Jewish crazy town

Joseph Aaron

It tells you everything you need to know about how fast and furious the crazy is happening these days in the Jewish world, that I began my column last week with the words ‘what in the hell is going on’ and just the next day there was another whole new load of Jewish insanity dumped upon us.

It’s coming so fast, I can’t keep up with it. I write a column last week itemizing the most recent nut stuff going on in the Jewish world and in the week since we last met there was a whole new batch of nut stuff. It doesn’t seem to end.

The week began with the startling, yet in some ways not at all surprising news that one of the most important philanthropists in the Jewish world is a creep, a pervert. Just like so many Jews we’ve learned about in the past year, starting with Harvey Weinstein, going through scores of others and now including Michael Steinhardt.

You might not be familiar with this billionaire’s name, but you almost for sure are with some of what he’s done with his money. He has donated well over $100 million to a whole range of Jewish causes, most prominently as one of the founders of Birthright Israel.

Well, we now know that Steinhardt’s interest in young Jews wasn’t confined to introducing them to the Jewish state. Seven young Jewish women, so far, have accused the megadonor of a pattern of propositioning and making sexually inappropriate remarks to them as they approached him as part of their work in Jewish philanthropy or the arts.

Seven women have come forward to say that “Steinhardt asked them to have sex with him, or made sexual requests of them, while they were relying on or seeking his support.”

Sheila Katz, a vice president at Hillel International, said she was a young executive at Hillel when she was sent to solicit a donation from Steinhardt. Katz said Steinhardt repeatedly asked if she wanted to have sex with him. “Institutions in the Jewish world have long known about his behavior, and they have looked the other way,” Katz said. “No one was surprised when I shared that this happened.”

Deborah Mohile Goldberg, the director of communications for Birthright from 2001 to 2010, said Steinhardt asked her if she and a female colleague would like to join him in a threesome. Goldberg said she reported the incident to Shimshon Shoshani, who was then Birthright’s chief executive. Shoshani said he did not recall Goldberg’s allegations.

Natalie Goldfein, the national program director of Synagogue Transformation and Renewal from 2000 and 2002, said Steinhardt suggested in a meeting “that they have babies together.”  Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, professor of Jewish thought and director of admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said Steinhardt suggested that she become his concubine while he was funding her in a rabbinical fellowship in the mid-1990s.  

Beyond nauseating. But you know it bothers me less what Steinhardt did to these vulnerable young women than how the Jewish world has reacted to the news that Steinhardt is a dirty old Jewish man.

Abraham Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, acknowledged that Steinhardt had a “passion” for matchmaking and programs that encouraged Jews to marry and have Jewish children. “Call it a passion, call it an obsession, call it a perversion. Some may. I don’t — I understand it,” Foxman said.

What the hell is he talking about? Steinhardt asked women to have sex with him, be his concubine, and that shows his passion for matchmaking and for Jews to marry and have Jewish children? Seems that for some Jewish ‘leaders,’ when you are disgusting, you are a pervert, but when you are disgusting and worth a couple billion dollars, you have passion.

Meanwhile, Shoshani, the former Birthright chief executive, said “I appreciate him very, very much. Even if there were some comments, about sex, about women, I wouldn’t take it seriously because he made important decisions in other areas concerning Birthright.” Seems asking two young women to engage in a threesome is no big deal if you make big decisions for a Jewish organization.

Meanwhile, Charles Bronfman, the co-founder of Birthright, said that “Michael has his unique sense of humor. He loves to tease males and females, and certainly his very good friends. I can attest to that! Always has. But to conjure up intentions that he never had or has is more than a disservice. It’s downright outrageous!”

Truly outrageous and very shameful is that not one of the Jewish organizations currently receiving funding from Steinhardt had one peep to say about any of this. Not one condemned it, said it would launch an investigation, indeed not one said one word. Yes, some Jewish organizations did issue statements criticizing Steinhardt’s behavior – but none of those organizations are receiving donations from him.

