Why It Was So Hard to Say #MeToo and What I Learned When I Finally Did

Keren R. McGinity

METOO by Prentsa Aldundia, 2018, via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.Illustration idea courtesy of the author.

I thought “me too” from the moment I first read the words in October 2017. But I did not say them or post them on social media. I wanted to, but I could not give myself permission to add my voice to the growing numbers. I thought about my experiences of being touched without my consent, searching for clues. I went over each incident in chronological order. All were evidence of the patriarchy that made men think they had an inalienable right to women’s bodies. When I got to the most recent incident, however, I stopped in my mental tracks. It was someone many people knew, someone whose research and writing had shaped a tenacious narrative, and that made it different from the rest.

As I wrote in a June 2018 op-ed for the Jewish Week,

It happened at a conference of a prestigious Jewish organization several years ago. An older, married man used his seniority to lure me to dinner with the promise of professional guidance. I suggested we go someplace nearby the venue and invite other people to join us. He vetoed both of those ideas....

He took me to a candle-lit Italian restaurant that was entirely unsuitable for an ostensibly professional meeting. He peppered me with personal questions about my love life. He reached across the table and took my hand in his. I could not get out of that restaurant and back to the conference hotel fast enough. But despite my obvious discomfort, he persisted in accompanying me into the elevator and up to my floor. I should have insisted on parting ways in the hotel lobby. But he is a leader in his field and I was afraid to offend him.

I firmly said “good night,” told him that he did not have to walk me back to my room, and turned to walk away when he suddenly wrapped his arms around me, pressed his body against mine, and forcefully kissed my neck in a way that only lovers should. I broke free and ran to my room, reeling from what had just happened. I felt violated and betrayed. Adding to my wound, he texted me the next day as if he had not done anything wrong.

{Editors’ note: An investigative reporting piece in the Jewish Week that was published a month later revealed that the man in question was Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist and leader in the Jewish communal world.}

I knew what he did was not kosher, that I had been mistreated, but women are socialized to not make waves and I was a product of that patriarchal brainwashing. Multiple factors contributed to my initial silence. He was older, tenured, and significantly more powerful. The interconnectivity of Jewish academia and community combined with the perpetrator’s status meant that saying #MeToo would draw attention to an abuse of power in the Jewish community in general and Jewish Studies in particular. If I spoke out, I thought I would bring shame to the community in which I worked, a community that I loved. The ideas that the Jewish people are one big family, that we are responsible for one another, and that we should not speak ill of each other kept a muzzle on me. It did not occur to me then that speaking out is consistent with Jewish values and academic integrity.

As I read more #MeToo articles, a sense of urgency began to well up inside me, compelling me to do something. Six years after the incident with Cohen, I read an article in the Jerusalem Post that opened a door I had not known existed. It was as if the question in the title, “When Will US Jews Confront Sexual Harassment and Other Abuses of Power?” was directed to me. Author Rafael Medoff, a Holocaust historian, argued that Jews should strongly encourage people to step forward about their experiences and contact his Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership “to discuss what can be done.” It felt like a clarion call to end my silence and to disallow someone who had acted so unethically from continuing to lead Jewish Studies and the community. It took six more months and many baby steps before my words became public.

What I learned when I finally spoke truth to power fills me with amazement and hope for all who have suffered, for Jewish Studies, and for the Jewish community. The academic leaders in whom I confided that I had written a soon-to-be-published #MeToo piece took immediate action to protect other women by disinviting Cohen from speaking on campus and writing a #WeToo blog expressing solidarity. Within hours after my story went live I was inundated with an overwhelming deluge of kindness, support, and gratitude. I received emails and texts from individuals who had been harassed by Cohen and by other perpetrators, and also from bystanders who wished they had been upstanders. Their experiences ranged from recent to decades old, triggered by learning about my story. In some cases, they had not told anyone before. I became a keeper of dark secrets, a human vault.

The voluminous response made me realize how significantly the #MeToo movement was in changing attitudes that could influence the trajectory of Jewish Studies. The days when people brushed off inappropriate behavior as “Steve just being Steve” were coming to an end. Women who complained about him years earlier had been told: he has a family, and dragging his name through the proverbial mud would ruin his career. Fortunately, in 2018, not a single person indicated anything similar to me. Once I used my voice, Cohen’s near-daily postings on the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry listserv ceased. Two months after I went public, and four weeks after a journalist’s exposé, the Title IX investigation ended with his resignation from Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. By saying #MeToo, I learned that genuine feminists—of all gender identities—support each other because they can see and handle the truth. Traveling in Israel over the summer gave me the opportunity to meet Shulamit Magnus, a professor emerita of Jewish history from Jerusalem who serves on the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership. She shared her shock and anger; Cohen had been a longtime friend. But there was zero hesitation on her part to condemn his behavior and support me for coming forward. We walked through the Old City. I had never visited the Kotel at night. Shulamit spotted an opening in the crowd and generously steered me into it. I placed my hands and forehead on the ancient stones, welcoming their coolness. I surprised myself and wept for what seemed like a long time. Exhaustion, fear, and relief flowed out of my eyes and down my cheeks. The throng of female worshippers felt comforting. I was not alone.

The most important lesson I learned is that I am resilient and pliable, as are Jewish Studies and the community. Although gatekeepers like Cohen have influenced my career, I persisted; I kept researching, publishing, teaching, and serving. When someone betrays us or betrays our values, such as ethical conduct and mutual respect, we can choose to evolve rather than enable patriarchy. In the process, individuals will unburden their hearts and minds, organizations and institutions will rid themselves of the unrighteous and their toxic behavior, growing stronger as a result. Jewish Studies and the many communities scholars serve will be enriched by a greater diversity of perspectives that generate new research questions and intellectually nuanced findings that inform communal priorities.

Sexual misconduct and abuses of power are part of patriarchy’s legacy that reinforces structural inequalities and inequities. Let us prevent them from happening in the first place by redistributing power, creating checks and balances, encouraging transparency, and holding all accountable.