Sexual Harassment: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff?

There are rarely times I am dumbfounded by an editorial, but this one leaves me wondering. Today Herb Kenon wrote an editorial: “Analysis: Eshel case will fade, but questions remain”. He seems to presume that Eshel has gone only because he is a liability; R. must be silent because she wasn’t really harassed since she refused to file a complaint or testify; and the three people who filed complaints against him will be fired because they betrayed a long time friend of Netanyahu. Then he asks:

… is this really the time the prime minister wants to conduct a major overhaul in his office? This type of intrigue and politics obviously casts a shadow and leaves scars, and it is coming at a most inopportune moment for the country. At a time like this, the prime minister needs an inner circle he can trust, one that works harmoniously. The last thing he needs is to sweat the small stuff. So even though Eshel is going, and even though the story will now fade away, the more important question remains: Who will replace him and can that individual put Netanyahu’s office in order so the prime minister can focus on running the country, not minding the staff?

Without a doubt, it is time to move forward and focus on rebuilding Netanyahu’s team, but what of any of this is small? What is curious about a victim keeping silent? As any one who works with those traumatized by stalking, rape, chronic sexual harassment, and other abuses of power and relationship knows, silence is the norm. Police often struggle to get the cooperation of victims even when they have a strong case. Whether victim or bystander, speaking out is hard.

Organizations commonly turn the other way when faced with the sexual misbehavior of members. Then vainly hope that no harm will come to the organizations mission. Or they fear spreading false rumors and besmirching the reptuation of a seemingly good man. Or they cast aspersion on the victim: she must have deserved it. Even if it is true, she’s not a team player. No one would air dirty laundry if they cared about the team. Or they blame her for not having a tough enough skin, as if harassment is a distasteful norm that no one has a right to complain about.

How many children have been abused because someone felt the effective administration of a school, sports team, or classroom ranked above a child’s complaint of violation? How many women (and men) have suffered because a boss took liberties with their position?

At the end of the day, the silence is fueled by the belief that the suffering of an individual is in fact “small stuff” relative to the mission of the organization. But is it?

The Cost of Silence

Just last month by Israeli TV commentator, Ayala Hasson , suggested that Eshel’s problems could be solved by moving the woman he was alleged to hae harassed to another office. On the surface it seems like a wonderful compromise. Her suffering is ended by moving to a new workspace. He no longer has the object of temptation in close range.

What most people don’t understand is that invasive behavior like that of which Eshel was accused is not normal male behavior. Eshel insists his behavior wasn’t sexually motivated. Even if some of his actions appeared that way, he is likely right. Usually the motivations behind harassing behavior have little to do with sex, even if they take the outward form of sexual preoccupation

Harassment isn’t caused by the overwhelming attractiveness of a person, but rather something much deeper inside of the harasser. Most men understand that women, just like men, have certain parts of their body that they have a right to keep private. Most men past the insanity of puberty wouldn’t delude themselves that aggressive efforts to look up a woman’s skirt would win appreciation or love. Nor would they give themselves the right to pinch a female co-workers cheek in passing. Regardless of the truth of the allegations, that Ayala Hasson would equate such behavior to an inappropriate crush (“candy”) is astounding. Even those few men who have no comon sense or social skills, still want to be a part of polite society and manage to control their behavior, lest they violate social norms.

Further, such invasion also violates all religious understanding of sexuality and responsibility. If merely looking with sexual intent at a portion of the body that is normally exposed, e.g. the little finger, is forbidden, (Brachot 24a) surely pinching cheeks and playing photographic peeping Tom is as well? Gazing, touching and photographing are active choices that require initiative, not merely a passing reaction to something seen. Whether talking about the ox that gores or the parapet on the roof, Judaism is unequivocal: we are always responsible for our active choices. When we cause pain, we and not the person we hurt are the ones who pay the price.

We don’t solve the problem of harassing bosses by moving the woman to a new job because the women isn’t at issue. The ox that gores isn’t any less likely to gore because we surround it with people it hasn’t already gored. Goring is in its nature. Until something is done to change that nature, we have to presume the ox and not the people around the ox is the source of the problem.

Similarly, as the story of Moshe Katsav, former President of Israel, illustrates, such men will simply fixate on a new woman. They fantasize that the power of their position and natural skills gives them extraordinary rights over their fellow human beings. They have become highly selective in who they treat as a separate human being with the right to dignity and space and who they treat as an object or prey to be conquered. This selectivity is an illness of the heart, and perhaps the spirit as well. The problem isn’t the women who work with the Eshel and Katsavs of the world, but rather these particular men. They make all men look bad. They make power look bad. They make human beings look bad. And at the end of the day, given that they have both personhood and power, they make God in God’s self look bad. For many people, their understanding of God is profoundly shaped by the actions of the authority figures they deal with throughout life.

