The Hidden Story of the Marc Gafni Smear Campaign and the People Who Want Him Dead

“In our reasonings concerning matters of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”
-David Hume

[Please note: This is the introduction to a eight part, long-read essay. A link to the full essay is provided at the bottom of the page.]

Marc Gafni is arguably one of the most influential spiritual teachers and public intellectuals to appear over the last several decades. His positive influence on what many have called “the evolution of culture and consciousness” is acknowledged even by some of those people who are currently subjecting him to a smear-driven trial by Internet that goes back decades.

He was born in 1960, the second of two children, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Gafni’s parents survived the Holocaust, emigrating from Poland to the last place one might expect the post-WWII flight of an ultra-Orthodox family to end. A few years later, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Gafni, at the age of 6, remembers falling in love with books and, for the first time, felt that he wanted to become a rabbi.

In his early 20s, Marc became an activist youth leader in a New York synagogue. He was later ordained as a Rabbi. He ran a synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, and in 1989 moved to Israel. Eventually, he founded and led a popular renewal movement called Bayit Chadash. He created and hosted a leading national TV show on Israel’s most popular channel.

He received his doctorate from Oxford in 2008, under the co-supervision of professor Moshe Idel. He is the author of 10 books, but is best known for the early best-seller, Soul Prints, which was turned into a PBS special, and the recent work, Your Unique Self, which was featured a 2011 TEDx talk.

He left Israel in 2006 and, over the last decade, became a prominent figure in the eclectic scene of American spirituality. He founded and now runs the Center for Integral Wisdom, a self-described activist think tank in California

Those are the main facts of his life. But the details behind them — the how, why and what of Gafni’s life — are the subject of highly polarized debate. As in other trials by Internet, wild claims have been made about him. Regardless of their accuracy, these claims have become part of the narrative. Is it true that his ex-wife Chaya Lester wrote his doctoral dissertation, as she has claimed? (No, this claim is totally false. Lester had nothing to do with his dissertation.) Did he get a degree at Oxford, or did he make that up? (No, he has a documented D.Phil from Wolfson College at Oxford University.) Did he change his name from Winiarz to Gafni and move to Israel to avoid a scandal? (Absolutely not. It’s quite common to Hebraicize one’s surname when making Aliyah.) Though anyone who knows Gafni well could tell you that the answer to these questions is demonstrably “No” — the fact that they are regularly reported as true illustrates how multi-faceted and wide-spread the smear against Gafni has become.

The misrepresentations of Gafni’s life have gone on for nearly 20 years. But in 2015, the rumors became significantly more vicious and went national (see image below). If you look him up on the Internet, you find that bloggers and Internet “journalists” have been calling him names like “rapist,” “pedophile,” “sociopath,” (and sometimes all the above). Moreover, this name-calling is now regularly and repeatedly referenced in the echo chamber of innumerable online articles, blogs, and social media posts.

Let me say at the outset that anyone who knows Gafni well, knows that these characterizations are false. They are both demonstrably untrue and self-evidently absurd. But as psychological research has long ago revealed, the more something is repeated, the more it is believed to be true. And, as the 2016 US presidential election demonstrated, the big lie tactic can eventually render facts irrelevant. Click-bait headlines and tabloid-worthy claims have allowed truthiness to supplant truth. In this case, the smear organizers, who we’ll meet in a moment, enrolled respectable publications, including the New York Times, to obscure and omit key facts to kick off the 2016 smear against him.

Since the beginning of 2016, the Jewish Forward has published almost as many stories on Gafni as it has on Netanyahu, even though Gafni has had no ties with the Jewish community in over a decade. This obsession is not believably explained by an intent to “protect future victims,” which is what Gafni’s detractors often claim as their reason for working to destroy his reputation. In fact, anyone who looks closely at the story realizes that it is mostly based on false claims, collapsed timelines, and an intent to further the now very common believe-the-victim meme.

The Story of Two People

The story of Marc Gafni is the story of two people who bear only slight resemblance to each other. One is the real person. The other is an Internet fabrication. Which story you hear is a function of who you ask.

Marc’s “supporters” tell the story of a man who is one of the most brilliant thinkers and social activists to come along in a generation. They speak of a practitioner whose intellectual brilliance is matched by an unusual capacity for empathy. They describe someone who is generous, authentically warm, surprisingly modest, and who is both open and loving.

