NOTE: I’ve just published my latest piece at Middle East Eye examining Trump’s recent normalization agreements with Gulf States. They are nothing more than sideshows meant to buttress support among Christian evangelicals for his election campaign.
Gregg Roman, the director of operations and second in command at the Middle East Forum, has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment by female employees of the organization over the years. At least four outstanding lawsuits have been filed by alleged victims. Court filings in these cases name other alleged victims and recount claims about his harassment, including one accusation involving sexual contact. Shockingly, only a single item has been published about this scandal, in a local Philadelphia legal news outlet. It only mentioned one of the lawsuits.
MEF is a far-right pro-Israel hasbara organization in the guise of a think tank. It is characterized by flagrant Islamophobia, a Likudist perspective on Israeli-Arab affairs, and vicious attacks on its perceived enemies in politics and academia. It is richly funded by the most Islamophobic foundations in America, which finance a scorched-earth law fare approach to groups and individuals dedicated to the civil rights of Muslim-Americans.
It’s a bitter irony that one of the chief criticisms Pipes and his comrades offer against Islam is that it is a misogynist religion condoning female genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women. The account below will demonstrate that Pipes and MEF are the pot calling the kettle…
NOTE: Material in the following section is from publicly available federal court records of four sexual discrimination lawsuits filed by former MEF employees. It is based on claims submitted in legal filings by the complainants against Gregg Roman, Daniel Pipes, and MEF. Quotations are from these documents. None of the cases have settled nor have they gone to trial. These claims have not been adjudicated by a court, judge or jury. But they are sufficiently disturbing and newsworthy in light of the #Metoo movement that I recount them here. I sent a series of questions to MEF board chair, Steven Levy. He did not respond before publication. If he does, I will note that here.
The PACER federal court filings are available to registered users here:
- Barbounis v. Middle East Forum et al.
- Brady v. Middle East Forum et al.
- O’Brien v. Middle East Forum et al.
- McNulty v. Middle East Forum et al.
Roman has worked at MEF for six years. Before that, he served as political advisor to Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon. His bio also notes he worked for the defense ministry. He fancies himself a national security expert and indicates he enrolled in national security studies at American University and Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center. The latter populates many government ministries associated with intelligence and military affairs. He was also the director of the Pittsburgh Jewish federation Jewish Communal Relations Council, responsible for pro-Israel political lobbying.
Patricia McNulty’s claim describes a plan by Roman to exploit a work trip to Israel to invite a female employee in anticipation that she would provide him with sex. A condition for joining him was that they share an Airbnb he rented. The first invitee countered that she would agree to coming on the trip if she could stay in a separate hotel. He refused her counter-offer.
After that attempt, Roman persuaded another employee, Lisa Barbounis, to join him. He warned her not to inform anyone else in the organization of the arrangement:
“Don’t tell your family. Don’t tell Daniel [Pipes]. Don’t tell anyone in the office.”
During the stay, Barbounis texted a fellow employee that Roman attempted to force himself on her. She wrote that she was so afraid of Roman that she felt she should sleep with a knife under her pillow. She also wrote:
“He’s creepy. Talking about stuff he shouldn’t..and too drunk…The shit he is saying is so strange…talking about women and his wife and conquests and graphic.
He said he fucked Lea [an MEF intern] and tried to meet up with her again and it didn’t work out…He told the employee sharing the Israeli Airbnb “she gives a really great blowjob. Her body is so tight.”
According to the court record, Roman told Barbounis during their Israel trip that the method he used to seduce “Lea” involved telling her that paperwork she needed signed in order for her to complete her internship was in his hotel room. He told her to come there to get his signature. While there, he pressured her to give him oral sex, which she did, according to Barbounis’ account.
After Barbounis rejected Roman’s sexual overtures during their stay in Israel, he sought out the intern, who lived in Israel at the time, for another sexual assignation. But she refused. He also propositioned another ex-girlfriend for a hook-up and she refused as well.
A total of fourteen female employees are listed by name in the filings as victims of Roman’s. The four victims who filed lawsuits are Patricia McNulty, Lisa Barbounis, Catriona Brady and Marnie O’Brien. MEF has filed a counter-claim against one of the complainants alleging that she stole money from the organization. One victim’s lawsuit was withdrawn.
Another incident portrayed in two of the lawsuits concerns the 2018 Aipac national conference, which most of the staff attended. Roman and a male staff member shared an Airbnb in Washington DC, while the female staff stayed in hotels. The men invited three of the female employees to join them one evening at their Airbnb. There, while sitting on a couch between Barbounis and McNulty, Roman allegedly threw his arms around them, then “violently yanked” McNulty by her upper thigh onto his lap. He then “began whispering inappropriate sexual advances into her ear.” He also “attempted to yank…Barbounis to him as well.” When that failed, he allegedly “picked up…McNulty by her upper thigh and read end…and aggressively placed [her] on his lap…Roman used force and did not allow McNulty to get up or escape his grip.” McNulty resisted his advances, after which Roman left the room.
