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With Elazar Stern out of running, Jewish Agency eyes first-ever female chair

Several members of the agency’s nominating committee are now considering electing a woman to head the organization for the first time in its history

Top row (L-R) Omer Yankelevich (FLash90), Michal Kotler-Wunsh (Rami Zarenger), Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (AFP); Bottom row (L-R) Irina Nevzlin (Courtesy), Yaffa Zilbershats (Flash90), Elazar Stern (Flash90)
Top row (L-R) Omer Yankelevich (FLash90), Michal Kotler-Wunsh (Rami Zarenger), Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (AFP); Bottom row (L-R) Irina Nevzlin (Courtesy), Yaffa Zilbershats (Flash90), Elazar Stern (Flash90)

Following the Tuesday announcement by Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid that he was withdrawing his candidacy to head the Jewish Agency, several members of the agency’s nominating committee are considering electing a woman to head the organization for the first time in its history, The Times of Israel has learned.

The Jewish Agency’s governing body, which consists of 10 people — five members of the World Zionist Organization, three representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, and two representatives from Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal — will decide on October 24 who the next head of the  world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization will be.

One of the candidates who had conversations with members of the nominating committee told The Times of Israel that they were under the impression the committee members were interested in choosing a woman for the position for the first time.

The same candidate said they were clearly told by one of the members of the committee that if they were presented with candidates with similar background and skills, they would prefer the female candidate.

Another candidate confirmed the statements and said he had also been presented with similar sentiments.

Stern withdrew his candidacy for Jewish Agency chairman Tuesday afternoon, amid a growing controversy over comments he made earlier this week suggesting he had ignored sexual harassment complaints during his time as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on November 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid initially backed Stern, a member of his Yesh Atid party, saying in a Monday statement: “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.”

But since those statements, Israeli networks aired claims made by a number of women saying that Stern, while head of the IDF’s officers’ school, had warned them not to repeat rape and sexual harassment claims that they brought to him against officers. Stern withdrew his candidacy for the Jewish Agency shortly after.

After being appointed intelligence minister upon the formation of the new government earlier this year, Stern was agreed upon as the prime minister’s candidate to head the Jewish Agency, with the nomination process now getting under way.

By tradition, the prime minister suggests a candidate to head the quasi-governmental organization and the candidate is generally rubberstamped by the nominating committee and then by its board of governors.

With Stern now out of the running, a number of other prominent public figures see themselves as having a chance to head the agency.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is kissed by Natan Sharansky, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency, after delivering a speech in Jerusalem, February 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Among those who have applied for the chairmanship are five female candidates: former minister Omer Yankelevich, who is supported by the Blue and White party; former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who was elected to the Knesset with Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party and later left Telem and joined Blue and White; the head of ANU – Museum of the Jewish People, Irina Nevzlin, who is married to Likud MK Yuli Edelstein; Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, chairwoman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education; and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

Hassan-Nahoum is also the only candidate of Mizrahi origin, with her parents coming to Israel from Morocco, and presented to the nominating committee the fact that the Jewish Agency has never had a chair of Mizrahi origin, her spokesperson said.

The nominating committee has just two female members: Racheli Beretz Ricks, who serves as the head of the department for the fight against antisemitism and community resilience in the World Zionist Organization; and Helena Glazer, chair of the WIZO World Executive Board.

Other candidates to head the agency are former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, who currently serves as World Likud chairman; former Likud MK Uzi Dayan; and former Kulanu MK and former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren.

Responding Tuesday to questions about whether a woman should be chosen as the next chair, the Jewish Agency said: “The committee will select the best candidate.”

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