Barry Newman
Barry Newman

Elazar Stern should have known better

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It’s surprising, isn’t it, that nobody has yet demanded that Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern be beheaded for his willful disregard of the anonymously posted complaints that he cast aside and destroyed during the time he headed the IDF’s Manpower Directorate. Why, for example, has the opposition’s Miri Regev, with whom Stern had a somewhat ugly altercation some years ago, not demanded that he be fired from his job? And, more significantly, how can it be that Yair Lapid has given tacit approval to the minister’s behavior rather than issue a stinging rebuke or even insist on his resignation. That those to whom Stern reports apparently thought the matter would simply disappear shows a remarkable – and disappointing – lack of insight. Granted, there is little to admire about poison pen letters, but we’re in an era where zero tolerance against sexual and gender harassment must be more than merely words. Dropping his candidacy for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency was a foregone conclusion. Whether or not this action is enough and will enable him to go forward and function without distractions or suspicions as a minister in the current government remains to be seen.

It wasn’t too long ago, you know, when gender equality was unheard of in the army, and sexual harassment was tolerated if not actually encouraged. Here and there tales are told of snide remarks and lewd suggestions that were routinely addressed to female members of the IDF, and of how choice assignments and promotions involved unsavory quid pro quo. The potential backlash of whistleblowing or issuing a formal complaint conveniently protected the abusers, who rarely if ever found their abysmal behavior to be a hindrance to successful military careers. It should come as no surprise, then, that there was reluctance to stand up and point a finger; boats rocked far more perilously than they do today.

It is in this environment that Minister Stern spent his adulthood and served his country, and was, as a result, exposed to actions that today would be regarded as corrupt and deviant. During that era objectifying and demeaning women in the military was, for the most part, a norm that was deemed excusable and not infrequently condoned. And while such behavior is no longer seen as a “boys will be boys” practice that is answered with a smirk and grin, some strands of cultural DNA most certainly linger.

More serious, of course, is the accusation that the minister, during his tenure as the head of the military’s officer’s school, threated a young female soldier with dire consequences if she persisted in filing a complaint of sexual harassment against a non-commissioned officer. Stern, needless to say, denies having made any such threats, although he did admit having an interaction with the would-be complainant and that he could have probably handled the matter more effectively. And while the two alternating prime ministers will more likely than not give their coalition partner the benefit of the doubt, Bennet and Lapid will find it more than a little risky to ignore smoke since it might be the result of a raging fire.

I really have no idea and couldn’t care less where Mr. Stern, despite the kippa he wears, stands on the spectrum of religiosity. We’ve seen in recent months and years educators and community leaders – of both genders – who despite their seemingly Torah-based lifestyles and oversized head coverings have been charged with sexual perversions and improprieties. It never fails to amuse me to see alleged murderers, rapists and embezzlers sitting in court wearing large, white kippot, hoping that an illusion of spiritual sensitivity might earn some points of sympathy with a judge. That the Intelligence Minister may put on tefillin, pause for prayer three times a day and double check that what he eats is in fact kosher does not mean that he is not ready to look the other way at offensive transgressions. This is not to infer that he is a bad person. Rather, it means that he is a flawed human being, which is by no means an excuse for wrongdoing.

Nothing I’ve read or heard made mention of any protocol that then – or, or for that matter, now – governed how complaints that were submitted to the Manpower Directorate were logged and tracked, together with a note of resolution. This protocol, if in fact one existed at the time Mr. Stern engaged the services of an office shredder, would cover anonymous as well as signed complaints and accusations. The two are not handled in the same manner, but nor is one summarily dismissed while the other goes through the bureaucratic pipeline. My guess is that Mr. Stern willfully ignored any such protocol that may have been in place at the time. Moreover, it makes no difference if the complaints that were converted into confetti involved charges of sexual harassment or not; a proper code of ethics demands that all complaints be looked into regardless of their nature or subject matter. This is a necessary checkpoint that provides a firewall against the introduction of anarchy and prevents government management and public administration from turning chaotic.

Of course, the accusations that Mr. Stern decided to ignore could very well have been fabrications for no other reason than to intentionally do harm to someone. Indeed, reputations have been unfairly sullied by accusations that have no more substance than fairy tales. For the most part, though, those who incur the sin of bearing false witness rarely win out. This is what Mr. Stern should have understood. Anonymous postings can be as truthful – or not – as ones whose accusers are openly identified. Mr. Stern, by missing out on what could have been a professionally challenging and responsible position, made a mistake that he is now paying for. How steep the price will be has yet to be determined.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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