You Can’t Defend Sexual Harassment By Saying it Was All a Joke

I knew this article was coming. Many of us did. The not-so-secret secret that Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish philanthropist, billionaire, and co-founder of Birthright Israel, has an alleged pattern of sexual harassment towards women went from whispers to a piece in a local Jewish paper to breaking news at the New York Times.

As I read of the many allegations against him in the Times — including repeatedly asking a young executive from Hillel International for sex during a meeting about donations, suggesting a threesome to a Birthright Israel employee and her colleague, and suggesting to one woman it was an “abomination” that someone “who looked like her was not married” — I found myself crying.

I am not prone to fits of emotional fancy. I rarely cry, except for when I do.

I cried for my friend — whose name was in the piece as one of the brave women who came forward with her story. I cried for my other colleagues, whom I’ve worked with and learned from, who were named in the piece — and all the others who were affected but not listed.

I cried, and then I took a deep breath, and I thought about how this could have happened.

The explanations from the phalanx of Steinhardt’s (majority cis-het-white-male) defenders all run along the lines of “it’s just his sense of humor.”

From the Times, we have statements from Steinhardt himself, who sent some quotes along instead of being interviewed:

Mr. Steinhardt declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said he regretted that he had made comments in professional settings through the years “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.” Those comments, he said, were always meant humorously.

Steinhardt’s statement delivery person wrote that none of these accusations were, to paraphrase his words, “serious or credible,” while others brushed off the way he spoke as a personality quirk.

Shimshon Shoshani, who had another claim reported to him in his role of running Birthright, said he supported Steinhardt for the incredible work he did for Birthright.

“Even if there were some comments, about sex, about women, I wouldn’t take it seriously,” Mr. Shoshani said, “because he made important decisions in other areas concerning Birthright.”

Steinhardt’s son David and lay and professional leaders of his two main philanthropies signed a statement saying:

“Michael’s sense of humor can be insensitive, and he has apologized for the unintended bad feelings his remarks have caused.”

So there you have it: a variety of powerful people saying, “Haha, Michael’s so funny, and he teases his friends. It’s no big deal.” 

While Steinhardt’s actions were construed by some (his support squad, if you will) as a funny joke, but interpreted by many as a crossing of a line, even without any forced, physical contact.

It’s reported that Steinhardt has spent $127 million funding projects in the Jewish community. But to what end? An obsession with endogamy? Waving around your boorish sense of humor because it’s so funny when you’re rich and funding good programs? Propositioning enough people that there were seven named and nearly 20 total accounts mentioned in the Times’ reporting alone?

It’s not worth it, and it’s not funny. By not protecting staff members from being treated like they were being paid (in donations) for suffering through any sexual innuendo is inexcusable. You can donate $1 or $1 gazillion dollars — hell, you could be President of these here United States — and it will never be okay for a professional conversation to be packaged with an unsolicited comment about sex, fertility, or any other topic that is off professional lines.

So I’m done. It’s not funny anymore. It never was. Many organizations, Jewish and otherwise, do a great job of addressing sexual harassment claims through investigations and trainings, and I’ve been lucky to work for many like this. There are no excuses for anybody, especially someone as powerful as Steinhardt, to not be subject to the same expectations.

It’s time to check your jokes, check your privilege, and support the people with voices that have been squashed in the community — those people whose voices were silenced for so long because of the big-money donor. To them, none of this is funny. At all.

Sara Beth Berman

Sara Beth Berman (she/her/hers) is a writer, educator, consultant, and advocate. Some of Sara Beth's great loves include her family, Brooklyn, good NY pizza (and honestly, bad NY pizza), summer camp, podcasts, music, books, gender equity, salary transparency, Jewish cultural literacy education, and golf carts.

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