If you fail to alert other Jewish organizations about a lecturer who sexually harassed a woman on your staff, you really shouldn’t go around accusing other Jewish groups of being insensitive to women.
I’m looking at you, J Street.
The New York Times reported last week that J Street is angry at a rival group, Democratic Majority for Israel, because the latter is supporting pro-Israel candidates against pro-Palestinian rivals in various Democratic congressional primary campaigns.
Many (but not all) of those pro-Palestinian candidates—whom J Street supports—happen to be women, and some happen to be African-American or Latino.
J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami told the Times that he detects a sinister “pattern” in the opposition to his favorite candidates. “There seems to be something particularly on the line for some parts of the Jewish community when women of color speak out,” Ben-Ami said.
Mark Mellman, leader of the Democratic Majority for Israel, called Ben-Ami’s accusation of racism and misogyny “an outrageous, disgusting lie.”
Mellman’s right. There’s no evidence that Mellman’s group is racist or anti-women. They are opposing candidates who have taken strongly pro-Palestinian positions. That’s a legitimate disagreement with candidates’ stated positions, not racism or misogyny.
But Ben-Ami’s attempt to play both the “woman card” and the “race card” is more than just outrageous and disgusting. It’s also incredibly hypocritical, given Ben-Ami’s own record concerning sensitivity toward women.
I am referring to the episode that The Forward revealed in 2016.
TheForward described a disturbing episode of sexual harassment that had taken place two years earlier, in 2014. It involved Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a prominent advocate of Palestinian Arab statehood. J Street sponsored a U.S. speaking tour for Shavit and sent one of its female staff members to meet him at the airport when he arrived.
The Forward’s article—which was never denied by either Shavit or J Street—reported that Shavit sexually harassed the J Street staffer. She reported the harassment to Ben-Ami and his fellow-J Street leaders. They then quietly cut their ties to Shavit—but they didn’t alert any of the various other Jewish groups that were co-sponsoring the tour.
Think of all the innocent women who might been put at risk because J Street failed to alert their organizations that they would be interacting with a known sexual harasser.
Every woman staff member at every Jewish organization co-sponsoring Shavit had a right to know what Shavit did to the J Street staff member. They had to a right to be able to protect themselves against him. They were deprived of that right by J Street’s awful silence.
This is exactly why the #MeToo movement arose—because too many people were getting away with sexual harassment or assault while bystanders looked away, finding all kinds of excuses to remain silent.
Silence in the face of injustice is wrong. Silence in the face of danger to women is wrong. J Street’s silence was wrong.
And that silence was not just for some brief period. It went on for nearly two years. The harassment of the J Street staffer took place in 2014. The Forward’s public exposure of Shavit was in 2016. For two years, J Street knew and said nothing.
Just because eight years have passed since this whole ugly episode began doesn’t mean that J Street should be left off the hook. The passage of time doesn’t make everything all better. And just because most people have forgotten about it doesn’t meant that all of us have forgotten about it.
If even one woman involved in the speaking tour was sexually harassed by Shavit during the period that J Street could have alerted her, then J Street has to accept some measure of responsibility.
I know it’s not easy to publicly admit when you’ve made a mistake. But that’s what a mensch would do. Because it’s never too late to come clean. It’s never too late to admit you were wrong.
That’s what J Street’s leaders should be doing. Instead of pointing fingers at political rivals and accusing them of “having a problem with women,” Ben-Ami and company should be looking taking a good, long look in the mirror. That’s where the real problem is—the #MeToo problem that should afflict J Street’s conscience.
Stephen M. Flatow, is an attorney and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terrorism.