His “detractors” speak of a sociopath and master manipulator. They tell the story of a man who preys on children, brainwashes his followers, using, I assume, the “occult powers” he’s been accused of possessing, and responds to betrayal and dissent with threats, intimidation, and coercion. They make general claims that imply a life littered with victims of abuse and harassment. All evidence or testimony which substantively refutes those claims is simply ignored.

To Gafni’s colleagues and friends, his larger-than-life capacity to create a space of provocative, sacred learning is a refreshing alternative to the vanilla pluralism that characterizes the American spiritual landscape. To his detractors, he is a Svengali-like demagogue, a misguided firebrand who’s betrayed the trust of every community he’s ever led.

Even Gafni’s capacity to keep creating, teaching, and growing after a decade of attacks is subject to wildly different interpretations. His supporters see it as a confirmation of the depth of his character and the steadiness of his purpose They point to his ability to continue offering love, creativity, and new teachings in the face of hardship. His detractors cite it as evidence of his sociopathic nature, which allows him to continually “recreate himself” rather than disappearing from the public scene.

The story of Marc Gafni is the story of two people not because he is two people, but because it’s been manufactured as such. One person is real, while the other is a fabrication, the product of the smear campaign against Gafni, an elaborate and organized endeavor that has systematically distorted partial truths and filled in the narrative cracks with outright falsehoods and bald-faced lies.

The Fallacy of the “Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle”

How do we reconcile this disparity? The temptation is to say the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But to say that the truth can be found by splitting the difference between two competing narratives can often disguise the fact that one is true and the other is not. It’s a fundamentally weak position, not because it seeks to compromise, but because it does so when compromise is unwarranted and undeserved.

In late 2007, when the rumor went around that Obama was a Muslim, the truth could not be found by meeting somewhere in the middle. Simply accepting that Obama was a non-practicing Muslim — or some other equally ridiculous compromise — was not an adequate resolution. Rather, resolution came through exposing the smear as preying on post-9/11 fears while pedaling distortions that were easily cleared through some simple fact checking.

When reconciling competing positions, on any subject, let alone someone’s life, to be deserving of compromise, the positions advanced by both sides ought to contain a similar degree of legitimate partial truth.

This is rarely the case when one position is dominated by perspectives generated in the frenzy of Internet pseudo-discourse, where claims are granted the status of “true” simply because they are expressed.

Regardless of the forum in which a claim is expressed and independent even of the form of its expression, all claims ought to be subjected to at least a minimal standard of justice — or a modicum of decency and fairness, if nothing else — before being adjudicated as true or false.

A glaring example is the claim that Gafni is a “rapist.” In fact, this is a completely made-up Internet-propagated myth. It has no factual basis. Moreover, none of Gafni’s partners have ever made such a claim. Nonetheless, it is bandied about on the Internet as a given without hesitation. These very same minimal standards ought to be applied to the claims made by Gafni’s camp as well. They should not be blindly taken as true or immediately dismissed as false because of who uttered them.

Such standards are rarely applied, in the case of this smear or in any number of other smear-driven trials by Internet, which have come to characterize our “takedown culture.”

Consider the questionable sexual harassment claims against Yale professor, Thomas Pogge, the false rape claims against the Duke Lacrosse team, the false rape accusations reported as true in the botched and debunked Rolling Stone article, the false complaints at Roanoke College, the false child rape claims against Alan Dershowitz, and, in an earlier era, the false daughter rape claims against Landmark Education founder Werner Erhard, as but a few of the many possible examples.

Generating such minimal standards of justice is one of several aims of this article.

The Anatomy of a Smear

A rampant and vile form of pluralism allows smear campaigns to flourish. But acknowledging that reveals little about their aims, motives, methods, or components — which are collectively, the anatomy of a smear. Understanding these dimensions is essential for recognizing how smears operate and why they are such an effective way to perpetrate a trial by Internet.

A smear campaign often works by enrolling people in what appears to be a righteous cause or by appealing to supposedly shared values. In the famous smears of 1950s McCarthyism, the cause was anti-communism, often disguising personal ambition or the desire to take another person down out of competition or vengeance.

Contemporary smears work in a similar fashion. We are justifiably horrified by the idea of sexual abuse. To call someone a rapist is essentially to put him outside the pale of society. When such claims are made about a public figure, even people who might otherwise be neutral or positive towards that person will want to steer clear of him. And, even those who want to be a voice of support will often be afraid to speak out. Through assassinating a person’s character, credibility, or reputation, smears aim to enroll the unconvinced in their “noble cause” while creating a social virus that causes everyone to avoid the smear’s target.