There are other prices we pay as well when we have an abuser in our midst, even if the abuser is non-sexual (Eshel says his actions were not sexually motivated). Such a person is a perpetual destroyer of team morale. They cannot lead healthy teams. Any woman who works with them worries about becoming a potential target, even if she isn’t currently in the scopes. Those who work with him are perpetually torn between their conscience and self-preservation. Is there really no spill over into the overall honesty and effectiveness of the team? If Kenon thinks the small stuff is team dynamics, he should look hard the anxiety and social dynamics that typically grow up around abuse.

Further, silence wounds the perpetrator. Eshel needed his friends to tell him he was crossing unacceptable boundaries. He needed his friends to tell him to get help before he destroyed his career or the mission of the team. This is a man who perhaps could have avoided harm to himself, those around him and even to Israel, if only those around him had not stayed silent for so long.

Finally, in these cases, no matter how much pressure is exerted to keep silent, the truth often does come out. As the person goes uncorrected, more and more people are affected by their inappropriate behavior and invasive choices. There are more victims and more bystanders. Eventually someone “caves” to the pain of their experience or the conscience made tender by keeping silent. A report is filed. The press goes to town. People must be summarily fired even if the timing is horrible and they are needed for important projects.

This poor timing could have been avoided. When the organization stays silent and turns the other way, it looses control over the timing. Had Netanyahu and R. colleagues acted when they first saw the abuses, Eshel could have quietly resigned at a time that was less pressured. Even if there was no “good” time to resign, there still could have been an orderly handing over of job responsibilities. There would have been no need to divert resources to damage control with the press. If any portion of the story were to be leaked to the press, the entire situation could have been spun as a tremendous success story for Netanyahu.

A Jewish Act for a Jewish State

The truth comes out because harassment hurts. We can downplay suffering, but that does not make it less. Certainly stories like this fade quickly from the news. However, they do not fade quickly from the lives of those affected. The TV coverage of Naama Margoles and Naomi Mashiach has subsided, but for Naama, Naomi, and their families the story does not end.

The truth comes out because for some conscience becomes unbearable. Silence in the face of wrong challenges our very identity. Conscience isn’t some invention of overly sympathetic or “nice” people. It is a profoundly Jewish act. Speaking up in the case of abuse is commanded by the very earliest layer of our tradition. It stands at the root of our Jewish soul.

The commands are directed at both victims and bystanders alike. For the victim, the Torah tells us that we are not to bear grudges or hold hate in our heart. Rather we are to rebuke wrong-doing. Rebuke places blame where it belongs. (Lev. 19:17-18) Hate is always lost inside the individual. it is ultimately a dead end that holds no one accountable. Rebuke has at least a small chance of effecting change and making a better world.

For the bystander, the Torah tells us that we must speak out about the wrongs we see. We cannot hold ourselves apart, consoling ourselves that what we saw was someone else’s problem. We are not allowed to stay silent when there is a credible reason for concern. We are not allowed to watch people be hurt and stand by doing nothing. As Rambam telss us in his Sefer haMitzvot, N297:

ובאה האזהרה מלהתעכב להצילו באמרו יתעלה: “לא תעמד על דם רעך” (ויקרא יט, טז). ואמרו שגם הכופר עדותו נכלל באזהרה זו, לפי שהוא רואה את ממון אחיו אובד והוא יכול להחזירו לו בכך שיגיד את האמת.

וכבר בא עוד בעניין זה:
אם לוא יגיד ונשא עונו” (שם ה, א),

ולשון ספרא:

מנין אם יודע את לו עדות, שאין אתה רשאי לשתוק עליה?
תל: ‘לא תעמד על דם רעך‘.

You should not stand aside while evil befalls your friend (Lev. 19:16): We have already stated that withholding testimony falls under the rubric of this injunction, since the individual sees the money of his friend being lost, and he is able to recover it for him through the telling over of the truth. [Thus, withholding testimony is a transgression] as it says, If he doesn’t tell, and brings transgression upon himself (Lev. 5:1). And in the language of the Sifra: “From where do we know that if a person knows testimony, that he is not allowed to stay silent? From the Torah in which it is written, You should not stand aside while evil befalls your friend (Leviticus 19:16).” (translation: Jewish Virtual Library)

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff?

So I have to ask, what here is small? What about this story is irrelevant to building Netanyahu’s team? Or the creation of a Jewish state?

A leader is only as good as his team. No leader can do all the work alone. No one can do good work without the truth. If a leader’s team isn’t straight with him, who will be? If there are sick power relationships within the team, how are we to believe that the team will handle their power over the public responsibly?

The real question here isn’t “who will replace Eshel?” but rather “what has Netanyahu and the remaining members of their team learned?”. Did they only learn to spin the news and spit out a liability? Or did they learn a valuable lesson about honesty and mutual accountability, one that maybe will spill over into Israeli politics? We certainly could use a little more bravery and honesty in our leaders. Let us hope this is a start.

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