US billionaire philanthropist accused of sexual harassment
Tuesday, 26th March 2019 at 8:19 am
The Jewish philanthropy sector in the US has been rocked by sexual harassment allegations against one of its most prominent donors.
In an explosive New York Times report, several women have accused billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt of making sexual requests of them while they were relying on or seeking his support.
The 78-year-old has denied many of the specific actions or words attributed to him by the women, who shared allegations going back to the mid-1990s.
Steinhardt is a retired hedge fund manager with an estimated net worth of US$1.1 billion (A$1.5 billion). Public filings show his foundations have given at least US$127 million (A$180 million) to charitable causes since 2003.
Six women said in interviews with the NYT and not-for-profit news organisation ProPublica that Steinhardt asked them to have sex with him, or made sexual requests of them, while in a working environment.
One young executive at Hillel International, a Jewish college outreach organisation, said while in a meeting with Steinhardt seeking his philanthropic support, he asked her repeatedly if she wanted to have sex with him.
Another woman who worked for Birthright Israel, a NFP co-founded by Steinhardt, said he asked her if she and a female colleague would like to join him in a threesome.
It is alleged that institutions in the Jewish world have long known about Steinhardt’s behavior, but have looked the other way.
In the wake of these allegations, Hillel International decided not to pursue a $50,000 donation that was earlier pledged by Steinhardt. The organisation also removed his name from its international board of governors, the NYT reported.
A number of other Jewish organisations have responded to the report. The Union for Reform Judaism released a statement from chair Daryl Messinger and president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, which said they read the story with concern and outrage.
They said they applauded the courage of the women who came forward.
“We believe them, sympathise with them, and support them,” they said.
“The behavior described in the story is reprehensible and has no place in the Jewish community or any other.
“For too long, people (almost always women) have been subjected by others (almost always men) in positions of power and influence to the kinds of words and actions outlined in this story… This moment of reckoning in our culture is long overdue.”
The Safety, Respect and Equality Coalition, which was recently established to address sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination in Jewish communal groups, said the women speaking out had made the Jewish community safer.
“As organisations committed to ensuring a safe, respectful and equitable Jewish community, we must take seriously the complaints about sexual harassment or victimisation that are disclosed and establish practices to ensure they are thoroughly and immediately investigated,” it said in a statement.
“The Jewish community has work to do to address these open secrets and do the work to repair relationships with those they have harmed by looking away.”
The Leichtag Foundation, which is a member of the coalition, released a separate statement which said the issue was broader than just one article or perpetrator.
“It is a systemic problem and, as such, the responsibility to address and prevent it should not fall upon victims and survivors, but rather on communal leaders and funders like us,” the foundation said.
“We are guided by Jewish tradition which calls on us to not stand idly by and tolerate the status quo of injustice, and in fact to call it out with loud voices, strong remediation, and good action.”
Steinhardt declined to be interviewed for the NYT article and has denied many of the allegations. But he admitted in a statement that he regretted making past comments in professional settings “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.”
He said these comments were always meant humorously, and added in his nearly 80 years on earth, he had never tried to touch any woman or man inappropriately.
The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life has also issued a statement, signed by two of his children – who serve as vice-chair and trustee of the foundation – as well as the foundation’s CEO and the executive director of the foundation in Israel.
The foundation slammed the NYT for intentionally distorting the context and intent of comments Steinhardt made in jest “in order to fabricate something that never happened”.
“Did Michael constantly try to fix people up and make inappropriate jokes? Of course he did. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the article goes out of its way to make these comments sound insidious,” the statement said.
“We have received many phone calls over the past six months from Jewish professionals who say the lead reporter on the story tried to pressure them to conjure up stories they did not believe ever occurred.”
The foundation went on to say this was a coordinated attack to focus only on women who might have something negative to say about Steinhardt.
“Perhaps most disappointing, this story is written during a time when our society is being greatly improved by exposing how too many prominent men have misused their power to coerce women into sexual activity.” it said.
“This article does not in any way accuse Michael of engaging in that kind of reprehensible conduct.”
The foundation said it was evaluating its legal options over the article.