Sexual Harassment: Is There a Jewish Answer?

October 18, 2017
People play instruments during a ceremony on Venice Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

When Harvey Weinstein’s long and horrible history was made public, women spanning several continents were disgusted and outraged — but not surprised. We’ve known for eons that this pattern of male brutality repeats itself in any professional setting, no matter the political or social context. But will it ever change?

It’s easy to despair. Tablet’s notorious article — calling Weinstein “a deeply Jewish kind of pervert” — is laughable: Men do it everywhere, to everyone. (The author of the Tablet piece has since apologized.)

In Israel, the scandals have spanned so many social and institutional arenas, that I have questioned whether there might be an Israeli angle. Israel comes to sexual harassment through its specific blend of military-machoism, high social aggression, and history of cover-ups among the tight male military cadres, Indeed, 1 in 6 female soldiers say they have been sexually harassed during their military service, according to a survey by the Israel Defense Forces.

But for those on the receiving end, it’s all the same sleaze. The reaction of women everywhere is similar: With each new revelation, a fresh geyser of awful stories erupts, experiences that many couldn’t summon the strength to reveal at the time. We are in a phase of releasing pressure that has festered inside us for decades.

But there must be a different phase ahead. It will be a stage of evolution in which workplace norms foster positive and healthy relationships, normal human tension notwithstanding.

No one should buy the whining about a dystopian, sterilized work environment. In fact, the foundations of the future already exist.

Dozens of countries have a legal basis for preventing and apprehending sexual harassment at work. Laws can be preventive and punitive. Just as important, they provide symbolic social legitimization of women’s experiences.

In Israel, robust laws against sexual harassment in 1998 led to a stream of accusations and due process that have toppled men from a range of powerful positions, including a president. With all the emotional pain the women endure in the telling, that’s progress.

But sexual-power dynamics are so complex, the risks, shame, rage and trauma so fearsome, that it will take more than laws to make a real change. Many women never even complain, and manipulative men just keep going, feigning shock when exposed. Those men need to change the deep foundations of their interaction with women.

Impossible, antithetical to human nature, utopian? Nonsense.

Great models of constructive, vibrant and supportive male-female relations at work already exist. Let’s talk about those, too.

My first professional mentor hired me when I was too young to believe in my own skills. In addition to working together in an intense environment where I had a huge learning curve, we also went for dinner and drank wine — as adults who appreciated and respected each other. The experience helped me build a professional confidence that, in those early years, I never imagined I could muster.

Over the years, in addition to the jerks I’ll never forgive, there have been excellent relations with creative, collaborative men that I’ll never forget. We can work, joke and drink coffee — or even beer — together without me feeling threatened, without them fearing accusations. 

Why? I believe genuinely supportive, honest men (and women) think differently from manipulative predators. Upright men view women — and hopefully everyone — as individuals, professionals, and most of all as people to be heard. They are in a dialogue, not a monologue.

People in dialogue listen to one another when building a platonic professional relationship, no matter how powerful one of them is. If an attraction happens — and it’s natural — they are much less likely to have “misunderstandings” of the kind that drove Israeli journalist Ari Shavit to maul a reporter from this paper during a professional meeting — which she exposed and which led to his downfall. They look at a woman and believe she desires them, because they see only their own lie. She doesn’t exist.

While the problem certainly isn’t a Jewish one, there is a Jewish voice that can help. Martin Buber taught the value of seeing the other clear through to the soul, as the basis for the art of dialogue. That’s a big, spiritual change from rapacious egotism. We can do it. 

Dahlia Scheindlin is a writer at +972 magazine and a policy fellow at Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. She lives in Israel.

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