On the surface, smears appeal to shared motives — victim advocacy, saving future victims, justice, or a desire to avoid something terrible from happening in the future — but underneath they are typically driven by hidden actors with hidden motives like vengeance, malice, or rage for crimes not committed.

For those they can’t convince — thinking people, perhaps, or anyone who intuits there’s more to the story — smears tend to lock them into a “responsible” middle. They feel that balance is eminently more noble than picking a side in a highly-polarized debate.

These impacts are self-amplifying. Personal positions then become further entrenched, because smears activate the social psychological phenomenon of motivated reasoning, which is often called confirmation bias.

According to sociologist, Steven Hoffman, motivated reasoning refers to the process where people, rather than searching “rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.”

Once smears have succeeded in eroding the middle, then subsequent claims, false or otherwise, serve to confirm the conclusion that has already taken hold. Once people are saying that “if there’s smoke there must be fire,” there is already a bias in their reasoning. It does not occur to most people that “where there is smoke there is fire” is exactly the response that the smear campaign seeks to evoke. Once this bias takes hold, contrary information tends to be ignored. Because of this, you hear so-called “neutral” comments like “Maybe Gafni’s not a rapist but he must be a scumbag if these things are being said about him.” New claims, false or otherwise, serve to further confirm the conclusion that’s already taken hold and contrary information, even when based in verifiable fact, tends to be increasingly ignored.

Little by little, as the slurs on the targets reputation mount up, even those who believe he is being unjustly maligned are afraid to stand up for him for fear of becoming collateral damage.

Edmond Burke famously wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But good people do not do nothing for no reason. They often do nothing because they are protecting some other closely-held, good value, which they are afraid will be compromised or tarnished. They are good people, after all.

What good people fail often to see — and what postmodernism directly discourages — is that good values can be ranked. Some goods are of a higher order — and standing against the social murder attempted through an artful smear upholds foundational values of human rights. As such, standing against the methods of a smear is often more noble and more just than the other good values we are protecting.

This suggests the words of Martin Niemöller, the German theologian who belatedly opposed Hitler:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Good people speak out because it is the right thing to do in terms of the principles of social justice that are ignored or undermined by smear campaigns. In a forthcoming book, I will address in greater depth several cultural themes, along with the methods and mechanisms that drive orchestrated smears and attempts at social murder. In this article, while I touch briefly on some of these issues, my primary focus is simply exposing this smear campaign for what it is, an orchestrated smear.

How a Smear Operates

A set of standard tactics allow a smear to operate. Demonization, name-calling, misquoting, misinformation, lies, false accusations, a false claim of sexual deviance or mental illness, the creation of false narratives, and a refusal to consider competing evidence are all deployed to further a smear. These tactics are typically used to dress up outright lies and minimal partial truths in the distorting and distracting garb of heinous crimes (see this book for an extended discussion of smear tactics).

Nowadays, such methods often inflame a frenzied Internet mob that blindly believes its own virulence. The mob crusades for retribution disguised as justice — a form of social jihad, Internet lynching, or a modern-day witch hunt — all while believing that their actions are the appropriate response to a real moral panic. Reasoned discourse and the possibility of discovering anything resembling truth becomes a near impossibility.

Spotting these tactics being used is fairly straightforward. In her book, The Guru Question, Mariana Caplan identified several questions that one can ask to differentiate legitimate claims against a teacher from a potential smear.

First, have those involved spoken carefully to all parties before telling the story or taking action? Second, has a fact-checking mechanism been set-up to check (and cross- check) all available evidence — including the historical, sometimes hidden, relationships between parties, collusion, ulterior motives, unknown third parties, and other relevant political dynamics — before taking action? Third, is there a mechanism in place to examine any new evidence and is new evidence considered by those people taking action? Fourth, is there a protocol for — or even minimal interest in — healing and forgiveness for both sides? Fifth, is the accused treated with dignity, or are they dehumanized, demonized, and obsessively pursued? If the answer to these questions is a “No,” chances are that a smear is afoot.

Spotting the smear is relatively easy. Not falling into its distorted story is another matter. Most people assume that since Gafni has been attacked for so long and so intensely, some of what is said about him must be true. Again, this is exactly how a smear operates; this is what the smear organizers aim to have you think.

