The #metoo campaign is empowering. I am enthralled (albeit sorrowful at the suffering), with the fact that thousands of women are bringing attention to the normalcy of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Yet, two months ago, my elation was squashed.
What do I do when someone who was a father figure to me, whom I studied with, whom mentored me, gave personal advice, was always polite, refined and kind, hugged and embraced me, encouraged me, educated me, passed on his ultimate wisdom, let me challenge him, and, is now, more than a year later after his death, accused of groping and grabbing a woman’s ass many years ago?
Is there any question that I should not believe Jenny Listman? If I question her story, am I part of the problem? Am I an “old feminist” if I say it’s OK to question the validity of her story? Worse, how can I not believe her? Why would she, after all these years, come forward, if not telling the truth – if not empowered by all the other women who have suffered a fate such as hers at the hands of other men? Yet, I, never once, in my many years of studying, watching interactions with others, sitting alone in his office – just him and me – witnessed anything other than a man I admired and loved for all the good and all the controversial things he stood for.
Elie Wiesel never grabbed my ass. However, that doesn’t mean he didn’t grab someone else’s ass. And that’s the struggle.
In my 51 years on this planet, I have had my ass grabbed while walking down the street, been groped on trains, called ‘pet’ names, had my neck kissed and breathed down on from behind while standing in line to get a burrito, slapped, grinded-up on, my arms caressed while waiting for my daughter at school, and looked at like I had the last ass on the planet. I walk with keys in my hand at night. I check and recheck behind me as I am walking too. I am startled and uncomfortable when a man walks up quickly behind me, or, rounds the corner without me being prepared. I won’t walk down poorly lit streets. I ignore men who stare at me for fear of “giving them the wrong idea.” I have been called many things, my favorites being, “Bitch,” “Cunt,” “Educated dike bag,” “Slut,” and “Ho,” – for ignoring men’s advances.
When I first wrote this piece, it wasn’t published. I was victim blaming Jenny Listman, while standing up for Professor Wiesel. Yet, this is important. It isn’t that I don’t believe Listman, it’s that I don’t want to believe her. There’s a difference. This not wanting to believe her is simply out of my love and reverence for a man I came to know as a wonderful human being. It’s like my dad being accused of groping someone. Give me a break. It’s difficult.
However, this started a larger conversation with my colleagues and within myself. Do we believe every single person coming forward that accuses someone of sexual harassment? Because in all honesty, some have already been caught lying. This is a problem. The fact is, the majority of those who are coming forward are honest and truthful. But, the other fact is, there are some that are lying and accusing people of things they didn’t do. Why this is happening is anyone’s guess – revenge, pettiness, immaturity – no one will ever know all the reasons. I struggled putting this paragraph in, because I can hear it now – You say you believe Listman, and then you write a paragraph about those who are lying… are you saying that you think Listman is lying?
No. I’m not. I am, however, going to put out all that needs to be discussed in this conversation. It is not black and white when it comes to someone accusing someone of such a heinous act. We must admit that and we must have open conversations about this if we are ever going to move forward.
I am no stranger to the violence women suffer around the world. I wrote about some extremely horrible, and what I could have called, evil acts of violence against women earlier this year. We have a very long way to go.
I struggled most with this section of Listman’s piece – “If you are sad and in mourning for your lost icon, I am not to blame for taking him away from you. I am not to blame for robbing the Jewish community of a leader, the world of a symbol, or his family of their memories. I did not do it. He did. He is the only one responsible for his evil act. He is the only one responsible for building his legacy as a house of cards. You may have to repeat that to yourself a number of times, as I have. He did this, not me. He did it.”
I am not mourning Professor Wiesel as a lost icon. Because he still is an icon. To me, at least. No one can take him away from me – the light that I experienced him in. As much as I am disgusted by Listman’s experience, he, to me, is still my beloved Professor Wiesel. I can’t forgive him to his face, nor can any one of us hold him accountable.
Elie Wiesel was contradictory, and he would admit that in class – especially about his stance over Israel and Palestine. We had many debates over this. Yet, what I saw and who I knew, was a man that cared deeply for humanity. Even with all his admitted (and un-admitted) flaws. His legacy is not in jeopardy. At least with me, it stands strong. I feel incredibly sad that Professor Wiesel hurt Jenny Listman in such a horribly aggressive and heinous manner. I hope now she can move on and be free knowing she has said her truth.
For me, I will continue to live my truth of Elie Wiesel. I will ponder this man’s actions always – now knowing more than I wanted to know. I will continue to admire all the work he did. I will remember why he made me angry and how he taught me to harness that anger – as a peace builder and theologian – and learn that it is imperative that I listen, more than talk. I will always carry with me everything he taught us in class. I will remember our private conversations and his written words to me, It’s the questions that are important, sometimes there are no answers. I will remember the man who would drift off in class as he told us stories never revealed in his books. And, I will continue to speak my truth with his voice and wisdom in my head.
I will also remind myself that Elie Wiesel hurt someone else. This is a reality I cannot ignore.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. As an instructor, Karen designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and she teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a domestic violence advocate.