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When an interview with a woman becomes sexual harassment

What Racheli Ibenboim went through is shameful to intelligent, upstanding women everywhere

“How to reduce an outstanding professional woman to a sex object.”

That should have been the headline of the article in this week’s Forward which Tuvia Tenenbom interviewed Racheli Ibenboim, an up-and-coming Jerusalem politician who happens to be a Ger hassid. It was supposed to be a profile, but the leering interviewer apparently could not contain himself and it turned into an embarrassing and intrusive peep show.

Before explaining why this interview represented the slimiest element of voyeuristic journalism bordering on sexual harassment, I would just like to tell you who Racheli Ibenboim is. I feel that need to describe her as a person because Tenenbom, in what was meant to be a profile of her, completely neglected to do so.

Racheli Ibenboim is a 28-year-old executive director of the Meir Panim charity organization that, among other things, runs soup kitchens providing over a million meals a year to the needy and homeless. This is a huge operation with a NIS 40 million annual budget. I would have been really interested to hear about her work and her views about issues such as, say, poverty in Israel, social activism, or how she came to be a leader at such a young age.

In case this isn’t a big enough task, Ibenboim ran for the Jerusalem municipal council last year, number three on the Jerusalem Home party list. This is particularly impressive considering that in all of Israel there is apparently only one haredi woman currently sitting on a municipal council – Shira Gergi in Safed – and in fact women generally have only around 15% representation on municipal councils and less than 2% representation in positions of leadership in local politics. So even though she did not actually make it into the council, she is clearly on the path of breaking barriers. To wit, the haredi community must know that Ibenboim is a force of nature because she received a series of threats to pressure her to pull out of the race – yes, actual threats to her person and her family, threats of “excommunication” which is a big deal in the religious world. So she pulled out. Can’t say I blame her.

Her election campaign would have been an interesting topic to ask her about as well: How does a haredi woman decide to break convention and run for political office? And how do you grapple with real threats like that? What insights do you have about the future of Israel and the dynamics of religious power in politics? I would have loved to hear a real interview exploring some of these issues. These are actual stories.

But that’s not what we got. Instead, we had this Tenenbom guy (Who is he anyway? Why do we even allow creeps like this to even be in the same room as powerhouses like Ibenboim?), who could not get past sex. Over and over again he asked her about her sex life, about her wedding night, about “technicalities”. Ew, ew, and ew. Tenenbom, go get yourself a little booth on 42nd street, pay your quarter, pleasure yourself, and leave us out of it.

The good news is that this seems to have infuriated some people. Moredechai Lightstone wrote in the Forward, “How this tabloid-worthy work of voyeurism could ever be considered a legitimate work of journalistic inquiry is beyond me… Is it ever acceptable to sit down with a woman and repeatedly ask her how her wedding night was, in the face of her discomfort and objections, again and again and again?” The blogger Pop Chassid described her as “publicly abused… mocked, made fun of, and pushed to her limits by a man bent on pushing his agenda.” Sarah Tuttle-Singer of TOI, whose wall was ablaze with this story, said, “reading that article made me feel like I was watching someone get violated right in front of me. You could practically see the author leering at her. He waltzed past pure sleaze into the realm of sexism.”

Indeed. So many women have to deal with this kind of demeaning, dismissive attitude every day. Women are constantly facing men who are just incapable of seeing us as anything more than a body. It’s such a constant dynamic that most people don’t even notice. In fact there is a particularly annoying radio spot for road safety currently doing the rounds these days in which a woman tries to give information while a man calls her names. “Why so aggressive?” he asks her. “Oh, you mean you’re serious?” he ponders at the end. I listen to this ad and I cringe. I can’t tell if the writers were trying to criticize this ubiquitous gender dynamic or if they didn’t even realize that what they were imitating is so offensive to women. Yes, women have knowledge, authority, and dignity. But we are constantly – I mean, constantly – having to ward off sexist, abusive and harassing approaches like this.

So, faced with the Tenenboms of the world, what should women like Ibenboim do? There are basically two choices – answer the questions or not answer them. You can see in this interview how she kept trying to change the subject, but he, like all professional predators, kept at it without any regard for her requests or dignity. So she answered the questions.

She could have chosen to be more forceful in putting up boundaries – saying, firmly, “this interview is not about my personal life but about my professional work.” That approach holds the risk of making her seem cold, distant, detached, not personable. When Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, for example, gave an extensive profile interview before the previous election, which painted her as cold and detached because she stuck to her job rather than socializing all day, she was advised to change her image and become more “warm” and “approachable”. She heeded this advice. The next profile, by Dana Spector in Yediot Aharanot, was all about what she cooked and how she felt about her body image. Yes, one of the top leaders in the country was asked about her body rather than about, say, foreign policy (Would anyone ever dare ask Netanyahu how he feels about his body?!)

This is how our society talks to women. (And, yes, even women sometimes do it to other women!) So we are constantly in this unwinnable position. Either expose yourself and let the world gawk at you, your body, your sexuality, and your personal life, or risk being labeled with lots of very unbecoming images.

As Dr. Shani Tzoref, whose writing about sexual harassment last May sparked a wave of conversation among Orthodox feminists in Israel, wrote, ”it is the very nature of sexual intrusion that women feel limited in their ability to say no. They freeze and second-guess themselves. Re-phrase, we freeze and we wonder whether it really is as inappropriate as it seems, or whether we are misunderstanding or doing something wrong. Still today, even very strong women are at a tremendous disadvantage when trying to maintain appropriate comfortable boundaries with respect to sexual intrusion, especially when the situation is set up to make them (us) feel foolish for ‘imagining’ anything inappropriate.” Yes, this happens all the time, every day, constantly.

There are some hard lessons here for women as well for men. Certainly I would like to see women continue practicing how to put up self-protecting boundaries without being punished for that. That’s an important lesson. Women, share less. Invite in less. Don’t be afraid to say no.

But talking about lessons for women is really besides the point and risks entering into the awful territory of victim-blaming. The real lessons here are aimed at men. Men need to practice learning how to see women as real equals in the world, not as sex objects, little girls, or quirky enigmas. That’s the real issue. And newspapers like the Forward should be encouraging portraits of women’s depth, not this body obsession. Let’s expect more of ourselves and train men (and women!) in how to truly respect women.

Friday 21/02/2014 9:45AM

Postscript: After publishing this piece, I contacted Racheli Ibenboim and she had the following two comments to add to this entire account:

(1)  Most of the interview was not mentioned. He took one marginal section of the interview and turned it into the whole thing
(2) And actually, when she realized the direction the interview was taking, (i.e., relentless prodding about her sex life rather than her political work), she picked up and left. When he asked her for the oppotunity to meet again and finish the interview, she refused.


About the Author
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award winning writer, leading Jewish feminist thinker and educator, and former executive director of JOFA. Her book, "The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World" won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council award in women's studies. Her book, "Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools" (with Chaya Gorsetman) won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council award in education. Her book, "The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation" is due to be released in September 2014 . She lives in Modi'in, Israel and blogs at A Jewish Feminist – www.jewfem.com