Coalition members assail minister Stern over sexual harassment comments

Intelligence minister sparked outcry when saying he trashed anonymous complaints; Labor chief expresses doubt he can head Jewish Agency; Meretz head calls remarks ‘unacceptable’

Knesset Member Elazar Stern. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Knesset Member Elazar Stern. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Members of the coalition issued lukewarm statements Monday on the outcry sparked by Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern, when he said he had “shredded many anonymous complaints” during his time as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate and indicated he was referring to claims of sexual assault as well. He later said in TV interviews that he “never shredded complaints of sexual harassment.”

Stern, of the Yesh Atid coalition party, was criticized by the heads of the liberal Meretz and Labor parties.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, who has based much of her career on gender equality advocacy, was asked during a faction meeting about Stern’s candidacy to be the next head of the Jewish Agency.

“I have to contemplate that,” she answered.

On Sunday evening, Michaeli tweeted that Stern “probably truly thinks an anonymous complaint is meant to defame or thwart, but is missing the point that still, a woman who chooses to complain is risking being defamed. Unfortunately, even a person like him, who knows the importance of gender equality, is missing the way we are still vulnerable to harm and attacks after exposing harm done to us.”

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz said at his own faction meeting: “We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. There are indeed difficulties in dealing with anonymous complaints, but they need to be investigated as well.

“Stern’s remarks were unacceptable, and I hope that every complaint in the IDF was probed,” he added.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev listen to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on June 22, 2021. (Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, said during a conference in the Golan Heights that “in the army, when a commander receives a complaint, even an anonymous one, it needs to be probed.”

However, Shaked added that she doesn’t want “to pass judgment on him while he’s going through a selection process for the Jewish Agency.”

During a radio interview Sunday, and with the conversation clearly focusing on claims of sexual assault, Stern replied several times “yes” to whether he’d shredded anonymous complaints. When asked if he was referring to women’s complaints specifically, Stern said he didn’t “remember exactly whether it was by women.”

Stern was once the commander of the IDF officers’ school, the military’s most significant educational institution, and later served as the head of the Education and Youth Corps and of the Manpower Directorate, before entering the Knesset in 2013. He has served as intelligence minister since June.

Yair Lapid (right) and new Yesh Atid recruit MK Elazar Stern at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)

On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid voiced his support for Stern: “Yesh Atid is a party where there is zero tolerance and zero backing for sexual harassment. We believe that women should be protected and allowed to complain in any way they see fit. If Stern had said he had shredded complaints about sexual harassment, we would have said goodbye to him later that day. He did not say that, and he does not believe in that.”

A Yesh Atid statement said Stern had stressed during a faction meeting that “any harassment complaint that reached his desk was immediately addressed with the utmost severity” and that “his remarks referred solely to complaints filed by officers against each other during fights over promotions.”

In a damage control bid, Stern toured the major networks on Sunday evening, apologizing if his remarks had caused offense, and saying that none of the anonymous complaints he had shredded related to sexual assault.

As an officer, Elazar Stern believed the role of the military went beyond defense (Courtesy of Elazar Stern)
Elazar Stern as a two-star general in charge of IDF manpower. (Courtesy)

Following his Sunday comments, a woman told Channel 13 anonymously that during his time as head of the IDF’s officers’ school Stern had threatened her not to repeat the allegations she’d raised against a noncommissioned officer.

“I was a soldier at the base between 1995 and 1997 when one of the noncommissioned officers tried to sexually harm me,” the woman said. During a meeting with Stern and the accused, she said Stern told her: “If you repeat anything that was said here in this room, or what the officer tried to do, your days in the army will be dark and bitter. It will be the worst in the world for you, and you will not remain in the army.”

Speaking to Channel 13, Stern denied he’d ever said those words, while saying that the fact that he had spoken to both the alleged victim and perpetrator was a sign that he had dealt with the accusations. However, he conceded that his treatment of the case “may not have been good.”

“The quote, which comes almost 30 years later, cannot be true,” he said, according to a Yesh Atid statement, which called on the IDF to “investigate the matter in order to allow General Stern to defend his good name.”

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