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Op-eds

When to #MeToo

  • Howard Feldman 2018
“So Graham, the guitar teacher, patted me on the back today. Felt weird,” said my 13-year-old daughter. It was Friday night at the Shabbat dinner table, and we were having a rare evening with just four of us at home.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Feb 15, 2018

“Unless his hand was under your shirt and not over it, you don’t get to tweet #MeToo. Got it?” I responded. Her eyes rolled. Her hand waved. Her head shook slowly from side to side. She didn’t approve of my response.

“What’s #MeToo?” asked my 16-year-old son. Clearly, no one had discussed this on the volleyball court.

I explained about the movement to eliminate sexual assault and abuse in some detail, and I could see that it was vaguely familiar to him. But not that interesting. He returned to dissecting the top of the challah with his soup spoon.

Back to my daughter. “And when some guys whistle at me on the way to school, what is that?” I wasn’t sure. “An outing for the blind?” said her brother, not looking up. It was my wife’s turn to roll her eyes.

And in truth, I find it very confusing. Because at a religious Jewish school, Graham the back patter’s behaviour might be out of line, but in other environments it might not be.

And if I am confused as to how to respond, then what can I expect of my children?

The #MeToo campaign is an important one. It has served to expose the horror of abuse that prevailed in Hollywood in particular. Why there was a conspiracy of silence for so long and what responsibility the industry itself needs to take for this is another matter. Both are vital questions and neither has been adequately dealt with.

Some explanation as to why they have not been aired is perhaps because of fear of the danger of appearing to award any responsibility to an industry that has worshipped the physical over pretty much all else. And because if the industry is at fault, then the fingers point in all directions and not only at the perpetrator.

What is clear to me is that context is critical. Each environment has differing standards of acceptability. Actress Uma Thurman, for example, spoke about being abused by Harvey Weinstein twice in his hotel room. And whereas there is no excuse for Weinstein’s behaviour at all, one does have to wonder why Thurman landed up in his hotel room a second time after what had occurred the time before that.

I am also reasonably certain that in Hollywood, no one would repeat to their family that Graham patted them on the back.

It is a real challenge for parents who are attempting to raise men and women who understand boundaries and respect others. Especially when we straddle different worlds. Observant Jews are given rules that provide guidelines to what is and what is not acceptable, but the reality is that we don’t live in a purely observant environment. And that doesn’t take into account that there are those who might appear religious on the outside, but are equally as dangerous as someone who has the appearance of a sexual predator.

The answer, although imperfect, might be as follows: Religious guidelines might help to safeguard sexual abuse situations. There is little doubt that by not being alone in a room with a male, the chances of abuse are reduced. By not being in a situation where messages might be mixed, the likelihood of an uncomfortable situation is further diminished. But that doesn’t mean that should a person not adhere to the strict laws of halacha, that that translates to abuse.

In short, we have to be clear what is a religious requirement and what is societal. And as uncomfortable as that might be, and as counter intuitive as it is, if we are to function in a mixed society, we need to understand that there is a distinction. Whether we like it or not.

Graham, the guitar teacher, might not be religious or even Jewish. And whereas it would be great if he understood the nuances of an observant Jewish environment, he cannot be judged on a system that falls completely outside his experience or understanding. It might be a little weird for my daughter, but I am pretty sure she will get over it.

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