How a 67-year-old Hasidic Jew Took Michelle Obama’s Fight to Israel

This isn’t the first time a leader from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox establishment has picked a fight with McDonald’s.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman
Tali Meyer

With his long unkempt white beard and sidelocks, large black skullcap, dark Hasidic garb, pants tucked into his socks, mild paunch and slight stoop, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, Yaakov Litzman, probably isn’t who most people would tag as the new poster boy for a quinoa-and-kale lifestyle.

But Israel’s very own Michelle Obama – minus the Jimmy Fallon dance moves and the toned triceps – has taken this country by surprise and become one of its more outspoken and effective advocates for healthier diets and clean living.

The 67-year-old learned follower of the strict Ger Hasidic dynasty, who’s also health minister, solidified this status last week when he boldly went where few have dared go before: He faced off against the world’s biggest fast food chain.

“There is no need to eat junk food, not in our country. McDonald’s out. Not in our country. There’s no need to eat McDonald’s,” said the father of five, speaking at the annual Israel Heart Society conference.

“I know they won’t like that I’m saying this, that large corporations won’t like it,” added Litzman, shrugging. “I chose the Health Ministry because I thought it’s a place where you can save people.”

McDonald’s has 180 outlets in Israel and around 36,000 more in 119 other countries. It serves an average of 68 million customers around the world daily, so it wasn’t going to take the fighting Hasid’s words lying down.

“It’s unfortunate that the health minister chose to express himself in such a populist, unscientific way, which may get him headlines but does not reflect what is happening in the chain,” the company said in a statement.

“McDonald’s Israel, after the tremendous health revolution it initiated, is part of the solution, not the problem,” the company added, referring to its efforts to reduce fat, sugar and sodium in its products.

Kosher wars

This isn’t the first time an ultra-Orthodox leader has picked a fight with McDonald’s in Israel, though in the past those battles were about the cheese on the meat patties or opening hours on Shabbat – with nary a thought about the saturated fat in the french fries.

When the first Golden Arches appeared in Israel in 1993, it was all about vanilla milkshakes to go with the Chicken McNuggets. Two years later, responding to demand, the first-ever kosher outlet opened – at which Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi forced the chain to replace its signature yellow and red signs with blue and white ones in Hebrew. They were attached to a big Kosher sign – lest anyone confuse the different kinds of branches.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Emil Salman

Today, 50 of the McDonald’s restaurants in Israel are strictly kosher. Not only do they not mix milk and meat, but they remain closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and during Passover switch over to matza meal buns. The meat at all Israeli outlets, including the nonkosher ones, is kosher.

And as in Muslim countries around the world, no pork is served. Other nods to the Israeli market include menu items such as McKebab served in a pita, chopped Israeli salad sides, and for a while, the magnificent McFalafel.  

But non-dairy deserts and ham-less Egg McMuffins weren’t on Litzman’s agenda when he headed to the cardiologists’ gathering last week. With over 600,000 Israelis suffering from diabetes, and obesity rates on the rise, his ministry is focusing on a new campaign for healthy eating and a general push to increase awareness about disease prevention.

One new Litzman initiative is a ban on selling sugary drinks and foods at kindergartens and schools. Another, just being debated, calls for proper nutrition labels on food packaging.

“Children should be educated not to eat junk food,” Litzman said. “Not to eat so many sweets. It’s right for diabetes and it’s right for the heart. That’s what we’re going to do in the coming year – prevention.”

Battling the LGBT community

Born in 1948 in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Polish survivors of the Holocaust, Litzman immigrated with his parents to the United States and grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The minister, who still speaks with a Brooklyn accent, rarely talks publicly about his years in New York, saying he remembers little besides his Torah studies. He moved to Israel at age 17 to continue his religious studies, later finding work as the principal of an all-girls Orthodox school in Jerusalem.

He entered politics in 1999, under the tutelage of the Gerrer Rebbe – the leader of Israel’s biggest Hasidic dynasty – to whom Litzman had become a close adviser, as he had been to the former Gerrer Rebbe. Litzman joined and later became head of the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism ticket for parliament. Once elected (giving up his American citizenship to do so), he chaired the Knesset Finance Committee four times and sat on the Interior and Environment Committee and the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee.

Due to the Ger Hasidic community’s reluctance to fully recognized a secular Jewish state, Litzman, who was chosen in 2009 to head the Health Ministry, refused to take on the title of minister. He made do with deputy minister, even though he carried out all the top duties.

Reappointed to the same role in 2015 when the party once again joined the coalition government, a court order insisted that Litzman drop the “deputy” stance, and the Gerrer Rebbe, with whom Litzman still consults daily, gave him special dispensation to do so.

Litzman’s political stands and statements over the years have not been without their critics. For example, during his first stint in the Health Ministry, he insisted that the ancient graves found at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon not be relocated to make room for a new emergency room. This costly and dangerous decision delayed the fortifying of that hospital, which sits in rocket range of the nearby Gaza Strip. The ministry’s director general at the time resigned in protest.

Later, his attempt to gender-segregate psychiatric wards in Jerusalem caused a predictable uproar, as did, more recently, his comments at the Knesset podium on the Torah portion of the week in which he compared the LGBT community to the “sinners” who danced around the golden calf

But for all that, the perception across the political and religious board is that Litzman, unlike many other Hasidic politicians, is someone who sees his job as serving the entire public – not jut his community’s needs – and who actually cares about health.

Litzman’s accomplishments include adding funds for hospital beds, hiring more doctors and nurses, expanding the basket of free medicines and reducing the prices of hospital food.

Other initiatives launched under his watch – like making it easier for young women to obtain abortions, allowing gay men and single women to have children by surrogacy, and letting pharmacies sell medical marijuana – challenge or even directly collide with the Jewish law that Litzman subscribes to. In response to questions about this clash, Litzman once said he believed in leaving such business “to the professional echelon.”

Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, a secular, progressive feminist, has only praise for Litzman. “When he speaks about the children requiring dental care of the nation’s poor children, he speaks about all the children, not just the Haredim,” she said, referring to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. “He listens, and he gets things done.”

Meanwhile, a January poll commissioned by Channel 2 News asking how satisfied Israelis were with ministers’ job performances placed Litzman at the very top with a 56.1 percent approval rating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came in second to last at 32.1 percent.

Litzman credited his popularly to two factors: one, that he stuck to his job. “I do not speak about Obama and other things, just health,” he explained.  And two, above all, God. “It’s all Siyata Dishmaya,” he said, pulling out an Aramaic phrase for the occasion – “with the help of heaven.”