Other inappropriate behavior concerns Roman asking female subordinates to “visit his home and take care of his children.” He also sent text messages “late at night.” He forced her to work late, then invited her to go to dinner with him under the pretext that he needed to talk further about work assignments. He took one employee to see a movie and instructed her not to inform any employees that they’d done so.
Roman’s modus operandi, according to court filings, is that of a “sexual predator [who] pressures female employees to have sex with him.” He also has been known to proposition women working for other organizations close to MEF. The legal complaint accuses him of offering reporters (naming the Washington Post and Examiner) leaks and other news stories in return for sex. Once, outside a bar, he purportedly exposed himself to a female reporter. He then “ordered her to come to his hotel room within the next hour.” She rejected him, after which he’s alleged to have become abusive and issued threats to her, “yelling across the bar” that she had “thirty minutes to visit his room or he would give the story to the Post.”
The court filing contends that “Roman subjected almost every female employee whom he supervised to unwelcome sexual harrassment.” Further, he was known for “recruiting attractive female employees” and later “preying upon them.”
In another incident, Roman allegedly broke into the computers of two female employees who were contemplating suing him for sex discrimination. He gained access to their Google instant messaging accounts, which included discussions of their legal options. He later told the women he had accessed the messages and informed his boss, Pipes as well. The latter terminated both of them.
He entered the office of another staff member he’d propositioned and opened her computer to read “personal emails, chat history and internet browser history.” He asked other female employees to spy on that staff member from whom he solicited sex. He used the internal security system to watch another female staff member and warned her he was doing so.
Another employee quit her job as Roman’s assistant saying: “I will be dead before working for Greg Roman.” The court filing alleges that five staff members reported his “quid pro quo sexual harassment, stalking-like behavior, and in some cases sexual assaults.”
He invited one employee to visit his home telling her his wife and children would not be home. He subjected her to “inappropriate sexual advances” while texting her late at night and on weekends. When she reported these incidents to Pipes, he refused to act. She too was terminated shortly after reporting this.
The director of human resources (one of the four who has filed a lawsuit) filed a letter of complaint against Roman on the same day he was restricted from returning to the office. In it, she noted the incident in which he had had sex with the intern; and that he had access to secure computer passwords, which permitted him to spy upon their e mail and other files.
Shortly thereafter, Pipes scheduled an all-staff meeting to discuss the complaints, inviting Roman to attend. When the female workers complained, Pipes directed the latter not to attend, but invited his sister in his place. During the meeting, she not only defended her brother vociferously, she complained the women were at fault for “wearing provocative attire.” At the conclusion, Pipes told both Roman and the female complainants to work from home the following day. Roman’s restrictions continued for several months. All of the complainants were instructed to sign new Nondisclosure Agreements. McNulty, who was later constructively discharged, refused.
Four months later, Pipes proposed to the female staff that Roman return to work under a “strict probationary period…with strict rules, guidelines, scrutiny and oversight. None of this occurred.” They reluctantly agreed to his return. One of the staff who filed a complaint was told by Pipes that she would no longer have to report to Roman. But the group’s president did not enforce this or other remedial measures offered. This, according to the court filings, sent a message that MEF’s founder tolerated Roman’s behavior and condoned sexual harassment in the workplace.
After his return to the office, Roman allegedly began a campaign of retaliation and harassment designed, according to the victims, to force resignations of those who filed complaints against him. He counted the number of times one employee used the restroom. He also demanded that she sit close to him and watch videos on his work computer:
[He] showed her pictures of girls that he claimed to have had sexual intercourse with…[and] made comments about the womens’ look saying ‘Look how hot this one is…He made comments about a former employee [redacted] that she always had her boobs out and purposely did this to sexually entice him…blaming her and the way she dressed for tempting him.
To ensure the women could not further pursue their complaints against him, Roman implemented work policies which restricted their access to Pipes.
MEF’s president, Pipes, also had an affair with a subordinate female employee, Brooke Goldstein, according to court filings. She joined MEF as director of legal projects in 2007. She eventually left MEF to found her own pro-Israel group, Lawfare Project, which adopted a similar scorched-earth legal strategy of attacking so-called enemies of Israel.
Nor does he come out of this miasma of discrimination unscathed. In fact, the court filing contends that the then-director of human resources reported directly to Pipes that Roman had sex with the intern in the incident referenced above. These are other quotations from the briefs filed in federal court:
“…Pipes continues to protect Roman from any… consequences caused by his…pervasive…harassment.”
Pipes responded to the reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual assaults by telling [complaining staff members] Greg Roman’s conduct was not that big a deal.
He said that the women who complained of abuse were at fault because they invited it by the way they dressed. He added: “I am just going to go with Gregg Roman’s word.”
[He further] suggested that because priests who molest children were permitted by the Catholic Church to remain priests, Defendant, Greg Roman should be permitted to continue his employment…”
…Pipes said, “priests have been accused of more and not lost their jobs.