As we will see in greater detail below, in late 2015, the New York Times resurfaced old stories and old questions about Gafni. This article appeared to spur a series of condemnatory posts and follow-up articles numbering in the dozens. A petition went up on to stop Gafni from teaching and letters were sent to his funders and board members encouraging them to withdraw their support.

In effect — and actually, by design — this resurgence of interest in Gafni appeared spontaneous. This reurgence is captured in a Google Trends report for Gafni (see below). Observers were led to assume it must have been triggered by some new action on Gafni’s part. After all, the old claims have been resurfaced time and time again and Gafni had responded to them repeatedly over the year. People naturally assumed that unless there was something new to talk about, there is no way that this would be coming up again.

Google Trends report (worldwide, past 5 years) for “Marc Gafni” — The spike corresponds to the start of the 2016 smear campaign.

In fact, this resurgence was not brought about by anything that Gafni said or did. Rather, it was just the latest round, in a highly-orchestrated campaign which started over a decade ago, and that, by most accounts, failed in its previous two attempts. It all traces back to the efforts of a handful of people who have long since covered up their true agendas, perhaps even from themselves.

These include, David Ingber, an obsessed ex-student who Gafni ordained and then dismissed, and Chaya Lester, an angry ex-wife who Gafni refused to remarry. Both played significant roles catalyzing a series of false complaints made against Gafni more than a decade ago in Israel.

The current smear campaign serves as a smoke screen to obfuscate their involvement in perpetrating the original false complaints, which came close to destroying Gafni’s life and livelihood. This cover-up is one the motives for the current smear.

Ingber and Lester are now joined by Stephen Dinan, a new-age CEO, who has bought into their demonizing narrative. He does not even know Gafni, and has, despite repeated invitation, refused to meet Gafni or to cross-check any facts or evidence. Dinan denies his involvement in the smear against Gafni, but his involvement is far from secret or reserved, as will be revealed later.

None of this is immediately apparent — again, by design — yet understanding these inner-workings are key to deciphering the truth of who Gafni is and why a group of seemingly “heroic” organizers are so fanatically bent on taking him down.

They attempted a social murder in the past and they failed. From all accounts, driven by these hidden motives, disguised as victim advocacy, they are attempting to complete the botched job.

After all, it is Gafni who more than anyone can reveal their involvement in past attempts. He is the person who knows most directly the details of their attempted social murder. It is easy to see how the fear that he might indeed expose them might run very deep. Their only solution is to fully and completely discredit him.

In a forthcoming video response, Gafni introduces a helpful frame for understanding the nature of this smear.

The adage, where there is smoke there is fire, is not the only explanation for the presence of smoke. Alternately, where there is smoke, there could also be smoke bomb, or there could be an ember that is intentionally being flamed into a fire by organizers with ulterior motives.

This frame is deceptively simple, but surprisingly effective in its ability to guide responsible inquiry. If we take this perspective, it immediately halts our tendency to assume that smoke must naturally and necessarily mean fire — or in the case of a smear, that allegations mean a crime has been committed. Further, it guides the responsible inquirer through a second important step, distinguishing between embers — e.g. grains of truth; a given person’s degree of responsibility in a contribution system, for example — and smoke bombs.

As we’ll see here, the smoke surrounding Gafni is not the fire it’s often assumed to be; it’s mostly a smoke bomb, along with some embers that are fanned by malice into a fire.

To Right a Series of Wrongs

Over the past decade, at least a dozen articles have featured “anatomy of a smear” in their headlines. Yet not even one has taken up the project of establishing the components required to wage an effective smear. Most simply tell the story of a specific smear and avoid the trickier questions of how they work and how we as a culture ought to engage and respond to the them.

Through a detailed unpacking of the smear campaign being waged against Gafni, I intend to address both topics. The components of a smear, while culturally important, are straightforward. Once they are pointed out, they are easy to grok.

Minimally, an effective smear campaign, in addition to the playbook outlined above, requires five essential components, each of which are discussed below: (a) an adequate target, (b) a distorted history of alleged indiscretion, (c) a supposed public authority who establishes (d) an apparent false pattern, which is then adjudicated in (e) a culture of colosseum “justice.”

