In today’s Israel, the man who is ostensibly the deputy health minister, but is the health minister de facto, has prima facie used his governmental powers to confer benefits on those he favors. Judging by the police’s description, this deputy minister, whose status is so exalted that he has made the prime minister forget during a recent government meeting that he is also actually the health minister, acts as if the public gave him power so that he could do whatever he pleases.
The police say Yaakov Litzman rushed to rescue a favorite restaurant – which even named some of its dishes after him – from an impending closure order over its poor hygiene. The listeria bacterium was repeatedly found in its salads, and a woman who ate there had a miscarriage.
In the case of principal Malka Leifer, who sought to escape serious charges of sex crimes against her students, Litzman is suspected of using his power to save her from extradition. Ultra-Orthodox wheeler-dealers close to Litzman were determined to save her, on the messianic nationalist grounds that “non-Jews shouldn’t judge a Jew.”
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Litzman’s pretense of acting only for the good has a very particular bent. It’s built on solidarity with confirmed or suspected lawbreakers and disregard for their actual and potential victims.
The health of the restaurant’s patrons is given no weight. The welfare of girls who ought to be protected from sexual abuse is disregarded. Israel’s status as a law-abiding country, in the eyes of both its own citizens and other countries (Australia sought Leifer’s extradition), is trampled into the dust.
His attitude toward ultra-Orthodox criminals – as in the case of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a convicted sex offender – is frighteningly forgiving. The thought that Litzman sees himself as a God-fearing man is chilling.
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The job of a minister (or in our case, a deputy minister who’s a minister in every respect) is to set policies and decide how to implement them, aided by professional advice from ministry staffers. In a law-abiding country, any minister – even the prime minister – has limited power, and anything outside their jurisdiction is out of bounds.
Not his job
A minister isn’t supposed to deal with individuals’ problems, precisely because he’s a politician who has an interest in pleasing people. This principle is meant, inter alia, to ensure equality before the law, since it’s unacceptable for someone who appeals to the minister to be treated differently than someone who doesn’t.
Obviously, a minister shouldn’t be indifferent to complaints about illegal or inappropriate behavior by ministry employees. But he must first ensure that the complaint is genuine rather than an effort to obtain special favors.
He must also make sure he has no personal connection to the complainant; if he does, he should refer the issue to someone else. And in any event, he can’t handle such complaints personally; he must work through via the ministry hierarchy.
A minister isn’t an alternative to the civil servants in charge of specific issues, nor is he an appellate court above them. Aside from the fact that this isn’t his job, he generally lacks the necessary skills for it.
'I'm a regular customer'
Litzman’s suspected offenses epitomize what ministerial intervention in individuals’ problems looks like and why it’s dangerous. Such intervention isn’t based on an investigation that produces reliable, verified information. According to the police, Litzman set the following winning argument against the findings of his ministry’s lab tests: I’m a regular customer, and I never got sick.
Instead of having a substantive discussion, the minister yelled at his subordinates for doing their jobs faithfully and sought to make them deviate from the straight and narrow. When he couldn’t force them to do so, he allegedly tried to bribe them with raises and promotions.
There’s also another fact that seems to completely refute Litzman’s defense of having acted in good faith: He allegedly asked his staffers not to reveal the details of his ministerial visit to the restaurant. In other words, he knew very well that his behavior was inappropriate.
In the Leifer case, Litzman declared himself an expert psychiatrist and, by virtue of his “professional position,” allegedly pressured real psychiatrists to change their professional opinions about her fitness to stand trial. Once, he apparently succeeded; another time, he failed.
If we want to ensure that experts’ testimony to the police and the courts reflects their true professional opinion, it must not be tainted by outside influences, and certainly not by ministerial influence, which stems from extraneous interests. This is a clear case of witness tampering and breach of trust.
The nationalist right that has taken over the country never stops prating about governability. For the sake of governability, it seeks to castrate the gatekeepers and fill the civil service with people loyal to the ministers rather than to the law and the public.
In the brave new world of governability, there will be nobody to stand against a minister who views his ministry as private property. Nor will there be anyone to conduct investigations the way the investigative television show “Hamakor” delved into Litzman’s abuses, since the media will toe the government’s line completely.
Governability’s champions say this is what democracy requires, but that’s nonsense.
The Israeli public never gave Litzmanism a mandate, and in any case, no vote should be interpreted as a grant of unlimited power to the government.
If the nationalist right’s plot comes to fruition, public service will be completely subordinated to the politicians’ corrupt personal and group interests. And, as the suspicions against Litzman show, we will pay the price in fields as varied as public health, protection of children, sexual freedom and the integrity of the law enforcement system.
The public interest will be utterly abandoned. If Litzman is indicted on these suspicions, Benjamin Netanyahu – assuming he remains prime minister – must fire him. But the idea that he would actually do so is surreal, which shows how grim our situation is. Meanwhile, the attorney general must at least instruct Litzman in proper governmental behavior.