Sexual Assault, Feminism, and the Jews
In the last few days and weeks, dozens of women have come forward accusing Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, and in some cases, rape. Many of these women are actors whose experiences of sexual violence originate when they were getting their start in Hollywood. Although we might be tempted to limit the scope of this kind of abuse to the “casting couch,” where women’s bodies are frequently objectified for the movie screen, these accusations against Weinstein have inspired a million women to retweet the #metoo hashtag and reveal their own experiences of sexual assault.
The popularity of the #metoo hashtag reveals that sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are not limited to Hollywood, nor are wealthy men in positions of power the only perpetrators, despite the fact that these are often the stories that make headlines. A year ago, we learned that then presidential candidate Trump admitted to “Grab[bing] [women] by the pussy.” Since then, Bill Cosby was brought to trial for the accusations of sexual assault against him as well. Now with the accusations against Weinstein, we might be tempted, once again, to ignore the pervasiveness of sexual violence by focusing on these high-profile cases.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of these high-profile cases. Head of Amazon studios, Roy Price, resigned on October 17, 2017 after he was accused of sexual harassment. Cases like these tempt us to decry the way the wealthy abuse their power over their employees, or the way women are objectified in Hollywood. Commentators tend to focus on the seeming unique aspects of these cases instead of realizing that sexual assault, harassment, and violence are widespread problems in our society.
Accusations against Harvey Weinstein have spurred some writers to make a particularly problematic association between Weinstein’s Jewish identity and his non-Jewish victims. Mark Oppenheimer, a journalist who authored the “Beliefs” column in the New York Times from 2010-2016, recently published an analysis for Tabletmag.com titled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein.” In his piece, Oppenheimer describes Weinstein as a “deeply Jewish kind of pervert.” Oppenheimer compares Weinstein’s fantasies of fame and fortune and his struggle to maintain them to Philip Roth’s description of the Jewish American man’s anxiety in the twentieth century, “finally coming into power but, having not grown up with it, unsure of what he’s supposed to do now. All those years craving unattainable Gentiles, but never before the means to entice them.” Oppenheimer later issued an apology for this analysis, but the damage has been done, as he aligned Weinstein’s actions as a sexual predator with Weinstein’s Jewish identity.
Oppenheimer pointed out that only one of Weinstein’s accusers was Jewish, a point that Mayim Bialik follows up on with her op-ed in the New York Times on October 13th. Bialik, an actor with a PhD in neuroscience and best known for her roles on Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, opines that one of the reasons she was never sexually assaulted in Hollywood is because she entered the “Hollywood machine” as a “prominent-nosed awkward, geeky, Jewish 11-year-old.” She repeats later on that she was consistently teased for her nose, again a reference to her Jewish identity. Mayim explains that while the industry preyed on “pretty girls,” she was not one of them. Bialik’s op-ed continues with a healthy does of victim-blaming, as she explains why she has never been the victim of sexual assault: “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” In other places, Bialik has spoken about the modesty she maintains due to her Orthodox observance of Judaism, making it seem that it was her religious identity that enabled her to avoid the sexual harassment prominent in Hollywood.
As a ten-year-old Jewish girl, I relished watching the TV show, Blossom. Mayim Bialik played the main character, an Italian-American teenage girl living with her father and two older brothers. I’m not great at knowing the names of the actors who play the characters I like on TV, but I knew Mayim’s name because it means “water” in Hebrew. Every time Blossom came on TV, my mom and I would point at Mayim and scream, “She’s Jewish!” with the excitement that comes from seeing someone like you in a position of fame.
But Bialik is wrong about her Jewish features protecting her from sexual harassment. As a young Jew with a big nose and dark curly hair, I was subject to harassment about my body. And as a college-aged Jew with the same features I experienced sexual assault. Finally, as an adult Jewish woman who has not made any major modifications to her appearance, my body has been the object of harassment. Bialik’s op-ed in the times does not make me proudly proclaim, “She’s Jewish,” but instead, “she’s dead wrong.”
She’s wrong (and so is Oppenheimer) because of what happened to me, but also because the perpetrator’s religion does not predict his predilection to assault, nor does the religion of the victims make it any more or less likely that they will be abused. In 2014, we learned that Rabbi Barry Freundel filmed dozens of women who were preparing for their immersion in the mikvah. Freundel has been found guilty of 52 counts of voyeurism due to installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the preparation room. There, women undressed and showered before participating in one of the most modest rituals of Judaism. After refraining from sexual contact with their husbands for two weeks following the start of their menstrual cycle, many observant Jewish women clandestinely visit the ritual bath at night (so as to maintain their sexual modesty). Freundel invited himself into this privately-observed ritual to watch Jewish women undress and shower.
To Mark Oppenheimer, I ask: how does your analogy work when Freundel peeped on Jewish and non-Jewish women in the process of converting? Was he also more likely to commit these kids of sexual violations because of his Jewish identity? Or is that completely irrelevant because his victims were also Jewish?
And to Mayim Bialik, I wonder: how do you explain why these women were the victims of sexual assault? Were these women flaunting their sexuality in the privacy of the mikvah preparation room? Surely you don’t think so because you have written about your own mikvah experiences with affection. How, then, can we account for Freundel’s actions?
Oppenheimer and Bialik (and so many others) want to find unique, specific reasons why some people are predators and others are victims. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, they tried to blame the abuse on the inter-communal relationships between Jews and non-Jews. But religious identity is no more a predictor of sexual abuse than is the way a woman dresses or acts. Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power and authority in our society, expressed through sex and bodily objectification.
Many different kinds of people commit sexual violence and many different kinds of people are victims of this violence. Everyone must speak out against it and in support of the victims. There are no excuses, no religious veils or identities to hide behind, and there are no good reasons why it does or does not happen to you. As long as we try to find unique sources of blame by focusing on high-profile cases, we will be ignoring the millions of victims who have come forward to discuss their experiences and show us that we must all be vigilant about ending this pervasive problem.