Purim: The festival of sexual harassment?

He appeared out of nowhere. Two female friends and I were getting ready to leave after a fun evening out with friends at a Jerusalem wine festival. Sitting around a table near the coat stands as the inebriated revellers made for the exit, I offered to do the chivalrous thing and told my friends to stay put while I got their coats for them. Upon my return, I set my bag down, looked up and noticed that a young yeshiva student was now engaging Hannah* in conversation. I didn’t pay too much attention, and the two chatted for a minute or so. And then it happened – without warning, he suddenly leaned in, grabbed my friend’s face, and tried to kiss her. Instinctively, she pulled back and cried out: “No!” while awkwardly smiling. Rejected, Romeo did not protest too much; he might have offered a quick apology – I can’t remember – and sauntered away, over to the coat stand.

The whole incident took less than two seconds. It’s the kind of thing that happens countless times each night in bars and pubs and parties around the world. It’s something that women live with, and most men don’t even think about.

As we walked back to our neighbourhood, Hannah remarked about how revolted she was by this “drunk yeshiva boy,” how violated she felt, how indignant it made her that a total stranger could feel so entitled.The most troubling aspect to me is not the actual act of attempting to kiss a woman without her permission. Much worse was the man’s reaction to being rejected – one that exuded a totally blasé attitude to the fact that he had just sexually harassed someone, just violated her personal space, just made her feel ashamed and, only much later, once she had wrapped her head around what happened, outraged. There was no proper apology, as if one could have justified his actions or atoned for them. What wasn’t communicated in words was expressed in his silence, in his body language and in his casual retreat. “Never mind,” his reaction screamed. “It didn’t work with this one – plenty more fish in the sea.” It betrayed a certain belief, “I can do what I want.” A woman’s consent is irrelevant.

I don’t know this particular individual and can’t make assumptions as to what he’s like when sober. I certainly hope that he’s normally far more respectful to women and to others. On a larger scale, though, I cannot help but note the wider phenomenon of men ingesting alcohol and, emboldened by feelings of invincibility, moving in on women.

“For the most part, people manage to avoid drink-driving. People get drunk, but don’t drink-shoplift, drink-steal, and most of us don’t brawl when drinking. But give a man a beer and put him near women, and the Neanderthal has a tendency to emerge.”

What really bothered me was that the offender was a yeshiva bachur. A young man spending his days learning Torah. An American on his gap year(s), using his time out to study Judaism and become a better Jew.

Memories of years in yeshiva race through my head. Images of drunken yeshiva bochurim on Purim, standing on chairs and ranting about bringing the mashiach now, about doing more mitzvot, being kinder to other Jews, about ceasing to hate. All good thoughts, in truth, but still inane, drunken rambling. Purim was a time of exuberant spiritual highs for some – and revoltingly base behaviour for others. The image of a revered “Shana Bet” student who dropped his trousers and stood like an imbecile in his boxers in front of my Rabbi’s wife seared irrevocably in my mind. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem, countless drunken revellers excelling at what drunken revellers do – acting stupid and thinking themselves cool.

It’s often said that to be religious is to live in a bubble. Going through the Jewish educational system, I didn’t have any sex education classes. What I know on the subject came from my parents, books and the internet. I didn’t have enough education about the dangers of smoking or of taking drugs. I also didn’t have much of an education or much experience with alcohol. My experience is a very typical one. The prevalent attitude is that one simply shouldn’t be doing these things at all. The possibility that good Jewish boys and girls would experiment with sex, drugs and rock and roll was ignored.

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI) writes in its 2013 report that it received over 40,000 calls over the previous year. The true number of women affected by sexual and physical abuse is surely much higher. While catcalling, office groping and unwanted attention in nightclubs may not linger long in the memory of the perpetrators, nor may such incidents be dwelled upon for long by women if they have repeatedly been exposed to them, they certainly leave an indelible mark on the psyche.

Men need to know that if they decide to get drunk, that’s their choice. However, being drunk does not mean that acting in an inappropriate way is okay. It does not make harassment acceptable. Yeshivas should make the following points clear to their students: This Purim, if you choose to get drunk, remember your values. Don’t think you can do whatever you feel like doing. The law still applies to you. If that might sound like a vacuous statement to make, let me assure you it’s not. For the most part, people manage to avoid drunk-driving. People get drunk, but don’t drink-shoplift, drink-steal, and most of us don’t get brawl when drinking. But give a man a beer and put him near women, and the Neanderthal has a tendency to emerge. Like sex education and drugs education, we need to understand that etiquette and common decency are values that need to be reaffirmed through education and an environment in which these things are discussed.

So while Yankele might be a good boy and comes from a fine Jewish home, be aware that as a sexually frustrated young man living in the all-male yeshiva environment, it’s vitally important for him to be reminded of his good values. Without proper guidance, too many youngsters get drunk and act wholly inappropriately. I expect that the family and acquaintances of the young man who harassed my friend would be shocked were they to know of his actions. So if you know someone studying in yeshiva, consider the bigger picture and send them a link to this article. Drink this Purim, if you wish. I will do so myself. But for those who insist on getting drunk to the point of being unable to distinguish between charmingly courting a lady and creepily hitting on her, please consider your religious and moral values. This Purim, it’s our responsibility to send out a message that some behaviour is simply unacceptable.

*Hannah is a fictitious name.

About the Author
Emanuel Miller is Marketing and Content manager for HonestReporting, an organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media.
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