– by Marc Gafni –
Over the last year, I, Marc Gafni, have been attacked in the press and on Internet blogs, falsely accused of everything from sexual harassment to plagiarism. My character and work have been demeaned. These attacks have unfolded as a series of articles reaching back to the end of 2015. I believe that these articles are the result of a highly orchestrated smear campaign, which I’ve detailed in-depth in the article “Anatomy of a Smear: The Internet Trial of Marc Gafni”. I want to directly address a particular false story by Sara Kabakov that is being used in an attempt not only to destroy my reputation, but now has become the basis for a wider organized campaign to destroy the reputations of peers and colleagues.
Time and again Stephen Dinan and others in the smear campaign, that he directly or indirectly initiated and orchestrated, have labeled Sara’s story as courageous. It is not. The story Sara has told about me, Marc Gafni, is fundamentally distorted in certain of its dimensions and blatantly false in other dimensions. Telling a false story for decades and inflicting great trauma and direct damage on dozens of people through the telling of that false story, is far from courageous.
Allowing yourself to be used, refusing to meet and subject the competing narratives to fact checking, and utterly refusing repeated requests for facilitated mediation and transformation, is not courageous. Taking a story of teenage necking by two young people in love, and letting yourself be persuaded to turn it into an abuse story decades after it happened, is the very opposite of courage. Supporting that story in order to accomplish hidden political agendas, manipulating Sara to realize those objectives is neither brave nor good. Quite the opposite. It is men, once again manipulating women, as patriarchy has so often done, in order to realize their own shadowy and vulgar ambitions. Sara, a woman in her fifties today, was persuaded to join the smear campaign in a meeting that took place in Dec. 2015 in New York.
The series of articles and blogs I’m referring to, particularly the ones published in the Jewish press, cite the alleged “molestation of Sara Kabakov, starting at age 13, by her former Rabbi and spiritual guru, Marc Gafni.” They present this claim as if it were an established and self-evident truth. It is not.
Speaking the truth about this story is not just crucial for me personally, it is also important for the evolution of public culture in the Internet age. Fact checking and fair process are at the core of democratic society. How we manage conflict tells us much about who we actually are as human beings and as a society.
Our culture must protect against all abuses of human rights and dignity. That includes racial and class-based abuse, sexual harassment and all forms of physical and emotional abuse. At the same time, we must be alert to all forms of defamation and cyberbullying in any form. Cyberbullying and false complaints create trauma, sometimes leading to suicide and always defacing human dignity.
This response, which contains detailed refutations of the false and distorted claims being circulated about my actions and character, is the first in a series of articles I will be providing various media outlets who have published erroneous stories about me.
What follows is my direct response to the assertions made by Sara Kabakov in her opinion piece published by the Forward on January 13th 2016. I am writing about this relationship for two important reasons. First, her story significantly distorts key details about our relationship. And secondly, as I mentioned above, her claims are being actively and intentionally used in some of the most malicious elements of the smear campaign against me.
Marc Gafni’s Relationship with Sara
Sara’s Forward article describes a highly distorted and often outright false narrative about our relationship from 36 years ago. In this article, Sara introduces herself as “the woman Marc Gafni molested when she was 13 years old,” reinforcing, from the very start, the prominent negative meme that implies that I, Marc Gafni, a 55-year-old man, have abused, or have in any way had intimate relationships with teenagers.
At the time I met Sara, I was a 19-year-old boy, college freshman (not a rabbinical student as stated by Sara in her essay), and not a rabbi, or the man who writes this response today. In fact, I’ve never been a spiritual guru as Sara has so labeled me. I was a teenager in a relationship with a younger teenager. Moreover, I was not then, nor am I now, a “child rapist,” “statutory rapist,” or a “pedophile,” as Sara and her representatives have claimed through various media sources. These claims result from the on-going recycling of falsehoods about this relationship 36 years ago.
