In My Own Words: Guilt by association

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

First, let’s be clear: Jeffrey Epstein was a pedophile and a loathsome excuse for a human being. Why do I feel the need to say that before writing about a business associate of his? Because it seems like we are now condemning people as guilty by association. 

The American CEO of Barclays Jes Staley resigned recently after his business connections to Epstein were being probed and, since he plans to fight any charges, he felt that staying would affect his ability to do his job. (Sorry, that’s about as convincing to me as a belief in the tooth fairy. The bank wanted him to leave to avoid bad publicity. And some of the financial arrangements suggest that Staley received a very good deal in return.)

From what I’ve read, Staley is not being accused of taking part in Epstein’s sexual activities or even knowing about them. It seems the problem has more to do with his not completely disavowing his connection to Epstein when he was accused of sex crimes. Staley is not the only one who has been criticized for not immediately turning away from Epstein and that’s what interests me. People who had no connection to or knowledge of Epstein’s crimes are being condemned because they supported a friend. 

Most of us will be lucky enough to never be friends with someone like Epstein. But we may have friends whose behavior will be questioned at some point in their lives. So, I ask myself, “What would I do for a friend if they were accused of something unethical or illegal?” I’m not talking about someone I barely know: I’m talking about the people whom I’ve known for decades and who have supported me, even when they felt I was making the wrong decision. They may have challenged me about my choices, but they never turned their back on me. How can I reject them if I disapprove of their thoughts or actions? Even if they were convicted of a crime, I would still be their friend because I can’t imagine my life without them.

This raises another question: Would I reveal information about them if it would help prosecutors convict them? If they had committed a heinous crime, I hope I would be honest and testify against them. Please note, I mean a heinous crime, not some minor infraction. No one is perfect and if anyone gets through life without hurting another person, they should consider themselves blessed. Maybe I feel the way I do because I can’t imagine my friends doing something so awful that I would regret having known them. I might regret their actions and wish they hadn’t taken them. I might even condemn their actions, but I don’t think I could condemn their very being, nor could I ignore all the good they have done in their lives.

I know this is not currently a popular position. We are supposed to reject people who aren’t perfect or say something that is not politically correct. We’re supposed boycott those who have a different opinion and reject any association with them. Yes, I can understand people feeling this way about someone like Epstein, but where do we draw the line, especially as we move from actions to thoughts? Should we separate ourselves from people who think differently than us? Do we condemn someone before they’ve been proven guilty, which also means they might not have committed the crime? Do we differentiate between diverse types of behavior – between minor mishaps and misunderstandings, and those that qualify as a crime? 

There is a slippery slope here, one that includes turning “incorrect thought” into a crime punishable by abandonment. And who makes these decisions? Public opinion has been wrong about so many things, so we need to think for ourselves about what loyalty means and how we should, and can, still interact with those whose ideas and actions differ from our own.