March 23, 2021
In 2018, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen was forced to resign from his academic positions following a Title IX investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. He had been publicly accused of sexual harassment and assault by several women, including members of the Association for Jewish Studies. He admitted to the behavior and has been publicly and professionally sanctioned. Moreover, the kind of scholarship he has promoted has increasingly been called into question.
Recently, it has come to the attention of the AJS Women’s Caucus that Cohen, in conjunction with several other senior scholars in Jewish Studies has been hosting private, invitation-only Zoom conversations about American Jewish life and the study of American Jewish life, re-hashing old ideas about Jewish continuity in an effort to capture philanthropic funding.
The group has been inviting other scholars and communal leaders to participate in these sessions, which are centered around discussions of the group’s agenda. Of course these scholars are free to have such conversations, but we want to raise concerns about the perils posed by these “off the record” gatherings, especially for vulnerable early career scholars.
This attempt to re-center and rehabilitate a disgraced and ostracized scholar has real consequences. The Women’s Caucus views these efforts as unacceptable and deeply troubling, because they jeopardize the position of junior and contingent scholars as well as re-victimizing women targeted by Cohen.
The unequal balance of power inherent in professional relationships between senior and junior scholars requires senior scholars to take on the responsibility of assuring that the decisions of junior scholars are in no way affected by this entrenched power structure. When junior scholars or those with contingent appointments are asked to participate in such meetings by those who have power within the field - either through the control of press series or editorships, or through decision making in hiring and promotion processes - they may have little choice but to participate. This has real implications for the functioning of our field and the position of rising scholars, especially women, within it.
While senior scholars have the freedom to associate and work with whom they wish, we are disappointed that this group has chosen to conduct these secret meetings, which opened still-painful wounds for those who were harmed by Cohen and put others at risk professionally if not personally. We believe that these efforts conflict with core values of the AJS with regard to diversity and inclusion, ethical conduct, and good faith. The Women’s Caucus encourages the senior scholars involved to consider the consequences of their actions on those with less power.
Finally, the Women’s Caucus stands with Steven Cohen’s victims and with junior and contingent scholars who continue to be made vulnerable by these latest actions.
For further information on the background and context of this statement, please see this article in the Forward.