Israeli politicians and pundits have been pretty preoccupied this week with the self-inflicted dashed hopes of Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern to become the next head of the Jewish Agency.
Stern, a member of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, was the government’s candidate for the post, which means that he was also acceptable to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina. Stern was an example of one of those so-called compromises that the motley left-right coalition was able to reach with ease.
For one thing, Bennett keeps telling himself that he has to pick his battles, not stand on principle over the more minor issues. And though he’d be the last to admit it, the Jewish Agency isn’t a body that he or his peers consider to be as important as they purport it to be. Nor do they consider it particularly controversial.
For another, Stern himself is a kind of nonentity, despite his years in the military – as a commander of the IDF officers’ school, head of the Education and Youth Corps and chief of the Manpower Directorate – before becoming a member of Knesset in 2015.
It was kind of startling, then, when he caused a stir of his own making on Sunday, for what appeared to be no good reason – certainly not where his own career was concerned.
In an interview on Sunday morning with 103FM Radio, Stern announced that during his tenure as IDF Manpower Directorate, he had “shredded many anonymous complaints” from soldiers, including, perhaps, ones involving sexual harassment and/or assault – though he couldn’t exactly remember.
HIS INTERVIEW came on the heels of and in response to an investigation into an anonymous letter alleging some sort of misconduct on the part of “R,” the top pick to replace Nadav Argaman as the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). By Monday, when the cabinet approved his nomination, he had been cleared and his name, Ronen Bar, was revealed.
Stern, on the other hand, was in the dog house, though mainly put there by members of the opposition. The men and women in his own camp were maneuvering the embarrassing mishap by reiterating their usually very loud #metoo stance: that all sexual accusations must be taken seriously, no matter when, where or how they are made.
Following his foot-in-mouth moment, which took Twitter by storm, Stern tried to minimize the damage. Little did he realize, however, that he was about to make matters worse with each passing post-faux-pas TV gig. Contradicting oneself will do that.
He started out by apologizing, via Channel 11, to the “people – women – who were hurt by what was said.”
It was an interesting use of the passive voice since he was the one who had made the comments.
“Those who know me know that I have never hurt a woman, not in words, not in deeds and not under my command,” he insisted, later telling Channel 12 that he “never, ever shredded a complaint about sexual harassment.”
By Tuesday, he was saying that he “never, ever” shredded any documents at all.
His attempt to explain that he had been trying to make a general point about the “culture of anonymity” – that “people who have things to say about others should speak openly”– also backfired. He should have known it would.
After all, one of the foundations of the #metoo movement is the credo that traumatized victims of sexual harassment/assault are often understandably – even justifiably – afraid to come out of the shadows.
Speaking of which, a woman wishing to remain anonymous told Channel 13 on Sunday evening that Stern, while head of the IDF officers’ school, had warned her that her life would be “dark and bitter” if she pursued a sexual-harassment complaint against a certain officer. He subsequently denied the story, but acknowledged that maybe he could have handled the incident better.
On Monday, another woman – one who had been in charge of handling sexual-harassment cases at the officers’ school during Stern’s command – came forward, as well, reporting to Channel 13 that he had disregarded all such complaints, which she indicated had been numerous at the base, where the phenomenon had been rampant.
SPECULATION ABOUT whether the brouhaha would cause the Jewish Agency to disqualify him as a candidate was put to rest on Tuesday when he announced that he was withdrawing from the race.
In a lengthy Facebook post reminiscent of a résumé, he listed his military and civil good deeds for Israel and the Jewish people, from spearheading the army’s bone-marrow donation system to help for Holocaust survivors and Ethiopian immigrants. However, he added, “I’m not always politically correct and sometimes maybe not well-spoken. But I’m always faithful to the truth, to my values and to doing good.”
He went on to defend his choice to run for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, as his way of giving “further expression to the two pillars of my parents’ home: the promise of ‘Never Again’ and never to discriminate between people, not according to religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.”
It is in accordance with the above, he continued, that he “educated and trained many thousands of IDF officers and soldiers… In every place I have been, I have acted for equality, for the preservation of dignity, and for a space which allows for complaints and their proper handling. I have always shown zero tolerance for sexual harassment or the harming of any woman or man… I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my words and the interpretation given to them, and to my family who stand firm despite the difficulty. I will continue to act to the best of my ability, wherever I am, to secure a better future for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
When asked by Channel 12’s Rafi Reshef on Wednesday about the whole messy business, Stern’s wife, Dorit, stood staunchly by her man. Bemoaning the way that news and rumors travel so fast and get distorted due to social media, she announced that her husband “never even owned a shredder; it was just a metaphor.”
Talk about a funny footnote to Stern’s 15 minutes of infamy.
Even more hilarious has been the Jewish Agency’s reaction: to consider, for the first time, electing a woman as its head honcho. In other words, the ladies-in-waiting will have Stern to thank if one of them benefits on October 26, when the organization’s governing body – made up of members of the World Zionist Organization, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal – is scheduled to convene and likely make its final decision.
But, whoever is chosen for the job, Stern revealed that he was completely unsuitable for it. How is it possible for a person who fancies himself a bridge between Israel and the Jewish people, particularly those in America, to be so clueless about the cultural climate at home and sexual politics abroad?
Only someone who’s been living in a cave could be that disconnected from the goings-on in the world. Indeed, had Israel’s intelligence minister been the tiniest bit more attuned to his surroundings, he wouldn’t have made such an egregious error of judgment in the first place – while talking to the press, no less.
In this respect, he fits in beautifully with the rest of the coalition. Indeed, to paraphrase his wife, Stern’s screw-up was a “metaphor.”