Haredi Health Minister Hides Liberalism Under His Hat

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman comes from a strict Haredi community, but in his political role, he has made some surprisingly progressive decisions.

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

A short, humorous video by the Health Ministry in honor of World AIDS Day is getting lots of social media attention and looks to be the first government-produced video to strike viral gold.

The video, produced by the Government Publications Office, encourages the use of condoms to protect against AIDS. A parody of conservatism, it feature a physician solemnly warning against unprotected sex, explaining how it exponentially increases the risk of contracting HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections. Therefore, he advises, “Stop having sex.” The video then cuts to a number of humorous situations in which young adults, bursting with hormones, follow the physician’s advice and abstain from sex until he says at the end, “Or just wear a condom.”

The video got more than 120,000 views in less than 24 hours. No other governmentally-produced video has been viewed as much, except for the ones that ended up as targets for mockery. But there is another reason why the clip is so extraordinary: Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is a member of the Haredi community, specifically the Ger Hasidic sect, known for its extreme strictness. In other words, it's shocking that a ministry under his authority would produce a video that basically condones non-marital, non-monogamous sex.

As deputy health minister, Litzman has been known mostly for controversial decisions involving religious-secular tensions, like his insistence not to relocate ancient graves found at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon to make room for a new emergency room. In addition to nearly costing the state hundreds of millions of shekels, his decision almost caused a dangerous delay in fortifying a hospital close to the Gaza border and vulnerable to rockets.

The incident, which occurred early in Litzman’s term, led to the highly-publicized resignation of the ministry’s director-general, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am and caused a media uproar that entrenched Litzman’s image as a backward deputy minister who cared only about his own community. His move to institute gender-segregated wards in psychiatric hospitals in Jerusalem also caused an uproar among mental-health professionals.

Leaving it to the professionals

But, like this video, Litzman is often surprising. A high-ranking figure in public-relations remarked that not even the most edgy commercial firms would have dared produce such a bold video. And some of the Health Ministry’s most liberal decisions in the country’s history were made under Litzman's watch. Some of these decisions go completely against religious Jewish law, while others are merely challenging from a religious perspective.

For example, last February, the Health Ministry issued a directive to the various health maintenance organizations instructing them to make it easier for young women up to 19-years-old (in other words, young women approaching the age of army service) to obtain abortions. This included expediting approval, increasing confidentiality, not sharing information with parents and allowing the patient to choose the hospital where the abortion would be performed, even if the hospital was outside their area of residence. The instructions make explicit mention of conservative communities such as those in the Haredi world.

“In certain cases, confidentiality is not only a matter of a patient’s right to privacy,” the statement reads, “it may also be a matter of life and death. If the young woman lives in a community that is intolerant of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, her life may be in danger. She may also be unable to deal with her community’s response if the knowledge of her pregnancy and its termination should become an open secret.”

Three months later, in May, the Public Committee for the Legislative Evaluation of Fertility and Birth in Israel, which was appointed by Litzman’s own Health Ministry, released its recommendations. The most prominent of them include several that collide directly with Jewish law. For example, the committee determined that homosexuals and single women would be permitted to have children by surrogacy and that married women would be permitted to serve as surrogate mothers.

The most extreme recommendation was that a married man and his mistress would be permitted to undergo fertility treatments without the knowledge of the man’s wife. Although Litzman is not a member of the committee, he could have put a stop to its work. But as soon as the committee published its recommendations, Litzman announced that he had no intention of interfering in its decisions. Instead, he would “leave it to the professional echelon.”

Far from his world

Another of the Health Ministry’s accomplishments during Litzman’s term was the passing of the ovum donation law, which had been held up for more than a decade. The law allows healthy women age 21 to 35 who are not undergoing fertility treatments to donate ova for compensation of thousands of shekels. The law also allows the donation of non-anonymous ova – for example, from a woman to her sister or friend, upon approval of a special committee. Litzman had a hard time approving the bill. Although he raised objections and introduced changes into its final version, it was approved with his support.

Sources close to Litzman say he usually doesn't interfere in sensitive cases involving halakha.

“Litzman often consults with the Gerrer Rebbe on every matter," said a Haredi media official. "But when it comes to sensitive cases, he may well choose not to consult with the rebbe, particularly when the matter has nothing to do with his own community. It’s part of his sector-based world view. He doesn’t care what the secular people do – after all, subjects like surrogacy for homosexuals have nothing to do with his community.” The media official said he believed that “once the Haredi media finds out about these things and attacks Litzman, he may get scared. But there’s a good chance that it won’t happen. Litzman has quite a bit of power in the Haredi media, particularly in Hamodia, which is controlled by the Gerrer Hasidim.

“He’s in politics to lead important revolutions," the media official continued, "and for him the Haredim are the most important thing. That’s what makes him different from Shas and the Lithuanians. The Ger community is very insular and isolated, and what happens in the secular world is less important to him. His community will probably never see the condom video. So why did he make such a fuss about the graves? Because there were Haredim who demonstrated. His own community initiated the struggle. But here, we’re talking about fertility treatments for a married man’s mistress. That’s so far from his world that it doesn’t matter to him.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman will surprise you with some of the progessive decisions he's let slide under his watch. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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