The perils of zero tolerance

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When Hillel International announced last week that it was cancelling a speaking tour featuring Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, we ran a thought experiment. Shavit, widely lauded for his 2013 book, “My Promised Land,” had publicly admitted that he was the man who a Jewish reporter said sexually assaulted her in 2014.

Hillel’s response was swift, almost as if it was waiting for Shavit to hit “send” on his admission of unwanted groping of Danielle Berrin.

“In light of recent circumstances, and in keeping with our strong position against sexual assault, Hillel International has suspended Ari Shavit’s campus tour,” the group said in a statement. “We actively oppose rape culture and sexual assault on campus and are committed to supporting survivors.”

Other Jewish organizations followed suit: A spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America told JTA that had JFNA been arranging a speaking tour for Shavit, “He would be suspended immediately based on his admission of harassment alone.”

AIPAC reportedly cut its ties with Shavit. And the JCC Association of North America told JTA that its policy of zero tolerance for sexual assault extends to speakers.

We think the behavior that Shavit is accused of is appalling. Like Hillel and every other organization that has gone public on the issue, we are disturbed by and wish to see remedies for the incidences of sexual attacks on campus, in the workplace and throughout society.

Given all of the above, this was our thought experiment: What if former President Bill Clinton wanted to address Hillel? Or the upcoming General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America? Or your local JCC? Would they turn down Clinton, whose affairs and accused sexual assaults were revisited during this year’s election campaign, but who remains immensely popular?

Are some people too big to ban? Are we talking about zero tolerance for just the act — or for the act and the person?

The concept of “zero tolerance” while at first apparently sensible and understandable — to tolerate sexual assault would be to encourage it, after all — is troubling. Drawing the line at zero sounds clear and cleansing and morally pure. But reality is not so clear or so clean. In the case of Shavit, his admission of involvement made the drawing of lines easier. But what about someone who denies the accusation? Does zero tolerance extend to them, as well?

We hope that those who that have rightly used the Shavit incident to state their serious opposition to sexual harassment and assault will not succumb to one-size-fits-all responses to allegations that deny people due process.

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