Israeli Health Czar Embroiled in New Scandal Over VIP Healthcare for Top Rabbi's Wife

Deputy health minister said to intercede in case of spouse of Hasidic sect’s leader ■ Litzman under investigation over alleged efforts to prevent extradition of Australian school principal suspected of sexually abusing students

Ido Efrati
Josh Breiner
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Israel's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 5, 2019.
Israel's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 5, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ido Efrati
Josh Breiner

Top Israeli physicians provided months of preferential treatment to someone close to Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, including home visits by specialists and the immediate performance of tests for which ordinary citizens must wait many weeks.

The patient was Shoshana Alter. Her husband is Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh, the head, or admor, of the Gur, or Gerer, Hasidic sect. Litzman is a disciple of the rabbi and serves as the sect’s representative in the Knesset.

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Alter suffered from a rare and serious medical problem. But sources in the medical community, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the exceptional treatment she received stemmed less from the nature of her condition than from the clear messages sent by Litzman’s office that her treatment was “top priority,” as one put it.

Litzman is under criminal investigation for possible obstruction of justice and breach of trust over his alleged efforts to prevent the extradition of Malka Leifer, an Australian school principal suspected of sexually abusing students. Litzman is suspected of asking senior psychiatrists to deem her unfit to stand trial, which would prevent her extradition.

He is also suspected of pressuring another psychiatrist for an opinion that would enable a Gur Hasid convicted of sex crimes to receive furloughs from prison.

The Alter affair began last spring and ended a few weeks ago, when the patient flew to New York and successfully underwent a complex operation. Throughout those months, medical sources said, Litzman exploited his position to intervene in the treatment Alter received.

The first such intervention occurred in May, when doctors were trying to diagnose her condition. Due to Alter’s impaired mobility, Litzman asked senior doctors from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center to visit her at home. Litzman was involved in the smallest details of these visits, and was even present for some of them, the sources said.

Altogether, five such home visits took place, sometimes by one doctor and sometimes by two. The doctors were offered payment, but all apparently refused to accept it.

Eventually, the doctors decided Alter needed an MRI, for which most patients must wait weeks or months. But she received an immediate appointment at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, just hours after doctors referred her. Leading experts also analyzed the results immediately.

“The moment she arrived, she was treated like the president, at least,” one medical source said. “To be clear, no ordinary citizen would have received such service. But if Litzman or one of his aides asks, it’s as if the most important man in the world had called.”

Alter received immediate MRIs at Hadassah at least twice, in May and July. Both times, medical sources said, she came with an entourage of aides and Gur Hasidim, forcing entire sections of the hospital to be closed off and disrupting its normal functioning. The medical source referred to this as “VIP plus-plus-plus treatment.”

A source at Hadassah who heard this story said he wasn’t surprised.

“Over the past two years, Litzman’s office has become particularly troublesome,” he said. “Not a day goes by without a phone call to Prof. Yoram Weiss, the medical director of Hadassah Ein Karem, with a request for preferential treatment or special attention or a complaint about a patient at the hospital who’s affiliated with [Gur] Hasidism. The frequency of these calls has risen over the last two years. And the calls go not just to Weiss, but directly to department heads.”

Another source at Hadassah said Litzman’s office never explicitly ordered preferential treatment; his staff merely asked about the problem, the doctors’ opinions and whether anything more could be done. 

“But when the deputy health minister calls you, the message is clear,” he said. “The message that goes out to the entire staff is that everything the rebbetzin or her people want, they get.”

Gur Hasidim familiar with the case deny that Alter received special treatment. “When a minister comes, he also doesn’t wait in line,” one said. “The medical staff knows he’s a dignitary and it’s natural that they’d work to speed up the process.”

He also denied that the Hasidim closed any wards, saying that was Hadassah’s decision, out of respect for Alter.

