Intelligence Affairs Minister Elazar Stern confessed on Sunday to spurning harassment complaints while heading the IDF’s Manpower Directorate from 2004 to 2008, in what could be a blow to his candidacy for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency.
In a discussion about complaints against the incoming head of the Shin Bet, known as R., Stern told Radio 103FM that a "culture of anonymous complaints” should not be encouraged. He was then asked whether he received letters of that nature when he was in the position, to which he replied: “The shredder worked very quickly.”
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R. was summoned before the advisory committee on senior appointments following claims he acted improperly on two occasions during his service. The committee, headed by former State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg, determined that there was no reason not to appoint R., and the government is expected to discuss the appointment on Monday.
Stern said that in rejecting the claims, the committee was “preventing a decline in the public service toward a precipice. I think [the committee] took care of this correctly. I might have taken care of it more quickly. People who have something to say should say so using their name.”
When asked about his track record on the subject when he was in the position, Stern answered: “I created an atmosphere among female soldiers in which there was a place for their complaints. It encouraged complaints and supported the complainant. The culture of anonymous complaints does a lot more harm than the occasional good.”
Stern later apologized for his comment, stating that he aimed to raise the issue of "a culture of anonymous statements" prior to official appointments. "I wouldn't have said it if I had known it would be hurtful," he told Haaretz.
"In the army, we opened a thousand ways to lodge complaints. We encouraged them. We had commanders' conferences about sexual harassment," he added. Although he acknowledged that his radio comments could be interpreted as such, he said sexual harassment complaints were never shredded.
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Following the criticism Stern’s office released a statement saying: “Minister Stern, as a father with daughters, as a commander and elected official, deeply despises any sexual harasser. He believes that Israeli society and law enforcement agencies must show zero tolerance on this fundamental issue. In the interview on Sunday, Stern wanted to express a stand against the culture of anonymous complaints as a tool for settling scores and thwarting senior appointments. Complaints of sexual harassment were always checked thoroughly under his command and he did not say at any point that complaints of sexual harassment were shredded.”
Stern, a member of Yesh Atid, is considered one of the leading contenders for the position of chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency and has the backing of both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. The outrage sparked by his remarks could spell a major blow to his prospects of landing the job.
This would not be the first time that Stern's remarks on women set off a public storm. Stern had gotten himself in trouble a few years ago when he appeared to suggest during a heated Knesset debate that then-Likud minister Miri Regev, who had formerly served as chief army spokeswoman, received her military promotions in exchange for sexual favors.
The nominations' committee that will choose the next chairman of the Jewish Agency — one of the most high-profile jobs in the Jewish organizational world — is currently interviewing the candidates. A final decision must be made before October 26, when the Jewish Agency Board of Governors is scheduled to convene to approve the candidate chosen by the nominations' committee. The nominations' committee is head by World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel, who also serves as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency. Hagoel, who formerly served as head of World Likud, does not support Stern’s candidacy.