Telling Gafni’s story, however, is a bit more involved. It requires something that neither he nor any of his supporters have been fully willing to do over the last decade. I will name names, and I will connect those names with damning, as-of-yet unreleased evidence that reveals this smear as exactly that, an organized campaign with the goal of destroying a life, motivated by a host of ulterior motives.

As difficult as it may be to believe — and I do not expect anyone to take me at my word here — my intent is not to counter this smear with yet another smear. My intent is to right a series of wrongs by staying close to the evidence and minimizing speculation. And, in so doing, I hope to make at least a small contribution to raising the level of cultural discourse on this topic.

As such, the tone of this article is understated. You will not emerge with a complete sense of who Gafni is, nor will you fully understand why he is so compelling to so many people. These are topics covered in other writings, and will not be my focus here.

My intent is also not to pressure the smear organizers into a retraction. As far as I can tell, they’ve climbed way too far up that tree to find a way down. I hope I am wrong.

I do intend to sway the middle, not necessarily toward the position of Gafni’s supporters, who have the benefit of an extensive history of working with him directly, but toward a position of greater responsibility and deeper justice. I want to sway the discourse toward a stance beyond the polarized debate altogether. I intend to provide the information required to help a responsible person make an informed decision about whether they want to work with Gafni directly, or support his endeavors. A person of integrity cannot adequately do so if the canards of this smear remain intact.

I have known Marc for almost 12 years. Throughout that time, I have chosen to move closer, closer to him, closer to the drama and to the complexity, closer to a situation that has regularly looked like rivalry and infighting taken to the extreme. This is a situation that doesn’t involve me — or most of you. I have chosen to move closer because there is something to unlock here. Exactly what is not mine alone to say. I do not expect, nor is it required, that others move close as I have.

For readers who decide to read on from here, a willingness to tolerate dissent will be essential. In the words of Katie Roiphe, feminist provocateur: “Tolerating dissent is allowing for the give-and-take, push and pull of intellectual conflict; it is the willing suspension of disbelief in order to allow ideas that are not our own to sharpen our perceptions.”

In exactly this sense, I’d like to mention two decisions I have made that may challenge the perceptions of some readers. First, I use the real names of anyone who has publicly taken part in the smear against Gafni. For anyone where this is not the case, pseudonyms are used and indicated in endnotes.

Second, I have intentionally deviated from the common practice of requesting comment from people who are spoken about or whose public statements are otherwise referenced. My reasoning, while likely disagreeable to some, is straightforward. For over a decade, smear participants have regularly declined invitations to meet with Gafni in a mediated context, and yet, they continue to make claims, spread rumors, and publicly demonize him. They have regularly made their comments known.

Gafni’s “side of the story,” however, has not yet been given a full treatment. That is remedied here. Such a treatment is not, by design, a “balanced story;” it does not “meet his accusers and detractors half-way” in an attempt to find some contrived middle ground. Instead, it exposes blatant lies, hidden motives, and behind-the-scenes organizers.

This is appropriate, in my mind, because a “balanced story” often conveniently ignores facts. It often ignores natural hierarchies of truth, where some statements and claims can be legitimately judged to be more true than others.

A “balanced story” is often just another form of lying; another form of untruth.

As I said, a few pages back, to be deserving of compromise, the positions advanced by both sides in a narrative ought to contain a similar degree of legitimate partial truth. A “balanced story” squanders this important distinction.

In this sense, a “balanced story” would be a ridiculous aim of this or any article on Gafni. What this situation truly needs, for all involved, is genuine healing and transformation. This requires careful fact checking and can probably only be generated in dialogue — real, face-to-face, mediated dialogue on all the issues, including the false complaints that have been leveled against Gafni.

Genuine healing does not come from requests for comments, at least not at this point. By presenting the “other side of the story,” I will likely enrage all who are called out by name. So be it. I am not interested in comments at this point, because I am not interested in propagating the imbalance of “balanced stories,” nor do I want to encourage the use of articles and essays as the appropriate forum for generating meaningful resolution.

If we can tolerate dissent — on these two points and countless others — long enough, we very well may come out the other end of this with a sense of how to approach this and similar smears with a greater capacity for discernment and a more authentic sense of fairness and appropriate outrage for injustice. Such discernment will act against our tendency to believe what we hear just because it was written or spoken. Such fairness will allow for the application of universal principles of justice, principles which can guide our collective actions away from misplaced outrage and toward the legitimate protection of all.

[ This was the introduction to an eight part, long-read essay. You can read the rest of it online or as a PDF.]