Indeed, the only group he funds who did take action was a non-Jewish one. NYU Steinhardt said it will be “initiating a review into Mr. Steinhardt’s interactions with NYU students, faculty, and staff.”

Even more nauseating is that Steinhardt’s foundations dismissed the allegations from the seven women saying remarks that women said made them feel debased were made in “jest.”

The article in the New York Times that reported the story about the seven women “goes out of its way to leave the false impression that Michael propositioned a handful of women,” according to a statement signed by Steinhardt’s son David and lay and professional leaders of his two main philanthropies.  The statement acknowledges that “Michael’s sense of humor can be insensitive “To characterize provocative remarks made in jest and in group settings as actual propositions intentionally distorts the context as well as Michael’s intent — in order to fabricate something that never happened.”

“Michael is an equal-opportunity teaser — teasing men and women alike,” the statement asserts.

Yes, he’s just a teaser, asking women for sex was all in jest, though none of the seven women seemed to find it at all funny. And I guarantee you there will be more women who come forward.

Every time I think things have gotten as crazy as possible in the Jewish world, along comes something crazier like billionaire macher Michael Steinhardt and his truly disgusting behavior, not condemned by any Jewish organization he donates to, indeed defended and flicked away by machers like Charles Bronfman and Abe Foxman.

While there are so many other nutty news stories I could mention, I just one to talk about one other so I’m caught up before the next wave comes.

When it comes to the issue of gender separation on buses, Israel is worse than the Nazis, a leader of a haredi Orthodox political party in Israel said at a campaign rally.

Rabbi Aviezer Piltz, who is prominent in the right-wing United Torah Judaism party, and heads a yeshiva in southern Israel, criticized Israel for not allowing gender separation on buses.

“Start to organize, to ride separately,” he said at the event in the haredi enclave of Bnei Brak. “It’s forbidden to travel on gender-separate buses. Is there a state in the world where they don’t allow [gender] separation on buses? Apart from this country, here they don’t allow it. This is a state of idol worship. Even the Nazis, may their names be erased, knew that there should be separate living quarters for men and women.”

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that gender separation on public buses is illegal. Private bus services can have separate seating and there are such bus services running between haredi communities.

Holocaust scholar Efrain Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that Piltz’s comments were “unfortunate.” “I’m hoping that he didn’t really want to convey a message that Israeli society is worse than the Nazis,” Zuroff said. “That a rosh yeshiva could say something like that is shocking and unacceptable.”

And yet such statements are par for the course in how Israelis talk, especially how Israeli rabbis/politicians talk.

When will we stop with the Holocaust comparisons? They should never ever be used by anyone for any reason, most especially never by a Jew, most especially never by a rabbi. The Holocaust was a singular event in world history and the memory of its six million victims so sacred, its impact so profound, that it should never be desecrated by being used to make a political point.

Especially to defame Israel and its policies.

But if the Holocaust is going to be used to make a political point, I much prefer the way it was used recently by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, and Netanyahu’s chief competitor in the upcoming Israeli elections.

Gantz said if elected, he would expand organized prayer access to the Western Wall for non-Orthodox streams, something Bibi promised to do but then reneged on. Gantz told the annual AIPAC policy conference that the Jerusalem holy site could accommodate all Jews.

“In Bergen Belsen, no one asked who is Reform and who is Conservative, who is Orthodox and who is secular,” Gantz said. “Before going into battle I never checked to see who had a kippah under their helmets. … The Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone.”

The rabbi praised the Nazis by saying at least they knew to separate the genders, his intent being to criticize the Jewish state and Jews not like him. Gantz made the point that we are all Jews, that the Nazis didn’t differentiate between us, and so we should learn from that to be united with and respectful of each other.

A rabbi praising Nazis over Israel. I ask again, as I did last week, what in the hell is going on with us?

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