In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, more and more women feel confident to come forward with their own stories of being sexually harassed, groped, and raped where once they chose to remain silent because their attackers were powerful people and they feared being shamed and retaliated against. Some of these things happened years ago. One of latest allegations comes from Jennifer Listman who is now an anthropological geneticist working at New York University. In a detailed blog post, she describes how in 1989, when she was 19 years of age, she was shocked when she was groped by Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel during a photographing at a public charity event. Wiesel died in 2016 at the age of 87.
When I was nineteen years old, Elie Weisel grabbed my ass. It was a calculated act and worse than you think; he mistook me for an ultra-religious underage girl who was unlikely to tell anyone about it. In other words, he purposefully chose to molest someone who he assumed was a minor and who would be compelled into silence.
The photographer was about to take the photo when Elie Wiesel yelled, “Wait!!”. He then lunged (this is not an exaggeration — he looked as if he was performing a fencing move) out of the middle of the arrangement, across the line of family members, towards his right, towards me. Pushing with his hands, he shoved me and my boyfriend apart, inserted himself between us, placed one arm over each of our shoulders, and then gave a nod to the photographer and said, “Ok.”
The photographer re-focused his lens, which took some time. The hand on my right shoulder moved a few inches down my back to be on my shoulder blade. Maybe his hand had been uncomfortable in its original position. Although, how could it be more comfortable now that it was not resting on top of something? I didn’t have an answer for myself. The hand moved lower. It moved again. This happened slowly, over a period of seconds; a physical impossibility that is possible under such circumstances. I was in disbelief.
“That can’t be what he’s doing. That can’t be what he’s doing. That can’t be what he’s doing.”
“His hand is still in a normal position. It is still in a normal position, now. Even now, it is still in a normal position.”
The photographer snapped the photo. Simultaneously, Elie Wiesel’s right hand had reached my right ass cheek, which he squeezed. The photo was over, the photographer leaned back from crouching over his camera, the group separated, smiling at eachother, and Elie Wiesel immediately RAN, disappearing straight into the crowd of over 1000 people who were nearly all standing up. Already gray-haired at that time, Weisel’s agility impressed me as he fled the scene of the crime.
Listman says that she went through years of therapy because of the shock she experienced at that moment and because of the subsequent harassment she experienced in her life. Why is she coming forward now?
Why would I say something now? I am exhausted from the guilt, fear, and shame and mostly from the twenty-eight year long burden of keeping this secret in a possibly misguided overestimation of my own capacity and responsiblity to protect the world from the knowledge of something evil and ugly; as if I was required (forced, really, shoved and held down by Elie Wiesel, himself), at nineteen, to throw my body and mind on top of this grenade, for the sake of all Jews, for the sake of the world. For twenty-eight years, when I would see one of his works on the bookshelf of a friend or family member, see his name or face in the news, read him quoted or referenced, hear him lauded as some kind of Tzadik, I would feel nauseous. I would think that he had fooled everyone and I would feel embarrassed on their behalf for having been fooled. I am not interested in revenge or punishment. I just want, finally, to get rid of this thing, this implanted tumor, this lodged bullet. I am giving it away, dispersing it, diffusing it, vaporizing it. If you think it is important to keep, then you do it, because I am done.
Listman is well aware that she is going to face a backlash for bringing disrepute to Wiesel. Max Blumenthal described the wrath faced by anyone who dared to criticize Wiesel. Listman expects that people will be angry at her but says that the damage to his reputation is not her fault but his because he was the one who acted that way.
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.
This story is newsworthy because Wiesel is famous and someone who carefully cultivated his public image. But how many people have had similar experiences at the hands of others who are less well-known and have suffered the same sense of shame and trauma for years as Listen says she has had?
We can expect to hear more and more of such stories of famous and powerful people who have taken advantage of their position to impose their will on powerless people.