Ben Gvir bars cops from ‘radical left’ Wexner Foundation leadership program

Alongside police, all National Security Ministry employees also prohibited from participating in vaunted fellowship that allows Israeli civil servants to study policy at Harvard

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Police officers and some other government employees will no longer be permitted to attend programs connected to the Wexner Foundation for Jewish leadership, which sends Israeli civil servants to study policy at Harvard University, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Monday.

The move, which applies to all cops and any employee in the ministry, was imposed after complaints over the Foundation’s “radical left political affiliation and cooperation with distinctly left-wing organizations like Breaking the Silence,” said Ben Gvir. Breaking the Silence publishes testimonies of Israeli soldiers about alleged human rights violations in the West Bank.

“We are taking the police out of the Foundation’s activities,” Ben Gvir added.  “My policy is clear. Politics stays out of the force.”

Efforts by The Times of Israel to obtain a reaction from the Ohio-based Wexner Foundation were not immediately successful. The foundation is supported by Les Wexner, who owns retail brands Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret and more.

On its website, the Wexner Foundation states that it “develops and inspires leaders in the North American Jewish Community and the State of Israel,” adding that “through pluralistic, cohort-based educational programs, the Foundation invests in promising professionals and volunteers, giving them tools to exercise transformative leadership.”

The Wexner Foundation has two programs aimed at Israeli participants. The first is the Wexner Israel Fellowship for “outstanding mid-career Israeli public officials” who study with the Foundation for a master’s degree in the mid-career program of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The second is the Wexner Senior Leaders program, for public sector directors and leaders, who also study for a master’s at the same institution. Each year Wexner accepts 10 individuals for each program.

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Past graduates include former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Aviv Kohavi and Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security agency. Yair Golan, a left-wing politician who once served as the IDF deputy chief of staff, is also a graduate.

In recent years, the Wexner Foundation has attracted the attention of politicians and pundits on the Israeli right, who view the organization as attempting to inject progressive agendas that are popular among American Jews into the top echelon of the Israeli bureaucratic and security establishment.

In 2021, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group against the Wexner Foundation that claimed the scholarships were illegal gifts and that Wexner could exercise influence over the recipients that amounted to foreign meddling. The court said the participants in the Wexner Foundation programs were “giving up more than they are receiving.”

This photo from the Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University on May 15, 2016, shows a 15-foot tall Pinocchio erected by members of the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization. (Credit: Or Buchbut)

The Wexner Foundation has denied applying any bias against candidates in vetting applicants for its programs, including based on political ideologies. “The Wexner Foundation strives to afford appropriate representation among its participants to the various demographics, including Arabs, people of Ethiopian descent, the Haredi sector, and people with disabilities,” its website states.

The decision by Ben Gvir, a leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, drew praise from prominent right-wing personalities, who called on Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to follow suit.

Tally Gotliv, a lawmaker for Likud, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “A governing right-wing means acknowledging the shadow regime and the fact that left-wing ideas are being inculcated in a sophisticated manner. Kudos to Minister Ben Gvir for severing the police’s ties with the Wexner Foundation, which is a long arm of the deep state. Other ministers have a lot to learn from you on how to stop security officials from being brainwashed during their studies with radical leftwing ideas.”

Students walk through Harvard Yard, April 27, 2022, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Avihai Haddad, a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote: “Dear Gallant, there’s no such thing as can’t. Only won’t.”

But others criticized the move, calling it an attempt to divert attention from the uproar over Ben Gvir’s comment last week that his right to safety trumps Palestinians’ right to movement.

“He’s shooting from the hip because he knows he’s causing huge damage to the State of Israel with his racist statement on Channel 12,” one critic, Uri Breitman, a jurist and teacher with 15,000 followers on X, wrote about Ben Gvir’s decision on the Wexner Foundation. “This minister lacks judgment.”

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