I met Sara toward the beginning of her freshman year of high school. I was one year out of high school. Our relationship began some time later, in the fall of 1980. Sara now says that she was 13 when we first met, but, according to what she told me then, she was 14 during the time of our relationship. Her 14th birthday was November 30th. Our relationship began in December.
The first sentence of her article significantly disguises the fact that ours was a relationship between two teenagers. The portrait of me as a sexual predator is made much more credible when she is described as a 13-year old while there is no mention of my actual age at the time in many subsequent Forward pieces.
Relatedly, Sara claims that when we met, “he offered to tutor me in Talmud,” a subtle distortion that sets up a formal authority relationship, which also strengthens the abuse narrative. Such a relationship never existed. It is true that we discussed the Talmud — I was an Orthodox yeshiva student, and discussing Talmud was what we did. But I was never her tutor in any sense.
Of critical importance is the fact that, 36 years ago, I hadn’t any awareness that her being a minor was an issue. We were 14 and 19 — teenagers, who had no knowledge of such things in 1980 New York, when, culturally, such topics were far less discussed than they are today. Indeed, either these words or this topic ever came up between us — not even once during the few months of our relationship. It was just not in our cultural awareness.
As a committed Orthodox boy, I was conflicted about my feelings versus following what I thought at the time was God’s law. I had strong feelings for Sara. And, at that time, she claimed to have the same feelings for me. What once was a mutual expression of teenage love has somehow, over the course of many decades, become, for Sara, a story of abuse. This is the heart of the matter.
In describing the start of our friendship, Sara states: “He proceeded to tell me how “special” I was, and that he really liked me.” While I don’t remember the exact words used, this is true. I was falling for her and we shared our feelings with each other directly. She then says that I suggested we “keep our friendship a secret,” and that I was “grooming [her] into being silent and fearful.” Nothing could be further from the truth of my recollection. Our friendship was not a secret, and I never suggested it be kept as such.
It’s true that, as Sara states, I stayed at her house on Shabbat, with her parents’ permission and their full knowledge. I also stayed over many times during the week, which she does not mention. Their house was like a second home for me, and I had a good relationship with her parents. Again, there was nothing secret about the fact that we were close friends or that we spent a lot of time together. We never shared that we were dating — but not because I asked Sara to keep a secret. We naturally did not share it with parents, as is the case in many teenage relationships.
Marc Gafni & Sara — Love or Abuse?
So, as others have asked, was this relationship one of teenage love or abuse? I recognize that even for open-minded readers — that is, anyone who hasn’t already assumed that the story told by Sara, or the organizers of the larger smear campaign is true — this question is impossible to answer definitely. There are two opposing narratives, and there is no easy way to directly establish the veracity of either. This is why, almost a decade ago, the last time Sara’s claims were used to mischaracterize me, I did the only thing I could do to demonstrate that the story I am telling here is not a lie.
I took a polygraph — the results of which are available online — to affirm my claims. It was completed by Gordon H. Barland, PhD, the former director of polygraph research for the Department of Defense. I answered five questions about aspects of my relationship with Sara and the nature of our physical contact, which was nothing greater than teenage necking. The polygraph contained two questions about our mutually positive experience at the time, and three questions regarding the nature of our physical contact. No deception was indicated for my answers to all five questions. In fact, Dr. Barland assessed the probability of deception at less than .01. He concluded that I had answered each question truthfully.
Despite all of this, the claims that Sara and I had sex persist, the counterclaims I have made and repeat here, along with the polygraph results supporting them, are simply ignored.
Marc Gafni & Sara — Our Break-up and the Letter
Orthodox law and practice prohibits all physical contact before marriage, including even holding hands. In her article, Sara correctly says that each time we had physical contact, I would express deep remorse through an act of Teshuvah (repentance), because I knew that such contact was in violation of Jewish Orthodox law. This is true. I spoke to the man who had been my rabbi in high school the year before, and he affirmed the “absolute biblical prohibition, according to Maimonides, of any physical contact between unmarried people.” At 19, I did not know how to resolve the contradiction between our very limited contact and what I was being taught was immutable divine law.
