Cohen’s fall tests border of demography and sexism
In wake of sexual harassment allegations against sociologist, throw out the baby with the bath water?
Now that Steven M. Cohen has acknowledged sexually harassing women over the years, does that mean that his substantial body of work as a leading sociologist in the Jewish community should be re-evaluated, even discounted?
That’s been the center of a heated debate among Jewish social scientists in recent days, reflecting a wider and longstanding dispute in the field between two camps. The debate comes in the wake of an NJJN investigation published July 26 detailing the allegations against Cohen.
There are the traditionalists who, like Cohen, are older, often male, established professionally, and ideologically focused on concerns of Jewish continuity based on promoting in-marriage and population growth.
Then there are the progressives who skew younger, often female, less established professionally, and who view the traditionalists as patriarchal, sexist, and too narrowly focused on the Jewish continuity agenda.
The progressives are inclined to be postmodern in outlook, insisting that an individual’s work cannot be separated from his or her biases. In Cohen’s case, this camp asserts that his harassment of women indicates a degree of sexism reflected not only in his research, including numerous Jewish population studies, but his policy proposals that have become part of the communal agenda.
Cohen’s often-expressed concerns about intermarriage as “the greatest threat to Jewish continuity today” and his emphasis on creating optimal conditions for young Jewish men and women to socialize, marry, and produce Jewish babies are viewed as biased against Jews in interfaith marriages and others who don’t fit the once-conventional mold.
One of several Jewish professional social scientists and community activists I spoke to this week — all of whom asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue — accused the Jewish establishment of “limiting opportunities, limiting roles for women in the field of Jewish social science, and enacting defective policies.” She said that “Steve Cohen doesn’t know how to read a room” — a criticism that he lacks imagination and innovation in looking at today’s landscape of American-Jewish life. One example given was that the questions in his population study surveys failed to tease out the changing roles of women, underscoring the problems with “all-male demographic hegemony,” one woman activist asserted.
Others have been saying for a long time that Cohen’s research techniques are suspect as a result of his methodology as well as his agenda. “He’s like Paul Revere, spreading the news of the dangers our community faces,” one academic in the field told me, adding that in fact the American-Jewish population is growing, according to his and other colleagues’ methods of counting.
“Put simply, how surprised can we be that a man whose entire worldview hinged on women having more babies turned out to have no respect for women when it came to personal sexual boundaries?” wrote cultural critic and playwright Rokhl Kafrissen in a Forward opinion piece
She characterized Cohen’s agenda as consisting of “research …driven by pre-determined conclusions and based on outdated, unexamined assumptions about who American Jews are and what is good for them.”
Some supporters of Cohen’s work over the years are feeling defensive in light of his revealed sexual misbehavior and the emotionally charged criticism that has emerged in recent days connecting his harassment of women with his perceived indifference to a liberal, millennial outlook on Jewish life.
Michelle Shain, an associate research scientist in modern Jewish studies at Brandeis University who credits Cohen with mentoring her and aiding her career, takes exception to “those who have started declaring Steven’s body of work treif.”
“The idea that studying family formation patterns is sexist, exploitative, patriarchal or misogynistic is simply ludicrous,” she wrote in an opinion piece published by The New York Jewish Week, adding that “as a feminist, I wholeheartedly reject the suggestion that marriage and childbearing stand in opposition to women’s professional success or control of our bodies. That is exactly the sort of zero-sum thinking that slows the march of egalitarianism.”
Shain wrote that like most American women, Jewish women want to marry and have children, and that “understanding the pathways and obstacles to contemporary marriage and parenthood benefits, not subjugates, Jewish women.”
The debate, fueled by the revelations of Cohen’s sexual harassment, will not be resolved easily, but at least those of us outside the confines of Jewish social science have a better understanding of it. And like so many disagreements these days, it’s increasingly difficult for the two sides to come together to hear and perhaps learn from each other. It’s time for that to happen. Among the topics that should be addressed are whether a standard for methodology can be agreed upon, including peer review; should social scientists propose policy or just observe and report on their findings; and how best to address the bias of funders and Jewish organizations who often want the research they commission to fit their preconceived conclusions.
In addition, the sad and disturbing Cohen situation raises again the issue of if, and when, those guilty of sexual misconduct should be readmitted to the public space, and who makes that decision. It’s important to note that teshuvah, or repentance, is a central element of Judaism, requiring the guilty party to make amends and be accepted back into the fold.
When the Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit tested the comeback waters last winter, after having removed himself from communal discourse for many months and claimed he had done teshuvah, new allegations against him were made almost immediately and he went back underground. A replay of that scenario took place last month with the same results. Shavit and Leon Wieseltier, a leading American-Jewish public intellectual, are examples of two strong and effective advocates for Israel whose voices have been stilled since the allegations of sexual misconduct came out against them. Does even raising the question of their return, among others, result in an automatic “too soon” response?
A public discussion of the standards, sincerity, timing, and boundaries for these difficult decisions regarding teshuvah is in order.
In the meantime, the rest of the community should be heard on whether Steven Cohen’s sociological surveys and views on ensuring the Jewish future should be accepted, rejected, or re-evaluated. Perhaps widening the discussion will offset the passions of his colleagues, pro and con, and help lead to a path of communal consensus.