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The problem with feminist allies who are also sexual predators
When the guys fighting for women's equality in public are attacking women in private, something is very wrong. Or, what happened when I went to Rabbinical School.
Rabbi Sally Priesand is heartbroken. As America’s first female rabbi, she has, by definition, needed a lot of men to get to where she is today. And some of those men, we all found out last week, while enabling her to break a particular stained-glass ceiling, were also sexual predators.
Take Rabbi Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, a man whose name was practically synonymous with the Reform Movement, who could open doors and determine policy and make or break careers. At the time of his death, then HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson called him “our beloved mentor and teacher…a builder and pioneer of Reform Judaism and a champion of the Jewish people. An advocate for women’s rights in Judaism….the architect of the College-Institute’s campuses in Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, and Cincinnati…..he devoted his life to regenerating Jewish life and learning…..enormous contributions to the shaping of contemporary Judaism for over six decades will endure as a sacred legacy and a source of inspiration.”
What Rabbi Ellenson — whose wife Rabbi Jacqueline Ellenson I deeply respected as the head of the Women’s Rabbinic Network at the time — failed to mention was that Gottschalk was also a misogynistic, womanizing, sexual abuser. (Did he know? That is the big question.)
According to The HUC report on sexual abuse that came out last week Gottschalk engaged in the following predatory behaviors:
Dr. Gottschalk allegedly invited women to his apartment or hotel room, usually under the guise of some academic purpose, only to proposition the student and touch or kiss them.
For example, one witness told us that while she was studying in Jerusalem in the mid-1970s, Dr. Gottschalk “summoned” her to his apartment. She stated that he offered her a drink and subsequently took her hand and placed it on his penis. He allegedly told the student, “Look what you do to me,” referring to his erection…..
Another witness [said he]… pushed her up against the wall and tried to kiss her. She said that she pushed him away and told him that she had to go, but he grabbed her by the arm and pinned her again against the wall and tried to put his tongue down her throat. She said she escaped and ran downstairs to her apartment. The next day, she stated that he called repeatedly, sent flowers, and asked her when she was coming back to see him.
Another alumna told us that….Dr. Gottschalk would invite the student to his apartment, tell her how lonely he was without his wife, and put his hands on her knees or across her shoulder……[He] wrapped his arms around her and asked, “Don’t you want to stay? You can help me feel better and make me less lonely.”
[Another reported that] when Dr. Gottschalk presented her with her doctorate certificate at graduation, he “planted a big, lingering kiss on [her] mouth.” She said no one spoke to her about it and she never mentioned it to anyone. She said, “It was like everyone went blind.”
He was everywhere. In positions of power throughout the movement. Preying on women for years, even decades.
This information is hard for Rabbi Priesand to process. She has held him in high esteem for fifty years, considered him a great feminist ally who opened the door for her and all the women rabbis after her. “I am genuinely brokenhearted that the seminary with which I have been so closely associated for more than five decades has failed so abysmally to listen to its faculty and students,” she wrote in the Forward. “I regret that so much pain has been inflicted and so little assistance for healing has been offered. This is contrary to our profession which is supposed to set an example for others.”
The secret lives of feminist allies
This story highlights one of the great paradoxes in the movement to advance gender equality and to create a world in which women can thrive. So often, the men who use their positions to help women are the very same men who make women suffer in some of the most appalling ways.
For many years I thought of this as the quintessential Bill Clinton problem. Clinton advanced gender equality in some vital policy-centered ways, and perhaps most significantly by supporting his wife, Hillary, in her ambition to have a real seat around the table in decision-making and politics. He remains the only president since probably FDR to view his wife as a genuine intellectual equal worthy of an equal place in politics. (Yes, more than Obama. But that is a topic for a separate blog.) Bill Clinton did this in public while at the same time, in private, he was an outrageous womanizer, possibly rapist, and potential pedophile in Jeffrey Epstein’s orbit. His personality is a great paradox for women.
But it’s not just Bill Clinton. Convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein supported progressive and feminist causes while assaulting and raping dozens of high-profile women. Many of the 200+ men who have lost their positions since #MeToo were associated with progressive and feminist outlooks, like Charlie Rose and others. One of the most notable stories, which I mentioned here last week, was the case of former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – the man who, by day, was a savior of women, prosecuting men who choked women, and by night was a man who choked women.
When the men who hurt women are also the ones who position themselves as “allies”, we have a problem. It’s more than just a conundrum. It’s tormenting.
I have faced this many times…