The Right Kind of Continuity

Jeffrey Epstein and the sexual politics of Jewish philanthropy.

Ari M. Brostoff and Noah Kulwin
August 7, 2019
Les Wexner (left) and Jeffrey Epstein. Photos: Wikipedia

REAL-LIFE conspiracies pose a certain challenge for political analysis. Take the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the financier whose indictment in early July has produced revelations shocking even in an age of cartoon villainy. What is there to say about an international pedophilia ring linked to former US presidents and mitteleuropean aristocrats, which operated for decades with near impunity thanks to the prominence of its participants, at the behest of a billionaire whose private plane was nicknamed the Lolita Express? 

It is likewise awkward for Jews when a Jewish public figure so perfectly embodies an antisemitic caricature. And here too—even with Woody Allen atop the alphabetical list of associates whose names appear in Epstein’s leaked little black book, and Alan Dershowitz allegedly availing himself of Epstein’s underage girls even while getting him a sweetheart deal in court—it has been difficult to know quite what to say. After all, Epstein’s friends also included plenty of prominent non-Jews (Donald Trump, for instance). But two stories that broke last week have turned the Epstein case into a specifically Jewish debacle—not the generic kind an antisemite might dream up, but one rooted in the particular realities of the contemporary US Jewish establishment. 

At a glance, these new disclosures have little in common. The first, a story reported by the Forward, detailed fallout within the Jewish community over the formerly close ties between Epstein and Leslie Wexner, a lingerie billionaire and a major Jewish philanthropist. The second revealed that—in the deadpan words of the New York Times—Epstein had long “hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch.” Only the former story explicitly dealt with the Jewish world—and yet it was the latter that elicited widespread social media responses like the writer Ayelet Waldman’s. “I just keep muttering to myself, ‘Oh my god this is so so so so so so so so so so bad for the Jews,’” Waldman wrote. “Am I the only one?” (She was not.) 

Looking at these stories side by side, we might ask: what can it mean that someone so very bad for the Jews has operated so close to the center of power in the American Jewish community? And we might observe that the Jewish philanthropic world’s own ongoing attempts to engineer reproductive behavior within the community have deeply stultified its sexual politics—rendering its adjacence to an abuser at Epstein’s scale of ambition all the more unnerving.

OVER THE PAST FEW weeks, Wexner—whose retail empire includes Victoria’s Secret and Express—has mostly appeared in the news in response to a persistent question: where did Jeffrey Epstein’s money come from? For a man who owns private islands, Epstein’s assets appear to be relatively meager. The financier seems to have acquired much of his wealth in the 1990s and early 2000s through the largesse of ultra-rich friends like Wexner; Epstein called Wexner his mentor, and the press has often described him as Epstein’s “only known client.” In addition to cash, Wexner gave Epstein power of attorney, which allowed him to perform financial transactions in Wexner’s name. He also gifted Epstein his Upper East Side manse, then handed over the Boeing 727 that Epstein would turn into his infamous party plane. Though Wexner has not been directly accused of wrongdoing, he appears to have tolerated Epstein’s habit of gaining access to Victoria’s Secret models by posing as a talent scout for the company. Wexner claims he knew nothing of Epstein’s abuses against women until the latter pled guilty to solicitation charges in 2008; at that point, Wexner and his foundation say, they ended the relationship. 

Within the Jewish institutional world, however, Wexner’s relationship with Epstein is significant in a different way. Wexner is among a small number of Jewish community megadonors, billionaires who provide an outsize and growing proportion of funding for communal organizations and to a large extent determine what those organizations look like. Along with Sheldon Adelson, Charles Bronfman, and a few others, he has spent millions of dollars on institutions ranging from Birthright Israel—which has sent over 500,000 young diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel—to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Conservative rabbis are ordained. The Wexner Graduate Fellowship, a prestigious and often career-making award, sponsors leadership training and graduate school tuition subsidies for an elite cadre of future rabbis, educators, and other Jewish professionals. Epstein was closely involved with Wexner’s charitable giving; together, for instance, the two men helped fund the construction of a new building for Harvard’s Hillel. Tax filings suggest that Epstein spent six years as a trustee of the Wexner Foundation, and that the foundation gave millions of dollars to pet projects of his own. (Epstein also donated to Jewish charities himself, though at a comparatively modest level.)

These ties are now stoking anxiety and division behind the scenes at Jewish institutions led by Wexner-affiliated professionals. Last month, the Forward reported, a former student at Mechon Hadar—a co-ed egalitarian yeshiva in New York—emailed the school’s listserv with a plea for the institution to cut ties with Wexner in light of the unspooling allegations against Epstein. Mechon Hadar’s president, a prominent rabbi (and a stepson to former US senator Joe Lieberman), responded by censuring the student, implying that he would be unwelcome in the Hadar community until he performed teshuvah—repentance—for having “called out” the connections between Wexner, Epstein, and the school in a community forum. Wexner-backed institutions may well hope that any outrage currently directed at their benefactor goes the way of allegations against Michael Steinhardt, the Birthright co-founder and megadonor accused last year of serial sexual harassment—which is to say nowhere. Steinhardt remains on Birthright’s honorary board; his money will likely continue to be welcome throughout the mainstream Jewish world. 

