Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is barring government employees under his supervision — including police officers, firefighters, and prison officials — from participating in a longstanding and prestigious fellowship program for Israeli civil servants at Harvard University.
Ben-Gvir issued the ban due to what he calls the left-wing political bent of the program’s funder, the Ohio-based Wexner Foundation.
A far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Ben-Gvir tweeted Monday that he made the decision to sever ties between the police and the foundation because of the foundation’s “involvement and cooperation with distinctly left-wing groups like Breaking the Silence.”
בעקבות מעורבות פוליטית ושתפ"ים עם תנועות שמאל פוליטיות מובהקות כמו שוברים שתיקה - הנחיתי את גופי משרדי להפסיק את השתתפות הקצינים בהשתלמויות ובשאר פעילות קרן וקסנר במשטרת ישראל. פוליטיקה מחוץ למשטרה! pic.twitter.com/2IfWyQ1YXo— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) August 28, 2023
Why does Ben-Gvir not like the Wexner Foundation?
Both the Wexner Foundation and Breaking the Silence, an advocacy group that publishes testimonies by Israeli combat soldiers of alleged human rights abuses in the West Bank, have long been targets of the Israeli Right.
The foundation has rejected Ben-Gvir’s allegation of ideological bias. “We are not now nor have we ever been associated with any political party or ‘movement,’” a foundation spokesperson told the news outlet eJewishPhilanthropy.
Israel’s right-leaning Channel 14 news station reported Tuesday that the ban also applies to firefighters and prison officials. Five police officers who were slated to attend the fellowship program at Harvard next year will no longer be able to do so, according to eJewishPhilanthropy.
The foundation’s money comes from American Jewish philanthropist Les Wexner, a billionaire who made his fortune off retail brands including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. The foundation has lately faced backlash over Wexner’s personal and financial ties to the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, even as it continues its many activities focused on the development of Jewish leaders in a wide range of fields.
More than 250 Israelis have graduated from Wexner’s leadership programs, which involve a period of study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The list of alumni features former IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi; Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security agency; and Yair Golan, a former top-ranking general and left-wing lawmaker; in addition to many mid-level officials in Israeli’s police and security establishment.
Ben Gvir is not the first on the Israeli right to target the foundation. Some of his political allies say that the fellowships work to spread progressive ideas imported from the United States across Israel.
Skepticism of programs serving Israelis but funded by American Jewish philanthropy has manifested regularly since Netanyahu’s most recent government, which includes far-right partners in senior roles, took office last year. One Netanyahu ally hoped to block a large cross-section of mainstream American donors from involvement in Israeli education but resigned from office before implementing the plan.
Ben-Gvir’s concern over the effect of American ideas on senior Israeli officers in some ways mirrors the criticism from some on the American left. The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace has long campaigned against official trips to Israel taken by US police officials, saying that these exchanges bolster a kind of policing that leads to brutality toward civilians. Israeli officials and the US police delegations, as well as the trip organizers, deny those allegations, saying the trips do not teach physical tactics and mostly consist of lectures, meetings, and tours.