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Will Sexual Assault Scandal Derail Israeli Journalist’s HBO Documentary?

HBO is staying tight-lipped on the status of a documentary project from “My Promised Land” author Ari Shavit, who this week suffered a stunning fall from grace in Israel following allegations of sexual assault.

Shavit, a longtime columnist for Israeli daily Haaretz, is one of Israel’s best-known and most influential journalists. His 2013 bestseller, which explores the author’s complicated love for Israel, earned tremendous critical acclaim and established him as the left’s definitive voice inside the Jewish state.

Late last week, however, after two female journalists separately accused him of sexual harassment, assault and lewd commentary, Shavit resigned from Haaretz and announced he was taking a professional hiatus of unspecified length.

HBO announced in 2014 that it was developing “My Promised Land” as a documentary. Shavit and HBO chief Richard Plepler discussed the project onstage together during a panel at that year’s INTV conference in Jerusalem, with Plepler declaring himself an avid fan.

“When I first approached Ari I told him that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book….It captured both the objective truth and the emotional truth, the psychological truth of how I love Israel and ponder its challenges, and wrestle with its obvious mistakes and foibles,” Plepler said at the time. “And I thought, my goodness, what a privilege, to capture the essential truths of this book and to make a film that could reach millions of people not only in Israel and the U.S., but all over the world.”

Asked whether the documentary project will go forward in light of the allegations against Shavit, HBO declined to clarify. In an e-mail Sunday, a representative for Plepler wrote only that “there is nothing more to say at this time except that this project is in the post-production/editing stage.”

The scandal first unfolded Oct. 19, when Danielle Berrin, a reporter with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, wrote a cover story titled “My Sexual Assault, and Yours – Every Woman’s Story.” In the first-person piece, she did not name Shavit directly, but described how a 2014 interview with a dark-haired, prominent Israeli journalist who had written a major book suddenly took an unwelcome turn. The unnamed journalist, she wrote, grabbed at her, attempted to force a kiss, and invited her up to his hotel room for sex.

Berrin said she wrote the piece after being inspired to join the conversation on sexual assault and abuse of women that has been sparked by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign. One of Berrin’s early pieces for the Jewish Journal detailed producer Brett Ratner’s overly flirtatious behavior during an interview.

Almost immediately, Facebook and the Israeli blogosphere were abuzz with speculation as to the identity of the unnamed journalist. Shavit put the rumors to rest in an Oct. 27 statement acknowledging that he was the person described in the piece but that the incident had been “a misunderstanding” and that his interaction with Berrin had felt like “courtship.”

When a second woman stepped forward three days later to also accuse Shavit of assault, he issued a second statement announcing his resignation from Haaretz.

“I am ashamed of the mistakes I made with regards to people in general and women in particular,” Shavit said. “In the last few days I have understood that I have been afflicted by blindness. For years, I did not understand what people meant when they spoke of privileged men who do not see the damage that they cause to others. Now I am beginning to understand.”

Israel has witnessed other public controversies involving sexual assault recently. Former President Moshe Katsav is currently serving a prison term for rape. Over the summer, the Israeli military tapped a rabbi for a top role despite his having publicly condoned the use of rape as war tactic.

“Over the past year, we Israelis have watched as a veritable perp walk of famous, powerful, disgraced men paraded across our TV screens,” Jerusalem-based journalist Eetta Prince-Gibson wrote in the Jewish newspaper “The Forward.” “Shavit is just one more. And like Shavit, most of the men claim that they ‘didn’t understand’ how the women they interacted with were ‘interpreting’ their behavior.”

Berrin, for her part, has said that she accepts Shavit’s second statement and is grateful for his honesty. And she remains adamant that she came forward not to bring Shavit down, but to raise awareness of how close to home sexual assault remains for half the world’s population.

“My story about sexual assault is not about a person; it’s about an issue. To treat it otherwise is to miss the point entirely,” she tweeted last week.

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