Israeli Health Czar Methodically Aided ultra-Orthodox Sex Offenders, Investigation Reveals

A Channel 13 investigation reports that United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov Litzman pressured mental health officials into granting furloughs, lightening risk assessments for convicted ultra-Orthodox sex criminals

Yaakov Litzman at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 12, 2019.
Emil Salman

Deputy Health Minister and United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov Litzman worked directly and through his government post in order to help ultra-Orthodox sex offenders, among them pedophiles and serial rapists, a Channel 13 investigation reported.

Litzman's efforts included methodically pressuring mental health professionals into lightening their risk assessments for ultra-Orthodox prisoners, and approving or lengthening prisoners' furloughs – even for sex offenders who have not yet been rehabilitated, the investigation reported. Mental health professionals told Haaretz that Litzman's requests on the subject were not uncommon, and that there are more even cases than were presented in the report.       

The investigation followed earlier publications on the subject, including reports from Haaretz. It presented ten previously unreported cases in which Litzman and his personnel (including his chief of staff Haim Justman, now an MK for United Torah Judaism) were involved. Nine of the cases deal with convicted sex offenders who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, most of whom are ultra-Orthodox.

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The remaining case touches upon Litzman's alleged involvement in preventing the extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia. An Australian indictment charged Leifer, a former principal of an ultra-Orthodox school who is now incarcerated, with 72 counts of various types of sexual assault, including 11 counts of rape. These include the rape and sexual assault of three sisters who were students of hers in her Melbourne ultra-Orthodox community. Leifer's extradition process, and the question of her ability to stand trial, is still under debate in the Israeli court system – more than 50 conversations have been held on the subject.

Litzman's office released a statement in response to the report, saying that he helps anyone who turns to him, regardless of their affiliation. Litzman's staff also disseminated this message in an ad campaign costing tens of thousands of shekels on the Channel 13 website, to accompany the broadcast. The statement called the claims in the report "an ongoing and planned hunting campaign" and a "blood libel" against Litzman, intended to damage his image and prevent him from returning to a Health Ministry post.   

The statement denied that Litzman pressured officials or aided sex offenders, including Leifer. "Sex crimes and sexual assault are like murder. There is no forgiveness for it, nor will there be, and the place of sexual abusers is in jail and not in the community," it reads. Litzman "insisted on not getting involved in the stances of professionals and instructed them to act only in accordance with the law. The claims about pressure by or on behalf of Litzman are false and unrealistic."

Debbie Sagi, a retired senior official in the prison service, told Channel 13 that she was frustrated to see psychiatrists change their professional opinions on a month-to-month basis, to a degree that prisoners formerly assessed as high-risk were suddenly granted vacations. "I haven't received a convincing reason why. Other than that the Ministry of Health has a minister from the ultra-Orthodox world, and the prisoners belong to it – there's pressure. Whoever says it isn't true isn't telling the truth."

Litzman and his staff have recently been questioned by the police regarding some of these cases. Police also collected testimony from senior psychiatrists who served in key positions over the last decade. These include psychiatrists who worked with courts who gave professional opinions that were crucial in deciding whether a sex offender could stand trial or in their risk assessments.

The broadcast uncovered that Litzman and Justman pressured mental health professionals to send an ultra-Orthodox sex offender sentenced to 24 years in jail for raping five women to group therapy – a condition for furloughs and a shortened sentence. Even after the Center for Mental Health explained that it would be impossible, Litzman appealed directly to the center's director, Dr. Moshe Birger. Litzman made this demand for months, even demanding the director to provide him a list of other prisoners in the group and the duration of their sentences.

In February, Haaretz reported on Litzman's repeated and systematic demands of Dr. Birger.  “Birger received requests from Litzman on a regular basis,” one senior health official said, adding that Justman was the one who conveyed these requests. The situation became so bad that the then-director of the Be’er Yaakov psychiatric hospital, Prof. Moshe Kotler, contacted Litzman directly to ask him to stop pressuring Dr. Birger.