So how does a public figure respond to an angry ex- partner’s internet smear campaign? It’s a real question in a world where “truth” itself seems under attack. Another question is, “How should we?”
I had a job once working at the Front Desk of the Plaza Hotel in New York—a reputable institution to be sure. I was young, a preacher’s kid, and remarkably naïve, so it disturbed me when the Front Desk Manager would come behind the desk and grab hold of a breast or stick his hand under the skirt of one or two of the women working with me. I was appalled. The women I remember, or at least one of them, thought it was sweet and quaint that I objected. I “didn’t know the ways of the world,” she insisted. Ways of the world or not, I complained to the Vice President of the hotel who just happened to be my Sunday School teacher. (It’s how I got the job in the first place.) He had me transferred to another department. Well, I suppose that was one way to handle it, but I think it’s a damn good thing that it’s not the way it would be handled now. It’s a good thing that women have other recourse. They have ways to ensure that their story is heard. Things are a long way from perfect, but women have far more control over their bodies and their sexuality than they did back in 1973, when I was at the Plaza. There is a reason for that: social media. That’s not the only reason, but it’s a significant factor in calling injustice to the attention of the public. When attention is called, businesses are apt to pay attention too. All good.
In the same way that I was appalled all those years ago when I saw those women being pawed, I’m appalled at another societal illness as well. Truth has somehow lost its value. There are not only competing claims on truth, but truth itself has taken a beating. Witness the recent Presidential election. The news media reported facts, verified facts, concerning racism, sexual abuse, and immoral business practices, but a good number of people didn’t believe those stories. Instead they went ahead and believed lies. Apparently they just liked the lies better than the facts. One older man came out of church the other day and said to a pastor friend of mine, “I voted for Donald Trump; I think he’s a very good man.” Wow.
They told me in Seminary that this trend stems from the advent of post-modernism which is, to oversimplify, an intellectual movement that has revealed all “truth” to be perspectival. That is, truth looks different, sometimes very different, depending on your perspective. Conclusion: there is no truth, just perspectives. (For the record, I think that is horseshit.) But let me ask you this: if all truth is perspectival, then whose perspective wins? Answer: the person with the biggest gun, (or at least the best marketing manager). That is the meaningless world we seem to have engendered. It destroys people. It cannot stand for long. It should not stand at all, but tragically it does, at least for now.
A little more than a year ago Marc Gafni’s ex-wife published an article in the Times of Israel. This article was an intentional part of a smear campaign that she, Chaya Lester, helped organize. This is ten years after their divorce you understand. It said some pretty awful things about him—character assassination type of things. Her intention was obviously to cause serious damage. Her comments have found their way onto Wikipedia, a source of information for many, many people. Here’s what Wikipedia reports:
In January 2016, an unnamed woman who wrote that she was married to Gafni from 1999 to 2004 published an opinion piece in The Times of Israel in response to a New York Times article about Gafni the preceding week. She cataloged what she described as her “story of abuse” and wrote that she had gone public to “Protect some girl. Protect some woman. Some student. Some unsuspecting soul.”
If her “stories of abuse” were true, then I would celebrate its inclusion on Wikipedia, since women should be forewarned about abusers. But what if they are not true? What if they are demonstrably false? What if they were written in service of a long-standing, vindictive, vendetta of a vengeful ex-wife? What then? Does truth have a role to play here? I believe it does.
Dr. Gafni believes so too as he writes,
“I feel compelled to speak up and refute the ongoing tapestry of lies, distortions and misstatements that my ex-wife Chaya has been spreading about me since 2006. Over the years, she has been posting increasingly histrionic and malicious diatribes. . . . So, finally, I have to respond directly to the outright falsehoods, distortions, and unsubstantiated speculations with which Chaya has attempted to destroy my reputation, interfere with my personal and professional relationships, and create disharmony in my life.”
Chaya’s stated reason for writing is to, “protect women”—a seemingly laudable motivation.
But a very different picture emerges when other, verifiable facts come into view. Dr. Gafni again writes,
“Chaya’s writing, in which she grandly claims to speak for all ‘victims,’ is actually an offense to the true victims of abuse and sexual violence. Chaya has personally attacked me in online forums, sent slanderous letters sent to places where I have been invited to lecture, and most recently in five articles published in the Israeli press and in online blogs. She has repeatedly mischaracterized my conduct in our relationship as abusive. Now, she has helped inspire a major public smear campaign that threatens to destroy my credibility and my ability to do my work.”
But, according to documented evidence, this same woman has prosecuted an effort to ruin everything her ex-husband does. That began when? A few months after he refused to come back to Orthodox Judaism and remarry her. But since such claims have been an integral part of the internet story about Marc Gafni, a woman who was with him would be hard pressed not to be forewarned. No, protecting women isn’t her motivation. If warning women about Marc Gafni were her goal she accomplished it several times over years ago. But that is not her motivation; clearly destroying Marc Gafni is. It is subtle perhaps, but it is lie number one in her Times of Israel article.
Chaya’s motivations become even murkier when we hear the level of hatred she has directed Gafni’s way. Understand, these are documented statements. Chaya co-authored a letter that was sent, in secret, to any group where Dr. Gafni was to present from 2008 until 2016, when Dr. Gafni received a copy of it from a friend. As he explains,
“This extraordinary document calls me a predator and a child rapist—both absolutely untrue. It claims that I abused my kids—something they would be the first to laugh at. It says, that I ‘seduce people into my circle and take pleasure in destroying them,’ that I exhibit a ‘Hitlerian level of charisma.’ It describes what the writers call my ‘sexual predilections’ with the clear implication that my sexual behavior (which is actually quite ordinary, though polyamorous), is somehow unusual or aberrant. It calls me a ‘monster of a man.’ And much else.