Despite distorted details as to why Sara and I broke up according to Sara’s account, I broke up with Sara because I was committed to Orthodox law and practice which prohibited any physical contact, even holding hands, before marriage. As a 19-year-old Orthodox Jew, I understood this law as a direct divine obligation, one which I had not fulfilled.
We broke up and Sara later wrote me a beautiful love letter, which arrived about six months after the breakup. It looked tattered and was covered in postmarks and other stamps, like it took several attempts before it was finally delivered. Sara’s letter said that we were each other’s one true love, spoke of the depth of our love, that we were intended for each other, and that it would be tragic for us not to spend our lives together. I cried for what felt like two hours after reading it. I was devastated, and I can still remember my sadness.
I called her immediately. The call was answered but she would not come to the phone. In that moment, I wondered if she thought I had ignored her letter, which very well may have arrived months after she wrote it.
In other publications, Sara has denied sending this letter. In the polygraph mentioned earlier, two questions directly concerned the letter and its contents. “After your relationship with Sara was over, did she write you that you were her one true love?” and “After your relationship with Sara was over, did she write that you were meant to be together forever?” I answered both questions as “yes,” and no deception was indicated. Again, Dr. Barland concluded that I had answered truthfully.
About 25 years after we broke up, Sara responded in writing to blogger, Luke Ford, who requested comment about Gary Rosenblatt’s 2004 article that first alerted me to her allegations. It’s worth noting that Sara’s on-the-record written statement in the 2004 story differs substantially from her Forward essay. Because I did not keep mementos from that long ago, and because there is no electronic record from those pre-internet days, the best I could do to repudiate the allegations was to take this polygraph with the most rigorous and authoritative expert I could find.
We are left with two very different stories about our relationship, and I am left with a very difficult question: When and how did her story shift from teenage romance to one of abuse? It pains me greatly to even write this essay, but the current smear campaign has so heavily relied on her allegations that I am left with little choice but to reflect on this at a deeper level.
Some of Sara’s language and her association with non-credible counselors such as Vicki Polin support my belief that her story was constructed over years of coaching. Vicki, sadly, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1989 and claimed to have memories of murdering a baby in a Satanic cult. Those so-called memories and Vicki’s work has been severely criticized by many experts. That Vicki wrote online that she was Sara’s mentor or therapist is disturbing. This, combined with a consistent pattern of un-fact-checked and biased journalism, should draw suspicion in the minds of critical readers.
Marc Gafni — Toward a Higher Clarification
In retrospect, I deeply regret my involvement with Sara. I take full responsibility for my role in this youthful mistake. I apologize with all my heart for any pain I may have caused her in our youthful relationship.
As always, I stand against any form of sexual harassment or abuse. Sexual abuse, like all abuses of power, is a pervasive problem. I stand against all practices and behaviors that seek to shame victims who chose to speak out. In speaking out, I have no intention to shame Sara. My intent here has been to respond to allegations made against me — as is my right as a human being. Twenty years of this tale has had profoundly damaging and traumatic effects on my life, on my children’s lives, and on the lives of my partners and friends. Sara cannot hide from this truth nor her own profound responsibility in perpetrating gross and horrifically damaging falsehoods, by claiming that she is being subjected to victim shaming.
Wrongful accusations, leveled by an individual or by a group, in a trial-by-Internet atmosphere are regressive. I propose another vision. I will conclude with my dream, which I hope is not an impossible dream: What if the result of this campaign was the seeking of a higher clarification? What if, over time, all the parties, with all their narratives, could sit together, compare facts, talk, and seek genuine truth and reconciliation?
This is Marc Gafni’s response to Sara Kabakov that he originally wrote and that was then edited into his Jewish Forward article published in November 2016. Unfortunately, the Forward again presented this material in a very biased way. They went out of their way to discredit Marc Gafni’s piece by surrounding it with disclaimers and so-called expert opinion. The seeming lack of journalistic integrity in this and in so many other instances of the Forward’s coverage has been highly unfortunate and caused significant damage.