a play with a very “young and pretty actress who was worth harassing,” but that Ivgy had left her alone. Moskona seemed shocked when the interviewer chided him for calling a woman, “worth harassing,” and insisted that this was a compliment. It was a stark instance when the culture of the new, more globalized Israel clashed with the bad old days when the establishment turned a blind eye to virtually all sexual harassment. A court case against Ivgy has yet to be resolved and the actor, once extremely popular in Israeli film, stage and television, has worked very little since the scandal broke.
But esteemed producer Marek Rozenbaum defended Ivgy in a recent interview in Maariv. 
Yaron London, who talked on his television show on the KAN government-run television network, about touching a woman’s breast as they rode in an elevator, is another case of Israelis reacting to a politically incorrect misstep. Many expressed outrage, but London continues to host his show, where he has managed to put his foot into his mouth from all different angles, notably when he called Arabs “savages” one night and apologized the next. He has his detractors, but also many fans. People seem to be able to appreciate his intellect and insights in spite of his outrageousness.
Does this mean Israelis, on the whole, are able to have a more nuanced view of those who cross certain lines than Americans?
This may be, and Sapir Prize winning novelist Gail Hareven, whose books The Confessions of Noa Weber and Lies, First Person, have won acclaim all over the world, doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. 
“I find that the [#MeToo] movement lacks two essential components of doing justice: a mechanism for clarifying the truth, and proportional punishment in accordance with the seriousness of the offense. Glancing at a woman’s cleavage is not the same as rape,” she said. “I worry about the ease with which people can now be crushed... I don’t like it that people are being sent to the Gulag without an end date for their sentence.”
Many Israelis, well aware of how negatively Israeli society is portrayed by the BDS movement and others, tend to be wary of boycotts and blacklisting, while this doesn’t mean they will condone harassment.
The evolution of portrayals of harassment in popular Israeli media has been telling. When Eytan Fox’s 2002 film, Yossi & Jagger, was shown in the US, friends I knew there assumed that the matter-of-fact depiction of a commanding officer who flaunted his sexual relationship with one of his female soldiers was exaggerated, but Israelis knew all too well the truth of it. Twelve years later, Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, a film about female IDF soldiers, drew cheers and occasional standing ovations from Israeli audiences when a female soldier shot at a male soldier with the gun that he had put down as he tried to rape a friend of hers, in a bitterly funny scene. Maybe this was a quintessentially Israeli #MeToo moment, one in which an abuser’s punishment was immediate and appropriate to the crime.
This year, Michal Aviad’s Working Woman was heralded both in Israel and around the world as the first #MeToo movie, as it told a complex story about the sexual harassment a young mother faced from her boss as she tried to advance her career. The woman kept her dignity in a tough situation but economic pressures kept her from bringing her harasser to justice.
In an interview earlier this year, Aviad said, she hoped her film would make it easier to create what she called “a new covenant between women and men that would say, ‘We’re going to treat each other as three-dimensional human beings, with respect and dignity’... I hope that this film is another stone in building this new understanding.”