Seven women have accused the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt of sexual harassment in a report issued by the New York Times and ProPublica. Allegations against the billionaire suggest that he repeatedly asked for sexual favors in exchange for financial donations. Two past complaints originated from inside an unnamed Upper East Side gallery.
Steinhardt’s name is omnipresent in New York’s network of nonprofits. His foundations have given at least $127 million to charitable causes since 2003, according to public records. New York University has its Steinhardt graduate school for programs in education, communication, and health. There is a Steinhardt conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a Steinhardt gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A new natural history museum in Tel Aviv also bears his name.
The retired hedge fund manager is also known to bankroll a variety of Jewish causes, including Birthright Israel (which he founded) and Hillel International. It was through these organizations that accusers say he found some of his victims.
Deborah Mohile Goldberg was working for Birthright Israel when Steinhardt asked if she and a female colleague would join him in a threesome, she said. Sheila Katz was a young executive at Hillel International, a Jewish college outreach organization, when she repeatedly fielded his requests to have sex with him. Natalie Goldfein worked at a smaller nonprofit that Steinhardt was funding; she recalls that the business mogul asked in a meeting that they have babies together.
Steinhardt has denied the specific allegations of sexual harassment in the report, but did say that he regretted that he had made comments in professional settings through the years “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.” Those comments were always meant humorously, he said.
“In my nearly 80 years on earth, I have never tried to touch any woman or man inappropriately,” Steinhardt’s statement continued, claiming that provocative comments were only made in jest. “I fully understand why they were inappropriate. I am sorry.”
None of the women interviewed said that the billionaire philanthropist touched them inappropriately, but they did say that they felt pressured to endure demeaning sexual comments and requests out of fear that complaining could damage their organizations or derail their careers. During their investigation, the Times and ProPublica also interviewed 16 other people who had been witnesses to Steinhardt’s advances.
“He set a horrifying standard of what women who work in the Jewish community were expected to endure,” said Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a Jewish scholar. She claimed that Steinhardt suggested that she become his concubine while he was funding her first rabbinical position in the mid-1990s.
Trouble has trailed Steinhardt for some time. Though he was not named as a defendant, he appeared in two sexual harassment lawsuits filed by employees at an Upper East Side gallery.
(The Times article claims that the company in question was Electrum, also known as Phoenix Ancient Art. In 2017, the gallery had 11,000 of its antiquities seized by Swiss authorities on suspicion of looting. Only 5,000 of those items have been returned to the gallery as of August 2018, while the rest remain in custody.)
The complaints alleged that Steinhardt made sexually loaded comments to two women working at the gallery who were expected to endure the harassment because he was an important client. Hicham Aboutaam, one of the gallery’s founders, was named in the lawsuits for allegedly engaging in “quid-pro-quo sexual harassment” against one woman and “forcibly kissing” another during a business trip.
Karen Simons, an employee, said in her 2013 lawsuit that in one instance, Steinhardt asked over the phone whether her husband satisfied her and asked her to have sex with him.
In a deposition for the case, Steinhardt said that he did not recall making sexual remarks to the two women. Simons’s case was dismissed in November 2017 while the other lawsuit was settled in 2014.
According to a report originally published by Jewish Week in 2018, Hillel International made it “practice” as early as 2015 that no female employee would be left alone with Steinhardt because of his reputation for lewd behavior. The organization had also quietly removed the billionaire’s name from the board of governors list on its website.
Steinhardt is one of the foremost collectors of antiquities in the United States. The gallery that bears his name at the Met houses ancient Greek sculptures, pottery, and bronze. Included in its collection is the famous New York Kouros. The Met Museum has declined Hyperallergic’s request to comment at this time.
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