By: Joel Krugstein
An Israeli journalist who was prominently quoted in the New York Times’ coverage of last spring’s Israeli election campaign completely disappeared from the Times’ reporting on the more recent election—and protests by an American Jewish ethics committee may have been the cause.
The controversy concerns Ari Shavit, who had been one of the most-quoted Israelis in the American press until he was brought down in one of the first sexual harassment exposes of the #MeToo era.
Shavit, a columnist for the leftwing Israeli daily Ha’aretz, hit the big time with the publication, in 2013, of his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
Shavit’s book, which was strongly critical of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made the New York Times bestseller list and led to several major speaking tours of the United States. He was also invited to appear on numerous talk shows and authored op-eds in leading U.S. newspapers, including the Times.
“HE LURCHED AT ME”
Then, almost overnight, everything changed for Ari Shavit.
In October 2016, Danielle Berrin, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, wrote in that newspaper that she was sexually assaulted by “an accomplished journalist from Israel” when she went to interview him about his recent book.
According to Berrin, the Israeli “lurched at me like a barnyard animal, grabbing the back of my head, pulling me toward him.” When she tried to flee, he followed her to her automobile and hugged her against her will. Although she did not refer to Shavit by name in the article, his identity was widely recognized in the Jewish world.
Shortly after Berrin’s article was published, The Forward reported that a staff member of the pro-Palestinian group J Street was “groped” by Shavit when she was assigned to accompany him to a talk in Baltimore that J Street sponsored in 2014.
At that point, Shavit publicly admitted he was the journalist described in Berrin’s article. He resigned from Ha’aretz and issued a statement saying he was “ashamed of the mistakes I made,” but made it sound as if he believed he was on a date with Ms. Berrin and claimed that she “misconstrued” his “flirtations.”
Shelly Yachimovich, former head of the Israeli Labor Party, said Shavit’s statement of regret was too vague. “I don’t know if Berrin accepted his apology, but I didn’t…It’s not like he accidentally stepped on somebody’s toe.”
In an op-ed in the New York Times the following year, Berrin blasted Shavit’s statement as “an obtuse and offensive public apology claiming our meeting had elements of ‘courtship.’ It did not…I’m not ready to forgive him — at least not yet. Until restitution is made publicly as well as privately, his reckoning rings hollow.”
J Street also came in for criticism, after its leaders acknowledged that they had not relayed the information about Shavit groping its staffer to any of the other Jewish groups that were co-sponsoring his talks. “So that settles it,” Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov tweeted. “J Street knew, and didn’t tell anyone else.”
According to The Forward, the J Street leadership did not even tell its own campus chapters. While J Street stopped sponsoring Shavit’s tours after it learned of the harassment, the organization “continued to allow its student chapters, called J Street U, to co-sponsor Shavit’s campus talks and lectures. And J Street activists continued to meet with Shavit.”
A year after Shavit was exposed by Berrin, he attempted a comeback. In the autumn of 2017, the 92nd Street Y announced that Shavit would be the keynote speaker at its May 2018 celebration of Israeli Independence Day.
That news sparked an outcry in the Jewish community, and several additional women came forward to say that they, too, had been harassed by Shavit. He responded by accusing the women of perpetrating a “blood libel.” The Y canceled the speech.
Shavit then disappeared from public view—until this past spring.
In a March 11, 2019 article about the Israeli election campaign, David M. Halbfinger, the chief of the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau, quoted Shavit extensively. Halbfinger described Shavit as “an author and former columnist who has followed [Prime Minister] Netanyahu throughout his career.” He did not mention the sexual harassment scandal.
Four weeks later, Halbfinger did it again. In an April 11, 2019 front-page news article concerning the elections, Halbfinger again quoted Shavit, this time giving him two full paragraphs. Halbfinger called Shavit “a Jerusalem-bureau journalist who has followed Mr. Netanyahu throughout his career.”
Halbfinger’s articles triggered strong protests from the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, a group of American Jewish academics and community activists who have been active in combatting sexual harassment and other abuses in the Jewish community.
The committee’s leaders are Prof. Susannah Herschel of Dartmouth, Holocaust historian Dr. Rafael Medoff, author, law professor Thane Rosenbaum, and historian Prof. Shualmit Magnus.
In a press release, and in an op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post, the committee charged: “By turning to Shavit for his comments, the New York Times, in effect, removes him from the category of people who should be ostracized and bestows de facto absolution for despicable deeds which, at the very least, violate elementary professional norms. Rehabilitating an unrepentant perpetrator as a respected professional whitewashes abusive behavior and makes a mockery of victims.”
The committee emphasized that Shavit never explicitly or directly apologized to his victims, never publicly acknowledged the extent of his harassment, and apparently never paid any restitution.
THE VANISHING “EXPERT”
In the meantime, Israeli political leaders were unable to form a government, so new elections were scheduled. From April to September of this year, the New York Times extensively covered the election campaign.
As the date of the election drew near, the Times’ reporters in Israel repeatedly authored lengthy analyses of the race—exactly the kind of articles in which they might have again cited Shavit as an expert. Yet they mentioned him.
Instead, the Times found other Israeli experts to quote. On September 5, Halbfinger quoted political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld,of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, and Yossi Verter, political columnist at Haaretz.
On September 16, Halbfinger and his colleague Isabel Kershner quoted Shalom Yerushalmi, political writer at the Zman Yisrael news site; Yehuda Ben-Meir of the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv; and Anna Ravya-Barsky, a Russian-language Israeli journalist.
Even Halbfinger’s unprecedented two-page spread on election eve, accompanied by another half page by Kershner, omitted Shavit, preferring to cite Binyamin Rose of Mishpacha magazine; Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and political commentators Camil Fuchs and Shmuel Rosner.
Shavit likewise has been left out of the Times’ ample post-election coverage. Articles in recent days have instead quoted political scientists Reuven Hazan, Abraham Diskin, and Shlomo Avineri; Shimrit Meir, columnist for Yediot Ahronot; and Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute. But not Shavit.
Why did the Times go from amply quoting Shavit in the spring, to treating him as a virtual persona non grata in the summer and fall?
So far, the Times’ Jerusalem Bureau has not responded to a request from The Jewish Voice for its comment.
It may never be known definitively whether the Times was acting in response to the protests by the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, or if the Times’ reporters coincidentally had their own change of heart and dumped Shavit separately from the committee’s protests.
Either way, the committee’s leaders are pleased. Dr. Medoff told the Jewish Voice that the Times’ apparent change of policy regarding Shavit “sends a powerful message to unrepentant abusers and harassers everywhere that they cannot expect to mumble a few vague words of regret and then return to business as usual.” He said “there must be real consequences for such abhorrent behavior, even if the perpetrator is an award-winning journalist, or a leader of a Jewish organization, or a generous contributor to Jewish causes.”