Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) stirred controversy on Sunday after saying he shredded anonymous complaints submitted against officers when he headed the IDF Manpower Directorate.
Stern, the coalition’s leading candidate to head the Jewish Agency, made the comment in a radio interview about an anonymous sexual harassment complaint that was leveled against “R,” the incoming head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). People who have something to say about others should “do so openly,” he said.
“We cannot support a culture of anonymous accusations – not at the expense of encouraging the complaint,” Stern said.
A video of a female soldier complaining that Stern prohibited her from following through with a sexual harassment complaint aired later on Sunday on Channel 13.
"I was a soldier in Bahad 1 [the IDF's officer school] between '95-'97," the soldier, who identified as G, said in the video in an electronically altered voice.
"One of the NCOs tried to come on to me and sexually harass me," she said. "We were in the room, me, MK Elazar Stern, my personal commander and the NCO who tried to harass me. And [Stern said] in these words, 'If you talk about what went on in this room, if you mention what went on in this room or what the NCO tried to do, your days in the army will be dark and bitter. You will be the worst off in the entire world. You will no longer stay in the army.'"
"There are no such things in the world," Stern said in response to Channel 13's query. "There is not one case that I know, and I am sure that there may be some now, that are made up. If you say that I summoned them into the room, both the harasser and him, then they did address the issue. Again, it could be that the incident was not handled well," he said.
Stern added that he did not believe that he actually said those words to the soldier.
"The fact of the matter is that the incident was addressed. And I think the emphasis is on the treatment," he said.
Stern's office later issued an official response.
"Complaints brought before the Minister Stern were always treated. Furthermore, the army has a protocol for these complaints," the response read, referring to the fact that every unit has a person assigned to treating any gender based issues, including complaints of sexual misconduct.
"[Stern] has always acted, and does so to this today, to curb the phenomenon of sexual harrasment, and Stern does not remember this specific case."
Stern's comments drew harsh criticism and raised speculation about the viability of his candidacy for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency. Sources close to Stern said he had sent the text of the interview and spoken to numerous people on the agency’s selection committee, and everyone accepted his clarification.
A veto of two members of the 10-member committee is enough to disqualify a candidate. Stern already did not have a guarantee that he would receive the support of committee members from Likud, Blue and White and the religious-Zionist World Mizrachi movement.
An anonymous letter published on Wednesday accused “R,” who was approved to head the Shin Bet by the government’s vetting committee on Friday, of two unspecified incidents of misconduct. During Friday’s confirmation hearing, “R” managed to convince the committee that the allegations made against him were false.
Stern was quick to clarify that he always “encouraged every female or male soldier who was sexually harassed to complain.
“I have said many times in the past how the culture of sex in authority relations is destructive to the IDF’s moral resilience,” he said. “Every soldier’s complaint regarding sexual harassment was thoroughly investigated.”
Later on Sunday, he elaborated and said: “I would like to apologize deeply for the way my comments have been understood, especially to those who might have felt hurt in any way by them. It is important to note that I never once said that I shredded sexual harassment complaints. The opposite is true.
“From my first day as head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, I completely overhauled the way and manner that sexual harassment complaints were dealt with and ensured that every single case was dealt with in the utmost seriousness. In the interview in question, I was referring to a culture of spurious complaints made against someone on the eve of their promotion after a completely clean record, completely unrelated to sexual harassment complaints,” Stern said.
Helena Glaser, former Women’s International Zionist Organization president and a member of the Jewish Agency chairmanship selection committee, said she intends to ask Stern about how he handled anonymous sexual harassment complaints in the IDF when he has his formal interview for the job on Wednesday.
“Elazar hasn’t been interviewed yet, and when he will, I will put the question before him,” Glaser said. “As a woman who worked most of my life to promote and protect women, I have done a lot. But I cannot voice my opinion now because it would not be fair. Further on, of course, I will.”
This was not the first time that Stern got into trouble for making a controversial statement. Three years ago, he heckled then-minister Miri Regev (Likud) in the Knesset, alleging that her military career was aided by sexual favors.
“I don’t want to talk about how you advanced in the army,” Stern said at the time.
Regev got her revenge on Sunday, saying it was now clear how he had advanced in the army. She called him “shallow, chauvinistic, lacking values and a shame to the kippah he wears.”
Regev said she was shocked that feminist, left-wing and centrist ministers and MKs had not come out against him.
The only coalition MK who came out against Stern was Gaby Lasky (Meretz). Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who will head the Knesset Committee on the Advancement of the Status of Women, tweeted: “The time has come for men in powerful positions to understand that when a woman complains about a powerful man, she is risking not only her entire future, but putting herself in a position of becoming a target of further assault and claims of denial.”
הגיע הזמן שגברים בעמדות חזקות יבינו שכשאישה מתלוננת על גבר חזק היא מסכנת את עתידה כולו, והופכת למטרה אפשרית לעוד הטרדות ולהכפשות. תלונות אנונימיות צריכות להיבדק בקפדנות ובזהירות. אבל הן חייבות להיבדק. https://t.co/jhTGsCLvEl— MK Aida Touma-Sliman (@AidaTuma) October 10, 2021
Hagit Pe’er, who heads the Na’amat women’s organization, condemned Stern.
“It is an embarrassment and a disgrace that a publicly appointed government minister chooses to propagate this message to the Israeli public,” she said. He “should remember that the law requires that sexual assault complaints be thoroughly investigated, even when they are anonymous.”
Yael Sherer, the head of Israel’s lobby against sexual violence, who served under Stern in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, said she was “not surprised by his remarks. He confessed to breaking the law and cooperating with the offenders to prevent disciplinary action against them.”