Wednesday, December 1st | 27 Kislev 5782

April 8, 2020 1:38 pm

Litzman Coronavirus Saga Shows Need for Israeli Political Reform

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman gesture as they deliver statements during a visit to the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel, March 1, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen / File.

Today, one of the most controversial politicians in Israel is also one of the most important. As the coronavirus ravages the world and Israel struggles to contain it, ire has focused on Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is seen by critics as at best a well-meaning incompetent and at worst an enabler of the spread of the disease. Indeed, in a recent poll, 87% of Israelis said they were unsatisfied with his handling of the crisis.

Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, became the butt of ironic jokes recently when he himself became infected with the coronavirus, apparently as a result of breaking his ministry’s own rules on social distancing and a ban on group prayer.

Government ministers were reportedly furious at Litzman, saying he “knowingly” put their lives at risk. One minister further claimed that Litzman actively attempted to cover up what he had done.

“We’re all taking the greatest possible care these days,” an unnamed minister said. “And yet the health minister, of all people, doesn’t recognize the gravity of the situation, endangers us all, ultimately harming decision-making.”

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At a time when one third of all corona cases are concentrated in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, mainly in Haredi neighborhoods, Litzman is also being criticized for his supposed failure to urge his own community to adhere to the government’s policies on containing the disease, and even encouraging an indifference to these rules by example.

So intense is the backlash against Litzman that the Blue and White party attempted to partially condition their participation in a unity government on Litzman’s replacement by a competent technocrat, though this does not appear to be likely at the moment.

Some of these attacks are clearly unfair. Litzman is by no means entirely inexperienced, having served as deputy health minister for several years before being elevated to the top job. He also cannot be held wholly responsible for the current crisis, as almost every country in the world was caught more or less unprepared by the coronavirus pandemic, with very few successfully arresting the spread of the disease.

There is also a certain degree of communal prejudice involved in the attacks on Litzman. As a prominent representative of the Haredi community, he personifies for many Israelis a marginal group that is often seen as exercising undue and undeserved influence over Israeli society, and is widely resented for religious, cultural and economic reasons.

Moreover, the massive spread of the virus in the Haredi community cannot justify universal blame. Plenty of Haredim are obeying the government’s regulations, and due to a lifestyle that eschews modern communications technology, many were simply unaware of them and of the severity of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, it must be said that a health minister who cannot follow his own policies, who places his own colleagues at risk and lacks medical expertise in the midst of a pandemic is at best highly problematic.

More decisive, however, is the fact that the problems with Litzman go well beyond our current crisis.

Indeed, perhaps the most distressing issue with Litzman’s tenure is not the corona pandemic, but the Malka Leifer case. A headmaster at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl’s school in Australia, Leifer fled to Israel — allegedly with the collaboration of members of the community — after being credibly accused in dozens of cases of sexual molestation. Despite constant demands for extradition from the Australian authorities and Jewish community, the case has wound its way endlessly through the Israeli courts, with Leifer in and out of jail, and remains inconclusive.

Disturbingly, Litzman allegedly attempted to intervene illegally on Leifer’s behalf, attempting to force his own ministry to produce an evaluation that ruled Leifer psychologically unfit to stand trial. This supposedly included threats to fire subordinates and an attempt to intimidate a psychiatrist by impuning his professional standing. The police are currently investigating the issue.

The issue was volatile enough, and Litzman’s involvement offensive enough to the Australian Jewish community, that when Litzman became health minister in 2019, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Jeremy Leibler, harshly denounced the appointment, calling it “a slap in the face to the Australian Jewish Community, the Australian people, the community of Australian [immigrants] in Israel and most shockingly to the survivors of Malka Leifer’s alleged abuse.”

One of Leifer’s alleged victims, Dassi Erlich, demanded Litzman’s resignation, saying he was part of “corruption at the highest levels of Israeli government.”

“I would like to see the health minister step down,” she told to an Australian news outlet. “I would like to see that this is fully investigated, and find out who and why and what happened that we’ve … had 45 court hearings and still no extradition trial.”

The most visceral denunciation of Litzman, however, came only a few weeks ago, when Eli Beer, president of the United Hatzalah emergency service — critically ill with the coronavirus — blasted the minister for banning involvement by his organization in the efforts to fight the virus.

“He is a spiteful person, an evil person,” Beer said of Litzman. “I really hope he isn’t health minister in the next government. The man has been fighting United Hatzalah for several years. A bad man without a good heart, who only looks out for his own interests.”

It is highly unlikely that Litzman is anything close to evil, but it does seem clear that he is simply the wrong man for the wrong time. What Israel needs now is a health minister who has expertise in medical issues and hopefully infectious diseases, is untainted by corruption and adheres faithfully to his ministry’s own regulations.

Litzman, moreover, appears hopelessly compromised by suspicions and deeply disturbing allegations that may or may not be true, but clearly warrant investigation and likely a trial. Israel has enough problems with a corruption case against a sitting prime minister. In a pandemic situation, it needs a health minister with clean hands.

The truth, however, is that Litzman cannot be entirely blamed for his current predicament. Whatever else he may be, he is unquestionably the victim of a dysfunctional political and bureaucratic system that elevates ministers based not on their qualifications but their importance to building and maintaining a government coalition. Litzman is not the first and will not be the last minister in a critical position who lacks the necessary competence and character to do his job.

This problem is rooted not in Litzman’s personal failings or some in his community’s alleged refusal to comport with government regulations, but with an electoral system that allows for small parties to exercise undue influence over the government and results in a devaluation of the solemn duties incumbent on those who serve the Israeli people in critical positions.

If the case of Litzman teaches us anything, it is that Israel is very badly in need of political reform and, unfortunately, is very unlikely to get it.

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