Litzman, he continued, “is Gur’s emissary. He takes care of Gur and isn’t embarrassed about it. ... But he also works for people who aren’t Gur Hasidim, and he calls doctors personally even when it isn’t about his people. Anyone who contacts the minister gets help.”

Hadassah doctors weren’t the only ones involved in Alter’s case. Medical sources said experts from Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, including two senior surgeons, were also asked to make house calls to Alter, and did so.

As at Hadassah, sources at Sheba said they’re used to calls from Litzman’s staff, and sometimes even from Litzman himself, that occasionally ask them to violate standard procedure.

Doctors eventually decided Alter needed an operation, but debated between a procedure at Hadassah and a different procedure at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. The decision was ultimately made by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, founder of the Ezra Lemarpeh medical aid organization, an Israel Prize laureate who is considered an expert medical consultant. He recommended Ichilov and chose the surgeon, who also later visited Alter at home.

After the operation, she had to be hospitalized at Ichilov for three weeks. She was given a double room to herself. Two additional rooms, which normally serve the medical staff, were allotted to her family and entourage, TheMarker reported in August. Litzman visited every few days and was in contact with the doctors treating her.

But a medical source said Litzman never made any requests about her case, and that Alter didn’t receive unusual treatment for someone of her status.

“Secular people won’t understand this,” he said, “but the hospitalization of someone like her is like that of a prime minister or another senior public figure.”

This source also denied that Alter’s treatment came at the expense of other patients. “The boundary the hospital set for itself was that no other patient would be hurt by this affair, and so it was,” he said.

Eventually, Alter needed a second operation, which was done in New York in January. She recently returned to Israel, and two weeks ago was well enough to attend a granddaughter’s wedding.

But people in the Israeli health system are still upset over the events that preceded this happy ending — not just the special treatment given Alter, but also the special treatment given her husband when he was hospitalized at Hadassah in February 2018.

Hadassah vacated three rooms in his ward for him and his entourage, with the result that one patient ended up the corridor and at least 30 others were stuck in the emergency ward because they couldn’t transfer to the regular ward, sources at Hadassah said. The ward’s waiting room for families was also closed. 

Litzman personally chose the rooms to be vacated for the rabbi, with full cooperation from Prof. Zeev Rotstein, director general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, the sources said. Deputy Director General Oren Levy personally supervised the allocation of rooms, they added.

Then too, Hadassah staffers weren’t surprised; they’re used to Litzman’s intervention.

“That’s what governmental corruption looks like,” one said. “We’re used to all kinds of celebrities asking for preferential treatment, but when it comes from a government official like the deputy health minister, we can’t say no.”

Rotstein, however, said that every hospital in Israel offers special treatment to VIPs, who include both hospital donors and government officials. 

“Hadassah is proud of its ability to give the general public some of the world’s best medical care and the best hospital conditions in Israel, while at the same time, giving treatment to dignitaries without harming the other patients,” his office added in a statement. “For the person running Hadassah today, this is the only possible way, and he’s committed to implementing it without discriminating against ordinary patients.”

Hadassah’s experience has been that Litzman and his office “do a lot for the general public, for people of every type,” it continued. These obviously include VIPs, such as rabbis, politicians and intellectuals, and Hadassah “is very hurt when dignitaries are referred to other hospitals,” it added.

Ichilov and Sheba both declined to comment.

Litzman’s office said it couldn’t comment on the specific case out of respect for Alter’s privacy, “but we stress that everything was done in accordance with the law and with strict attention to the rules of proper administration.”

It vehemently denied the claim of preferential treatment for Gur Hasidim or other ultra-Othodox patients, saying, “We see it as a privilege and a duty to help everyone who contacts our office on a medical issue, irrespective of religion, race or community.” 

Finally, it slammed “the attempts to smear Litzman and his office for helping others. We’ve even published the phone numbers of office staffers to help the public. ... We’ve never examined who was calling us for help, and most of the callers are unknown to us and don’t belong to any particular community. All deserve our efforts to help them on any medical issue.”

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