Top Israeli columnist Ari Shavit steps down after US women accuse him of harassment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 11:32pm

A prominent Israeli columnist and author has resigned over recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault made by two American women.

Ari Shavit, 59, a veteran commentator for Haaretz and Israel’s Channel 10 television network, first admitted Thursday to being the unidentified “accomplished journalist from Israel” described in a personal account of sexual assault published by Los Angeles Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin on October 19.

Berrin wrote that during a 2014 interview about Shavit’s best-selling memoir on Israel’s history, he grabbed her head and attempted to kiss her, then later propositioned her for sex. She wrote that she was inspired to write about her experience as part of the conversation developing in the US about sexual assault, sparked by the emergence of a 2005 recording of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump bragging about groping women.

Shavit’s decision to resign on Sunday came on the same day that a second account of sexual harassment by an anonymous staffer for the liberal pro-Israel lobby J-Street, which was published on Sunday in the Jewish Daily Forward. According to the Forward, the staffer was escorting Shavit to a lecture in Baltimore sponsored by the organisation when, while sitting down to coffee, he suddenly caressed her hand and suggested a rendezvous over drinks in Israel.

“I am ashamed of the mistakes I made with regards to people in general and women in particular,” Shavit said in a statement published Sunday by Haaretz. “In the last few days I have understood that I have been afflicted by blindness. For years, I did not understand what people meant when they spoke of privileged men who do not see the damage that they cause to others. Now I am beginning to understand.”

Berrin commended Shavit’s latest remarks in a Twitter post. “I am grateful for Ari Shavit’s powerful honest statement,” she wrote. “His resolution to do ‘heshbon hanefesh’ — an accounting of the soul — is admirable.”

Shavit had said in an initial statement Thursday that what happened with Berrin was the result of a misunderstanding. “I felt that we had a friendly meeting that included, among other things, elements of courtship,” Shavit said. “Never for a moment did I think it was sexual harassment. But what I saw as courtship, Berrin saw as inappropriate behaviour and even harassment on my part.”

Berrin rejected that explanation. “His claim is absurd,” she wrote at the time. “The only thing I wanted from Ari Shavit was an interview about his book. No person of sound judgement would have interpreted his advances on me as anything other than unwanted, aggressive sexual contact.”

Shavit drew criticism for his behaviour from Israeli politicians and journalists. Columnist and feminist activist Anat Saragusti said that Shavit’s actions were a form of aggression, not simply an unsuccessful attempt at flirting. She compared Berrin’s account to the stories of women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Women become “a tool to strengthen their masculinity, to confirm their power, and a sign of their standing,” she wrote in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot on Sunday, before Shavit resigned.

“It’s not like he stepped on someone’s leg by accident. This is a meticulous and calculated apology (made) only after he was exposed and realised that he is drowning,” wrote Shelly Yachimovich, an Israeli parliament member, on Facebook. “What Berrin did — to tell about what happened and not hide it — is part of an amazing worldwide phenomenon in which victims raise their heads up, stop being shy, and embarrass the aggressor.”