Q: I am an Orthodox Jewish girl, and the recent exposure of Jewish sexual harassers worries me. Are Jews disproportionately sexual predators – Is there something about Judaism that causes this behavior? Have so many Jews been exposed to public scrutiny because of anti-semitism, or are Jews the newest minority to be seen as sexually predatory by nature?
A: It may appear that the bulk of sexual predators are Jewish, with names like Harvey Weinstein and Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin and Woody Allen and Anthony Weiner in the news. However, as this saga unfolds, we find Jews don’t have a corner on this market. Men like Clinton, Bush, Trump, Oreskes, Bowie, not to mention more than 40 conservative members of Parliament and Irish sportswriter Tom Humphries, have also captured headlines for sexual misconduct. I’ll bet this is only the tip of the iceberg – this is the list as of mid-November, and I’m sure many more harassment scandals will soon come to light.
I am waiting for the stories about Congress to start emerging (and of course state legislatures for the smaller fry). Bill Clinton was not alone! Yvonne Abrams recently wrote a piece about the climate of harassment at the Massachusetts statehouse.
It may be that our Jewish paranoia is prompting us to put up our antennae and immediately focus on the prominence of Jewish names. We hear these names louder than other names. It may be those who are not Jewish are not focusing on the prevalence of Jewish names; they stand out only to us.
It also may be that since Jews are now seen as the powerful, not the powerless, they are no longer seen as a disadvantaged minority group. At the same time, it’s becoming less acceptable to stereotype communities of color (thank god!). Unfortunately, this makes it seem acceptable to stereotype us. In America these days, “Jew” has become synonymous with Wall Street. Once “Jews have all the money, Jews control the government,” is once again seen as a truth, “Jews are sexual predators” doesn’t seem so off-base. But just look at the #MeToo – predation knows no religious, racial, or cultural bounds.
The problem is that we are 2.2 percent of the adult population of the United States, but there is a preponderance of Jews in Hollywood, and in the media in general – where many of the newly-revealed predators seem to be concentrated.
We are also disappointed because we thought we were better than others. We like to think assault only happens in other communities. Even when HUSH came out several years ago discussing abuse in Ultra-Orthodox and Chassidic communities, many Jews proclaimed, “They’re not us!” Many chose to see those communities as other, rather than questioning their own kehilah, congregation. Now that secular Jews are being accused, all Jews need to be discomfited: It is too easy to pretend these issues only occur in “hushed” societies. It is imperative to acknowledge that this happens everywhere and anywhere, from the bedazzled world of Hollywood to the synagogues of modern orthodoxy to the homes of Haredim and Hassidim. It’s not JUST a Jewish problem, but it IS a Jewish problem.
This is an opportunity for communal self-reflection. There is an excellent article on e-Jewish Philanthropy advising community organizations on how they might stop “abhorrent and unacceptable” behavior.
If we look at community practices from a secular or outsider perspective, questions arise: Do dress codes help preserve young girls’ modesty, or do they prematurely sexualize them?
We might also ask if dividers between men and women during prayer help prevent sexualization, or increase it? Do the dividers maintain a dignified distance, or is separate not equal? Does our focus on modesty and preservation of purity protect our girls, or does it place blame on them? Do our shomer negiah rules, which prohibit men and women from touching, help prevent assault, or help us avoid talking about it? When we tell people not to touch because of Halacha, are we avoiding actually teaching our children to respect others’ boundaries? What does it do a woman’s psyche to see herself as a potentially corrupting influence. her whole life? And what does it do to the way men see their female peers?
A couple of years ago, when I was in Israel, I sat down on a bus next to a man in a kippah and tzitzit. When I sat next to him, he jumped out of his seat. I could feel his fear that I would somehow ignite his sexual passion. Was I too odious or too alluring? Either way, he moved to the back of the bus.
In America, there is a tension between our Jewish and secular worlds. Whether you prioritize one or the other, our task is to make sure each of us are safe.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org