It is never a surprise that wealthy men delight in abusing their power and authority over others. According to a new report in the New York Times and ProPublica, Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire donor to several leading Jewish organizations in the United States and Israel as well as the cofounder of Birthright Israel, has for decades engaged in a pattern of sexually harassing women in his orbit—behavior that has been largely brushed aside until now.
The Times and ProPublica report that Steinhardt, who made his billions through a hedge fund he founded, regularly propositions sex, threesomes, and makes comments about women’s bodies. From the report:
But for more than two decades, that generosity has come at a price. Six women said in interviews with The New York Times and ProPublica, and one said in a lawsuit, that Mr. Steinhardt asked them to have sex with him, or made sexual requests of them, while they were relying on or seeking his support. He also regularly made comments to women about their bodies and their fertility, according to the seven women and 16 other people who said they were present when Mr. Steinhardt made such comments.
Here’s what happened when Sheila Katz, an executive at Hillel International, met with Steinhardt in 2015:
Ms. Katz said she was hoping Mr. Steinhardt would become a funder of her work at Hillel when she met with him in his Fifth Avenue office in 2015 to interview him for a video Hillel had commissioned about Jewish entrepreneurs. But she said that as the filming got underway, he repeatedly asked if she would have sex with the “king of Israel,” which he had told her was his preferred title for the video. He then directly asked her to have sex with him, she said.
When she turned him down, he brought in two male employees and offered a million dollars if she were to marry one of them, she said. After the filming ended, Mr. Steinhardt told her it was an “abomination” that a woman who looked like her was not married and said he would not fund her projects until she returned with a husband and child, said Ms. Katz, who has not previously spoken publicly about the incident.
Other women interviewed by the Times and ProPublica have similar stories of Steinhardt’s behavior, and he was also named in two sexual harassment lawsuits filed in 2012 and 2013 against a New York City art gallery where he was a client. “He set a horrifying standard of what women who work in the Jewish community were expected to endure,” said Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi. Sabath was 27 when Steinhardt, who was funding her rabbinical position at the time, allegedly told her to put her womb “to work” and suggested she become a “pilegesh,” or concubine.
Sabath said she avoided Steinhardt for the next two decades, and told the Times that she kept silent about his comments due to concerns over her career and because he was a “great benefactor” for causes she believed in.
Katz, for her part, reported Steinhardt’s comments to Hillel’s top executive. Last year, the Times says Hillel opened an investigation into Steinhardt and in January, found that he had sexually harassed both Katz and another Hillel employee.
What is wholly unsurprising but no less depressing is that it appears Steinhardt’s behavior was widely known, but ignored. “Institutions in the Jewish world have long known about his behavior, and they have looked the other way,” Katz said. “No one was surprised when I shared that this happened.”
Steinhardt sent a statement to the Times and ProPublica, writing that he regrets making “boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb” comments, which were, he wrote, just jokes and were “part of [his] schtick” for years. Yet while he acknowledged being a sexist asshole (my words), he apparently denied, through a spokesperson, many of the specific allegations made against him by the six women interviewed by the Times and ProPublica.
And he has marshaled a group of people to defend him, from his fellow billionaire Charles Bronfman, with whom Steinharft co-founded Birthright Israel, to former New Republic owner Martin Peretz. According to Bronfman, Steinhardt is no serial sexual harasser—just a man with a “unique sense of humour.”
“He loves to tease males and females, and certainly his very good friends,” Bronfman wrote. “I can attest to that! Always has. But to conjure up intentions that he never had or has is more than a disservice. It’s downright outrageous!”
The women that endured Steinhardt’s demeaning comments, however, disagree.
“When people say bad things about Jews, our community leaders are on red alert about the dangers of anti-Semitism,” Shifra Bronznick, a non-profit consultant who once rebuked Steinhardt for his comments, told the Times. “But when people harass women verbally instead of physically, we are asked to accept that this is the price we have to pay for the philanthropic resources to support our work.”
Update (12:01 p.m.): In a letter sent out Thursday morning, members of the Steinhardt family, the president and CEO of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and the executive director of Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel deny that Steinhardt propositioned the women interviewed by the Times and ProPublica, describing those allegations as leaving “the false impression that Michael propositioned a handful of women.”
They continued: “To characterize provocative remarks made in jest and in group settings as actual propositions intentionally distorts the context as well as Michael’s intent—in order to fabricate something that never happened.”