Israel's Deputy Health Minister Suspected of Aiding Australian Headmistress Accused of Abuse Avoid Extradition

Yaakov Litzman suspected of helping ex-school principal Malka Leifer be declared mentally unfit to stand trial for allegations she exploited minor female students

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the weekly government meeting, January 6, 2019.
Alex Kolomoisky

Israel Police questioned Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Thursday on suspicion that he intervened in an expert medical opinion in favor of an Australian former school principal accused of sexually abusing minors.

Litzman, whose office denied any wrongdoing, allegedly tried to use his standing as deputy health minister to prevent Malka Leifer’s extradition to Australia, where she could face charges for 74 incidents of sexual assault and rape. Litzman is suspected of attempting to have her officially declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

>> In Israel, Australian sisters recount alleged sex abuse by ultra-Orthodox principal

Leifer fled to Israel in 2008 and in 2016 was determined mentally unfit to stand trial. In February 2018, following testimonies from neighbors and people close to her and after further psychological assessments, psychiatrists determined that Leifer was faking her mental status and that she was mentally fit. However, according to senior sources in the health system, a senior psychiatrist working in public service refused three times to sign the statement saying she could stand trial. A complaint was then submitted to Israel’s medical union’s ethics committee by Dr. Miriam Kuttner, president of the Australian Jewish Medical Federation. Despite the complaint, the ethics committee did not discuss the topic due to the legal proceeding against Leifer.

According to the police, Litzman was summoned for questioning for possible ethics violations and breach of trust. Sources close to the investigation say a covert investigation has been ongoing for six months, and that as part of it, testimony was collected from medical officials. The police decided to summon Litzman for questioning under caution after the existence of the investigation was leaked. Police sources say the offense for which Litzman is being questioned is obstruction of legal proceedings. One of Litzman’s aides has also been questioned.

Malka Leifer in court, February 27, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean / AP

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit gave the police approval to question the deputy minister.

Leifer holds Israeli citizenship and fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 just hours after the accusations against her for sexually exploiting between 8 and fourteen female students, including three sisters, were reported. In 2014, she was arrested in Israel after the Australian government filed extradition papers. She was later released to house arrest, before the Jerusalem district psychiatrist ruled that she was unfit to face an extradition hearing. Israeli law permits a halt in extradition proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial. Since February 2018, Leifer is held in Nave Tirza prison.

In response, Litzman’s office said: “Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was summoned today by the police regarding a matter related to an appeal from the public for assistance. Litzman provided his complete version of events and answered all of the questions as required. Deputy Minister Litzman is absolutely confident of his integrity and will continue to assist with any inquiry that comes to his office, in accordance with the law and common practice.”

Dassi Erlich, one of the three sisters who pressed charges against Leifer for alleged sexual abuse and are now demanding her extradition, wrote in a statement that, "Waiting this many years for justice has been tremendously difficult and painful. However we waited patiently with the understanding that these criminal proceedings take time. To learn that this may in fact be due to corruption at the highest levels of the Israeli government is truly devastating. We hope this will be a significant step as the pieces come together to paint a clearer picture and bring us the justice we've been fighting for!”

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef sits with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in the Chief Rabbi's office in Jerusalem, February 14, 2019.

Fleur Hassan Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem who has been vocal on the issue, called on Litzman to "take an immediate leave of absence”, saying: "The mere thought that Litzman can still remain in charge of the bodies that are taking a significant role in this very delicate and complicated case is like leaving the fox in charge of the chickens. He should take leave so that the remainder of this case is not tainted and the victims get the due process they deserve.”