This 2008 letter has done much to create the widespread assumption, (at least among people who assume that an enraged ex–wife is a reliable source), that Marc Gafni is a very bad person and is one of the core factors that makes stories about him believable and thus leads to the article in Wikipedia.”
Dr. Gafni and Chaya had, I’m given to understand, a storied relationship. It included marriage therapy which, at the time, enabled them to break up relatively amicably. His piece on the subject, which I should add, has to be incredibly painful to have to explain in a public forum, shows how well it ended and then got turned upside down when Chaya got involved in false complaints.
“Then, in 2006, two years after our separation, Chaya called me with an unexpected request. She asked me to return to Jewish Orthodoxy and re-marry her. I gently, and in the most loving way I could, refused. Our marriage had been far too unhappy for me to want to get back into it.”
She then confessed that she had become involved with a new guy—Hillel Lester, whom she later married—and wanted to get engaged to him. But, she told me, I loomed so large in her life (two years after our separation!) that I would have to ‘die or disappear’ in order for her to be able to be with someone else. . . . It was just a couple of months after this conversation, in May 2006, that Chaya wrote her first public letter of attack. More ominously, (according to Chaya’s own testimony to my colleague Dr. Ruth Eldar), she personally instigated and helped organize false complaints of sexual harassment against me in Israel.
Those, now proven false, complaints took down the ministry that Dr. Gafni had developed in Israel and forced his move back to the US. Further, Chaya has admitted to lying about the fact that the “complaints” were registered with the police at that time. In a written report of an interview that Dr. Eldar had with Chaya, she writes,
“She [Chaya] confirmed to me what the lawyer we hired had already written in a statement, that no complaints were ever filed because the police did not register them. It was clear that she knew that no complaints were registered even though she has said many times on line that there were police complaints. I was shocked to hear this because they had told you and the rest of the world that there were complaints. I remember well when I called you last year to tell you and you were in full shock and did not believe me. You burst out crying if your remember, because everything you had done for eight years was under the assumption that there were complaints. What really revealed Chaya’s state of mind is that she did not seem aware that there was anything wrong with telling you and the entire world that there were police complaints when there were not. . . . She also said that you had demonic magical powers that can influence on people from afar. I was shocked. I was there and my husband was there when she said it. I also want to say that Chaya told us clearly that she was a prime organizer of the complaints. She said it proudly with a kind of delight that surprised us.
That lie kept Dr. Gafni from visiting his mother and children for a decade. It even kept him from going to his son’s wedding. In 2008, through the reconstruction of deliberately erased evidence on his hard drive, Dr. Gafni was able to refute the false abuse complaints. But that didn’t stop Chaya. As Dr. Gafni relates,
“At that point, Chaya and her posse stopped claiming that I had sexually harassed members of the community. Instead, they stepped up their attacks on my character—using language that made me out to be a kind of demon in human guise. Though allegations of sexual harassment can be refuted, it is hard to refute character attacks. Chaya’s first letter of attack was circulated online at that time. In this 2006 letter, which she calls a ‘deposition’, she insists that her name not be used. She describes herself as my ex-wife, and along with many factually distorted claims about me, imputes to me many forms of pathology. She calls me a narcissist, a sociopath, a sex addict, and a person with an incurable character disorder all of which have been debunked by professionals.”
But “Why,” I ask. “Why would she go to all this trouble?” Marc quotes a statement of Chaya’s from one of her posts. “In a comment on one of Chaya’s blog-posts about me, another woman asked why Chaya hasn’t taken responsibility for her own part in the relationship. In response, Chaya wrote this: “I used Gafni. He was a “fast ticket to power”. I used him for” – again quoting Chaya, “my own selfish, small-hearted, deeply-scheming need to be seen and drive for power. I wed him out of a whole retinue of ulterior motives.” It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that a woman who says this, a woman capable of orchestrating false claims of harassment, both of which are proven, is capable of continuing a vindictive vendetta.
While it is true that a significant amount of Dr. Gafni’s story is “he said, she said,” as near as I can tell the only evidence offered to support either side of the argument is offered by him. At the very least that should give us pause.
Dr. Gafni states the point of this post well.
“Sexual abuse in any form is a terrible thing. It ruins countless lives, and creates untold trauma. Sexual abuse and the ‘rape culture’ deeply scar the lives of women and men who endure it. It deserves to be called out. Yet as with all genuine abuses, the meme of sexual abuse can also be used to mischaracterize what are actually well-intentioned sexual encounters. My stories, re-narrated in the language of what is sometimes called the professional psychologists “sexual-abuse industry” and “culture of victimization,” have been framed in a way that is simply untrue either in substance or quality. I took (and passed) polygraphs with the former director of polygraph research at the Department of Defense to validate my version of these events.”
What should you do? What should we do? Seek facts. Don’t’ rush to judgement. Read with the idea in mind that huge distortions can, and in fact are, published in reputable sources. On December 15, 2015 an article in the New York Times from a freelance reporter recruited to start off a smear campaign, published huge distortions about Dr. Gafni’s life.
Lies are everywhere and if we don’t want to live in a world where the biggest gun and the best marketing department are in control, we’d better learn to think and read critically.