Israel Bars Civil Service Employees From Taking Part in Wexner Program in Wake of Yair Netanyahu Attacks

Hagai Amit
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Retail mogul Leslie, or Les, Wexner, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, September 19, 2014.
Retail mogul Leslie, or Les, Wexner, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, September 19, 2014.Credit: Jay LaPrete / AP
Hagai Amit

The Civil Service Commission has told state employees they cannot participate in the Wexner Foundation’s Israel Fellowship program next year.

Each year, around 40 Israelis attend the Ohio-based foundation’s monthlong continuing education program at Harvard University. Eight more take part in a one-year program.

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The foundation, which was established by the Jewish American retailing magnate Les Wexner, sponsors the program, whose alumni include high-ranking members of the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service as well as members of local governments and employees of nonprofit organizations.

The application deadline for next year’s program, which begins in July, is in  December 2020.

Candidates from the army, the Mossad, the Shin Bet and other government agencies received authorization to apply and have done so. The prohibition affects only members of the civil service.

The commission’s new policy purportedly applies to any kind of continuing education program anywhere in the world, but in practice, it’s difficult to find programs abroad that are similar to that of the foundation.

The commission attributes the policy to the coronavirus pandemic. And while it’s true that the pandemic calls into question the possibility of participation in any kind of study program in the United States in the coming year, there’s no discernible or justifiable reason why the commission would rule out in advance any prospect for public sector representatives to avail themselves of the chance to participate in a program abroad, even when it is possible for them to do so despite the pandemic, including remotely by way of video conferencing.

In recent months, the activities of the Wexner Foundation have come under fire from associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, most notably from his son Yair and the political commentator Yaakov Bardugo, also known as Jacob Bardugo.

Yair Netanyahu’s latest attack on the foundation came in August when he called the graduates of the Wexner Foundation’s programming “a cult of pedophiles” and later clarified that this was a reference to the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

In September, a group of Israel Fellowship alumni that included journalist Alon Ben-David, former State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon and Uri Carmel, a former head of the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct sued Yair Netanyahu for libel, seeking 1 million shekels (about $295,000) in damages.

Bardugo hinted that the foundation was part of a wide-ranging conspiracy, and Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karhi initiated a debate in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee to examine the government’s relations with the foundation.

Sources close to the foundation said Tuesday they assumed the Civil Service Commission’s decision stemmed from this pressure.

The foundation has contacted the commission over a way to resolve the issue. One proposal is issuing a call for proposals so that additional organization may sponsor programs for state employees.

In a written response, the Civil Service Commission said: “In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a directive was issued to all government ministries, in coordination with the National Security Council, imposing a blanket ban on business travel by all government employees,” that will remain in effect until further notice.”

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