By Samuel Hollander
In 1989, a Jewish-American man of means and a philanthropist at heart by the name of Leslie Wexner came up with a benevolent initiative: he would personally fund an annual program that sends officials from Israel’s government, health system and defense forces – IDF, GSS, Mossad and the Atomic Energy Commission – to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy’s Master program – up to ten scholarships per year. The foundation he established would foot the (very high) tuition bill for the ten selected public officials and provide them with a room and board scholarship, while the government and IDF continue to pay their regular salaries while they are away at Harvard.
The program was designed to advance Israel’s public service and it targeted civil and military officials who demonstrate excellence and a potential to scale to the leadership echelons of the sector.
Generations of governments endorsed the program, regardless of where they stood on the political map. Over the years, hundreds of civil servants and military commanders participated in the program, many of whom proceeded over the years to attain high ranks in various public bodies, among them IDF Chiefs of Staff, generals, government ministry directors and heads of hospitals, to mention a few.
The program’s admission and screening processes is extremely long and meticulous. The final selection is a product of a joint decision by the Foundation, the Civil Service Commission, the IDF and Harvard University. For many years, I sat on the public committee tasked with tapping the program’s candidates and I can personally testify that the admission process is one of the most meticulous, professional and untainted ones I have ever witnessed. Never has the committee questioned a candidate in regard to his or her political views or other irrelevant matters. No hidden agendas were involved in the process.
For the last 31 years the program proceeded successfully, benefiting Israel’s public service and it was only recently when a new wind began blowing over the land. Elements from the right-wing, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, have “discovered” that behind Mr. Wexner’s magnanimous and beautiful philanthropic initiative lies a sinister plot – to brainwash the feeble minds of public and military leaders, induce a change of heart and turn them into subversive leftists, heaven forbid. So intent are they to prove their point that they sought legal recourse, alleging that the Foundation has even violated the Gift Act – a trumped-up claim even a fledgling lawyer would reject out of hand on the grounds that the State itself is full partner to the program and as such benefits from its outcomes.
The program’s critics went so far as to summon a meeting at the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where they rained fire and brimstone on The Wexner Foundation. I attended the meeting and walked out shaken to my core. I cannot remember ever attending such a dishonorable, rabid and delusional debate. It was hard to watch an accomplished man like Major General (res.) Ido Nehushtan, former commander of the IAF and current Chairman of the Foundation’s advisory committee, forced to defend this outstanding enterprise in the face of unbridled and unfounded criticism on the part of certain MKs. The American saying, “My Mind Is Made Up – Don’t Confuse Me with Facts” materialized right before my disbelieving eyes.
While I am not personally acquainted with Mr. Wexner, imagine how one feels having donated hundreds of millions of dollars of his private funds to the improvement of Israel’s public service, just to have his enterprise assaulted with a barrage of refuse? How is a Jewish, Zionist, ardent supporter of Israel, who has done so much for the country in so many ways, to feel when accused of running a subversive program dedicated to brainwashing its participants?
It saddens me to witness how low some of our public leaders stooped, motivated merely by some political agenda, which I struggle to comprehend.
Samuel Hollander served as the Israel’s Civil Service Commissioner from 1996-2010.