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Trafficking, sexual exploitation, rape … just another ordinary parasha

The prevalence of sexual harassment and mistreatment isn't just a social media hashtag for this week — it has been going on since the time of Abraham

    In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Abraham trafficks Sarah (don’t believe me? Look at the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime definition), not once but twice, to save his own life; Sarah forces her maid of at least 10 years’ service to enter into a sexual relationship with her husband; Lot offers up his two unmarried daughters for the sexual gratification of the entire male population of Sodom in exchange for ensuring his guests’ safety; and, later, Lot is twice plied with alcohol and raped.

    After last week’s media storm covering the widespread nature of sexual harassment and assault, questions abound. Why did Sarah not report Pharaoh to the Cairo Police Authority domestic abuse unit? Even if Sarah forgave her husband his first transgression, why did she not leave him after he trafficked her a second time? If Hagar had worn more modest clothing, would she have been saved from sexual abuse? Why did she not speak up at any point? Did anyone at Lot’s yeshiva ever teach him that, sadly, rapists are often people you know rather than strangers? 

    Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo hashtag must never be last week’s news. If you think that, for the most part, the issues of sexual harassment and assault are less prevalent within the Jewish community, you are wrong. If you think that women and children in the ultra-orthodox community are protected by virtue of strict observance concerning modest clothing and the separation of the sexes, you are wrong. If you think it used to happen ‘back then’ but things have changed and our children are safer, you are wrong.

    The number of Jewish women who have never experienced non-contact harassment – for example, being forced to see a man’s genitalia; being leered at/catcalled; being subjected to inappropriate sexual talk or threats; receiving an unsolicited sexually suggestive photo; being sent an electronic message that includes unsolicited sexual content; walking down a road and being followed by a stranger who tries to engage you in flirtatious talk – is going to be somewhere close to zero. And that’s just the start: women are regularly subjected to wandering hands, groping, being pressed up against on a crowded train or bus.  (Feeling uncomfortable yet?  I hope so.) 

    Some believe this is low level, somehow trivial, because he didn’t rape her or remove her clothes. It’s not. 

    Efforts to avoid sexual harassment perfuse women’s everyday lives, and in many cases adversely affect their mental health. There are Jewish women with life-long eating disorders as a reaction to what they experienced; who have had to give up their family and their community in order to get away from what they experienced; who have struggled to maintain a relationship as a result of what they experienced.

    The Jewish community needs to change the way it deals with sexual harassment. Above all, we need to be absolutely clear that the onus is on our men and boys to change their behaviour, and not on our women and girls to take up less space. Modest clothing does not prevent sexual harassment - just ask any girl wearing school uniform. Drinking soft drinks rather than alcoholic ones does not prevent sexual harassment.  And, in the era of social media, spending your evening ‘quietly’ at home does not prevent sexual harassment.

    Jewish communal organisations must speak out when men - managers, youth leaders, rabbis, donors -  subject others to sexual harassment. It is unacceptable to justify silence by arguing that to raise voices would be lashon hara (gossip) and/or that we shouldn’t be our airing dirty linen in public. It’s not gossip: it’s protecting others from harm, from being exposed to the same behaviour (men rarely harass just the once).  We must encourage, rather than discourage, reporting.

    We must ensure that all Jewish communal bodies have up-to-date policies and procedures in place. Information on the themes of agency, consent and boundary-making can be shared in sermons, staff meetings, and mission statements. 

    We must believe people who come forward to report sexual harassment or assault. Responding to a disclosure with “Are you sure you’re not mistaken?” does enormous damage. Victims must know not only that they can seek redress, but that they will be properly supported through the process.

    We must tell our youth, clearly and consistently: if this happens to you, it is not because of what you wore, what you did, how you look. You weren’t ‘asking for it’; it’s not your fault; you should not feel ashamed. 

    Article after blogpost after tweet gives testament to the fact that those who suffered sexual harassment or assault did not know how to handle the situation, did not have the right words to be able to name the behaviour, did not understand how wrong what was happening to them was, did not know they had the right to speak out, to say no. Jewish schools and youth groups must give young people information to help them define sexual harassment and assault, and also the tools to deal with unwanted sexual attention when it happens. We cannot be prudish, or idealistic. As one Jewish actor implored last week, “do not confuse ignorance with protection”.

    We must teach our girls, explicitly, to look after themselves as well as care for the needs of others. And we must teach our boys about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour: they must be clear that someone else’s attractiveness is not an excuse to assert power or lose control. We must also teach them to speak up when others fail to be respectful. 

    Jewish educators must use our sacred texts as part of their efforts. If you’re looking for a text to facilitate a discussion with teenagers, Lech Lecha seems like a pretty good place to start. The more we bury what is right in front of our eyes, the more we imply to victims that they too must remain silent.  

    We are not obligated to complete the work; but neither are we free to desist from it. If we fail to act now, then we are all complicit.

     

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