Lacking a broad base of support, Jewish organizations are increasingly dependent on alms from an ever older, richer, and more conservative donor class. In this sense, the likelihood that the Jewish world will continue to harbor high-level sexual assailants is simply a matter of odds: the violence of rich and powerful men against women, as we continue to confirm, is staggeringly commonplace. A community reliant on the generosity of such men is thus particularly vulnerable to their abuse. 

On another level, though, the problem is even more circular than these practical considerations would suggest. The donors who rose to power in the Jewish community at the end of the 20th century built their philanthropic vision around the promotion of what came to be called “Jewish continuity.” They commissioned extensive surveys of American Jewry and found that the kind of Jews they recognized seemed to be disappearing: synagogue membership and affinity for Israel were in decline, interfaith marriage was up, and Jewish fertility rates were down. In response to this perceived crisis, the Jewish establishment poured millions of dollars into programs intended to reproduce the community “in its own image,” as the sociologist Shaul Kelner put it in an article by that name. Reproduction itself, both biological and social, is at the heart of Jewish continuity programming. The demographer Steven M. Cohen, who produced countless statistical reports on the community at the behest of the donor class, liked to put it bluntly: if institutions wanted American Jewish life to continue, they would have to prioritize the goals of “creating more Jewish marriages and filling more Jewish baby carriages.”

Feminist critiques of continuity discourse have become increasingly audible within the mainstream Jewish world, intensifying last year after Cohen himself was accused of serial sexual harassment. “How surprised can we be that a man whose entire worldview hinged on women having more babies turned out to have no respect for women when it came to personal sexual boundaries?” the writer Rokhl Kafrissen asked in the Forward. In practice, though, Jewish organizations designed to promote a large-scale reproductive project have continued to do just that—and to enable the abuses that come along with it. “We’re tantalizing you with ‘you will hook up and you will marry,’” a former Birthright staffer told Jewish Currents in our investigation of sexual misconduct on the Israel tours. “The trips promote allegiance and a lack of critical thinking. And to talk about rape culture, you have to be able to think critically.” 

Cut to Epstein’s New Mexico ranch, where, according to the New York Times, the financier intended to have 20 women at a time inseminated with his sperm. Epstein was interested in transhumanism, a theory of human perfection via technological manipulation that—like its predecessor, eugenics—is shot through with racist and reactionary ideas. Allegedly inspired by a defunct operation to stockpile the sperm of Nobel laureates, Epstein cultivated relationships with Harvard scientists whom he believed could help him in this and other transhumanist endeavors: he hoped to improve the human genome, to cut aid to the poor as a bulwark against overpopulation, and to cryogenically freeze his own brain and (allegedly egg-shaped) penis. Donations to Harvard got Epstein, who did not attend college himself, in the door; he was welcomed as a patron and interlocutor by high-profile researchers even as some, like the neuroscientist Steven Pinker, eventually distanced themselves. Dershowitz, who as a Harvard Law professor regularly attended lunches Epstein hosted for the scientists, told the Times he was “appalled” to learn about Epstein’s eugenic ambitions, but their friendship continued. 

These revelations suggest that Epstein is not only a sexual assailant on a grand scale, but one who believes, on the basis of bloodlines, in the righteousness of some version of his sexual politics. Clearly, Harvard—even if it knew nothing of Epstein’s predation—should be held accountable for inviting someone promoting these views into a prominent role at a research institution. Is the same true for the Wexner Foundation? No evidence has yet emerged connecting Epstein’s eugenic ambitions to his Jewish philanthropic ones. It should concern us that Epstein long had Wexner’s ear, but then, we were already concerned. 

ALL SCANDALS ASIDE, Jewish establishment donors and leaders obsessed not only with Jewish continuity but the right kind of continuity—ardently pro-Israel children of two Jewish parents—have failed on their own terms. Perhaps the most publicly identifiable organization of millennial Jews is IfNotNow, which rages against the moral obstinacy of the establishment. Jews of color, drastically undercounted by establishment demographers even as they have been instrumentalized as Zionists, are demanding recognition. And Steven M. Cohen’s research, with its dire predictions about American Jews intermarrying into extinction, has been called into question for its narrow definition of Jewishness. The language of continuity “told people who fall outside of the parameters set primarily by men that their ways of being Jewish are not valued or valuable,” three Jewish women professors—Kate Rosenblatt, Lila Corwin Berman, and Ronit Stahl—wrote in a Forward op-ed last year. 

These are consequences of the Jewish establishment’s tacit bargain with billionaire donors, which realigned Jewish institutions with a set of priorities never agreed upon by the wider community. This bargain created a communal leadership disconnected from many of the Jews it claims to represent, and proximate to figures like Epstein.

Rather than endlessly tracing these webs of influence, we might do better to listen for ideological echoes. With his insemination plan, Epstein conjured a eugenicist fantasy a Nazi could love—and one that, in the context of his proximity to Jewish philanthropy, also feels like a crude parody of Jewish summer camp seen from the perspective of a megadonor. Of course, his plan was nakedly about his own mass reproduction, while the Jewish philanthropic establishment aims to reproduce an entire community. But the establishment has projected its own face onto that community, refusing to recognize deviations that would disturb this image—including the deviation posed by women’s reproductive autonomy. Which is the greater narcissism?

Ari M. Brostoff is the senior editor of Jewish Currents.

Noah Kulwin is a writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents. He is also co-host of the podcast Blowback, and an associate editor at The Drift. He lives in New York.