For the last two years, Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit spoke at dozens of college campuses around the country and for Hillel International. This was before American journalist Danielle Berrin accused Shavit of sexual misconduct, igniting ongoing discussions about sexual harassment in Jewish campus communities.To recap, soon after the accusation, J Street disinvited Shavit from a speaking engagement.
“J Street is profoundly disturbed about the recent accusation of sexual assault against the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit,” read J Street’s statement. “This is just one more example of the horrifying epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our society and around the world.”
Berrin said Shavit tried to force her to kiss him in a hotel lobby in 2014.
“For years I did not understand what people meant when they spoke of privileged men who do not see the damage that they cause to others,” Shavit said in an interview with The New York Times. “Now, I am beginning to understand.”
A now 29-year-old J street staff member also came forward to accuse him after hearing Berrin’s story.
“Her [Berrin’s] interaction with him up until the part he grabbed her head feels like mine,” the staffer anonymously told The Forward.
J Street knew about the incident and, although they stopped hosting Shavit as a speaker, they did not inform other organizations, like Hillel, which continued to host him. Shavit also continued to attend events co-sponsored by J Street’s campus organization, J Street U, until Berrin’s claim three years later.
Despite their silence, J Street supported the J street staffer and her decision to come forward.
“We took concrete steps to support the staffer at the time and to protect all of the members of our staff from future abuse,” said J Street in their statement. “We stand 100 percent behind our staff member now in her decision to make her story public.”
The issue has raised questions, however, about whether Jewish organizations are responsible for alerting each other about sexual misconduct, particularly when campus organizations are involved.
As a result, campus voices have explained the incident and J Street’s quiet reaction as part of a larger problem.“I just do not think that the issue [sexual harassment] has been addressed well within our community. There is an idea of the ‘nice Jewish boy or girl’ that allows people to look at our community as an exception,” said Holly Wertman in an email interview with New Voices. As a student, Wertman formerly led JFem, the Jewish feminist student group at UC Berkeley.
“We have failed to create a community of consent, where people feel safe so call out sexual violence, under the trope that sexual assault ‘just doesn’t happen’ in the Jewish community.”
Jewish professors are also discussing this issue in response to Shavit. “I don’t want this to be understood as an accusation against J Street,” said Dartmouth College Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel, who previously critiqued the organization for its quiet reaction in The Forward. “There are just too many women who have told me that they’ve experienced horrific situations. They [Berrin and the J Street staffer] are just one example, and there could have been hundreds of others.”
Berrin’s confession about Shavit was inspired by the multiple women who accused President-elect Donald Trump of assault.
“We focus on Ari Shavit because that was a very concrete example…” said Heschel. “We do have a problem that is not limited to the Jewish world, but if we’re speaking as Jews, we have to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Within campus Jewish communities, Shavit’s behavior – and his speech circuit at universities two years after – continues to raise questions about how Jewish campus institutions can foster consent culture.
For Wertman, JFem has been a solution, a student organization that allows Jewish women to come together and talk about issues in their community.
“On many college campuses, the existence of Jewish fraternities allows for spaces within our religious communities that exclude women, just as female voices have historically been excluded from definitive conversations that have shaped Judaism as we know it today,” said Wertman.
“Simply having a space where Jewish women can congregate, discuss these disparities, and empower each other has drawn more women to Jewish (campus) spaces…”
Nicole Zelniker is a senior at Guilford College. She is an English major from New York and the rising editor in chief of her college newspaper, The Guilfordian.