After scandal, a silver lining

On the morning after Yom Kippur, when one of my editors called and asked if I would consider writing a story about sexual assault, I could not have imagined the outcome and impact that would follow.
November 1, 2016

On the morning after Yom Kippur, when one of my editors called and asked if I would consider writing a story about sexual assault, I could not have imagined the outcome and impact that would follow.

For a week, my story of assault at the hands of an Israeli journalist I did not name slowly percolated on the internet — a retweet here, a Facebook share there — and then suddenly, it exploded onto the front page of Israeli newspapers.

Due to mounting pressure in Israel, the person to whom I referred in my story outed himself, offering a not-quite-good-enough apology at first, which many — myself included — rejected. More headlines ensued.

By the time Shabbat was over, another woman had come forward, anonymously, with a story about the same person, compelling him to release a second, more contrite statement, admitting to his “blindness” and “privilege” as a powerful man. He announced his resignation from both the newspaper and news station he worked for.

A story that began in the Jewish media — not a courtroom — and gained steam in the Israeli media eventually leaped into international headlines: the Guardian, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, Spain’s El Mundo and Italian Vanity Fair reported on the story. The conversation that began in my article was taking place in a serious and deep way around the world.

But there is another, untold story in all of this: It is a story that involves all the same characters and all the same events, but it’s about the Jews. It’s about the dignity and grace with which the Jewish world handled a very difficult subject.

This whole event could have gone down very differently. History has shown us that society tends to be unkind to women who accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct. From the lack of justice shown to Anita Hill to the cruel treatment America meted out to Monica Lewinsky, to the pathetic sentence given to Brock Turner, the Stanford student who sexually assaulted a young woman in 2015. “Blaming the victim” is not just a meme, it’s business-as-usual.

“Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly one at the heart of the status quo, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her book “Men Explain Things to Me.”

“Generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once.”

But not here. Not this time.

“Is anyone writing the story: Ari Shavit/Donald Trump — Two Very Different Responses from the Same Unacceptable Behavior: Taking Responsibility?” an attorney from L.A. texted me.

Ari Shavit, the man who stepped forward to acknowledge he was my subject, could have easily taken a page from the Donald Trump playbook and called me a liar and disputed my report. He didn’t. While his first statement was not entirely honest, he admitted an encounter took place and apologized for a “misunderstanding.” After further reflection, he said he was “ashamed” and took full responsibility for his actions. This is admirable.

Readers could have challenged my account as well. They could have insulted me for speaking out or blamed me for what happened. They didn’t. The media also could have debased the conversation by peddling tired tropes about sexual assault; certainly, the Jewish and Israeli media had every reason to want to defend one of our most esteemed writers and thinkers about Israel, a country we all love.

But it didn’t. It reported the truth; it took the stories of two far less famous and powerful women seriously.

Throughout this experience, I was overwhelmed, not just by Ari Shavit’s admission, but by the outpouring of encouragement and support that I received from every corner of the Jewish world and beyond. My inbox, Facebook and Twitter feed have overflowed with hundreds of encouraging messages from readers, friends and members of our community. So many women — and a handful of men — have written to me to share their own stories.

“I was thinking of writing a story very much like yours. … Donald Trump’s behavior also catapulted me into the past. I remember having to fend off the advances of a young man when I was but 13 years old. What I recall most was his sense of entitlement!”

“I was repeatedly date raped as a 14-year- old.”

“There are so many women who carry these wounds. I was 17. He was a chaperone at a conference I was attending. So often it’s a young woman and a man in a position of authority.”

“Maybe one day I will also have the guts to tell my story; it happens to both sexes, and scars many people for life.”

“By standing up to these harassing ‘vilde chayas’ (wild beasts), you have stood up for all of us who have had to go through humiliating experiences like these for many, many years…”

As Eetta Prince-Gibson wrote in her insightful piece for the Forward, “Finally, society is beginning to fight against rape culture and to impress upon men that there are real consequences for treating women like sex objects. The question of whether the perpetrator’s behavior was illegal has become less important as the discussion moves from the criminal arena to the public moral arena, where social values are made and where they can be changed.”

For me, the last two weeks have been intense, exhausting and challenging; but also, amazing and inspiring.

As one man wrote to me on Facebook, “I believe that this story and how it has been handled by both you and Shavit will have a powerful effect on how these incidents are seen in Israeli society by both men and women.”

I’d like to take that one step further.  The Jewish ability — indeed, responsibility — to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, accounting of the soul, and teshuvah, repentance and return, is a model for the world.

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