[He added] that Roman’s conduct and comments…had not risen to the level where discipline was warranted [nor] reached the MEF standards for discipline.”
MEF, facing four separate lawsuits in federal court and separate EEOC complaints, has no less than seven lawyers defending it. It’s convenient that the organization offers remunerative legal work to firms suing pro-Palestinian groups and individuals. Perhaps it earns a discount on its own legal fees defending itself in these cases.
Roman continues in his role as chief of operations. The organization is also financing his legal defense.
MEF, whose 2018 budget was $5-million according to its IRS 990 report, is funded by scores of wealthy right-wing donors and foundations. While their pro-Israel politics may align with those of MEF, they might want to consider whether an organization charged with such serious violations of, and disrespect for its female staff is worthy of their continuing support. Since MEF is paying substantial legal fees to defend this case, they also might want to ask themselves if they want their donations paying for the defense of individuals charged with sexual exploitation of its female employeest. They might also want to consider this passage written by prominent Jewish feminist researcher, Elana Maryles Sztokman:
…When victims of sexual abuse come forward, the response that they receive upon disclosure can create a secondary trauma that is at times worse than the trauma of abuse itself. When victims come forward, if they are believed and supported, that opens up a path to healing and functionality. However, if the people to whom they disclose respond with disbelief, blaming, accusations, or worse (e.g., getting fired), this can often lead to years of secondary trauma and PTSD that may interfere with basic functioning such as holding a job or maintaining marriage and relationships.
I note that almost all of the fourteen victims in this case either quit their MEF jobs or were fired. All lost their jobs because of the sexual abuse and their complaints about it. That is a fundamental injustice that all abuse victims face. But they should not have to face it in the Jewish communal world.
As for the lack of media coverage of this story: the federal court filings are publicly accessible to anyone seeking them. Why has no one from the Forward or the local Philadelphia Jewish paper covered this? Because the Jewish community tends to circle the wagons and protect its own. It maintains a Wall of Silence when major figures or organizations are threatened. Not to mention the formidable legal resources MEF uses to bully its enemies. That’s another reason why publication here is important. If no one else will do it, Tikun Olam will.
Jews and #Metoo
Nor have other Jewish organizations been immune to the flood of #Metoo accusations flooding the media over the past few years. Misogyny and white male privilege is a phenomenon that afflicts the Jewish communal board room as much as it does the non-Jewish world. One of the more troubling of these accusations were made against pro-Israel mega donor Michael Steinhardt, accused of verbally insulting and assaulting female staff members of Jewish groups seeking funding from him. He has largely withdrawn from the public role he formerly enjoyed as an obstreperous advocate for pro-Israel causes like Birthright and Hillel International.
Veteran Haaretz columnist, Ari Shavit, published a well-received (but deeply flawed) book, My Promised Land, just before he was named here, accused of serial counts of sexual harassment against a female Jewish journalist and a J Street staff member. Despite an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation, he too has largely withdrawn from his former public role. An HBO deal to turn his book into a documentary seems to have evaporated.
Noted American Jewish demographer, Stephen Cohen, was also accused of similar offenses and resigned his academic position at Hebrew Union College.
Bibi Netanyahu’s former media advisor for Diaspora Affairs, David Keyes, was removed from his position after NY State Rep. Julia Salazar accused him of attacking her and engaging in non-consensual sexual intercourse.
Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor and noted author, Elie Wiesel, was also accused of groping a woman with whom he was taking a group photograph.
I also reported here that the publisher of the right-wing pro-Israel Tablet Magazine, Morton Landowne, was also accused of sexual harassment by a female employee of the insurance company where he worked. He admitted that he installed a video camera in the women’s shower to record her surreptitiously. Tablet is funded by two far-right Islamophobic Jewish foundations. When approached for comment, Tablet did not respond. He remains as the publication’s publisher.
Clearly, male sexual aggression is fueled and ratified by roles of power they enjoy. In organizations with a largely male hierarchy (as far too many Jewish organizations are), women are relegated to supporting roles. As such, they are considered vulnerable and exploitable by individuals like Roman. Male CEOs and presidents like Pipes, when confronted with charges like these, circle the wagons and protect the the Good Ol’ Jewish Boys. Women aren’t in sufficiently senior roles to make their voices heard in these matters.
For example, of the fourteen executive board members MEF lists in its IRS 990 form, only one is a woman. Women employees serve in secondary roles. One of the other sexual discrimination charges in the MEF lawsuit is that Roman was paid nearly 50% more than McNulty, who served in a comparable role. Male leaders like Pipes have great difficulty in thinking of woman as equals and deserving of equal pay. These attitudes are those of a dinosaur generation trapped in a profoundly toxic, misogynist past. It is but one of many of the failings of today’s Jewish communal leadership, which is exceedingly male, white (Ashkenazi), and old.