Analysis |

Ultra-Orthodox Minister Didn't Resign Over Israel's Holiday Lockdown, but Left Before Being Pushed Out

Litzman may have been a senior minister for over a decade, but he is always nothing but a foot soldier for the Gerrer Rebbe

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The resigned health minister Yaakov Litzman.
The resigned health minister Yaakov Litzman.Credit: Oliver Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The resignation of Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman on Sunday in protest over what he described in his letter to the prime minister as the government’s policy that “will prevent hundred of thousands of Jews, from all populations and sectors, from praying in synagogues” on Rosh Hashanah, would seem like a major blow to the Netanyahu coalition. It isn’t.

For a start, no one is going to prevent Israelis from praying any way they like during the upcoming High Holy Days, whether on balconies or in backyards, community centers or yes, even synagogues. Despite the fears of COVID-19, all manners of worship will be widely available. The government’s new guidelines for lockdown prayers may be absurdly complicated, but the Jewish state’s police force isn’t going to be bursting in on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur to count heads. It’s not going to happen. And Litzman knows it. So why resign?

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Litzman’s resignation has nothing to do with the sanctity of prayer, and everything to do with the erosion of his own position inside the Byzantine court of Rabbi Yaakov Alter, leader of Ger, the most powerful Hasidic sect in Israel. Litzman may have been a senior minister for over a decade, but he always nothing but a foot soldier for the Gerrer Rebbe. His resignation, however, seems to be the first time he’s taken a political move on his own accord. But by all accounts, the Rebbe has no problem with him leaving the cabinet.

The other Knesset members from his party, United Torah Judaism, were conspicuous in their lack of support for Litzman. The Haredi journalists, who never deviate from their camp lines, were scathing in their scorn. And even Netanyahu was faint in his expression of regret. They all know. Litzman is finished and has left the stage before being pushed off it.

Why has he lost favor? The introverted Alter won’t tell anyone, so we can just speculate that Litzman wasn’t delivering the goods any more. As health minister when the pandemic broke, he attracted too much public criticism for his hapless handing of the crisis. He’s also likely to soon face charges for bribery and fraud, having allegedly abused his power as minister to try and shield Malka Leifer, the ultra-Orthodox school principle accused of sexually assaulting dozens of her students in Melbourne, Australia, from deportation and for interceding on behalf of a restaurant near his home in Jerusalem which faced closure due to health reasons.

Litzman at 72 (he is currently the oldest lawmaker) is losing his standing as Ger’s senior political representative. A youngish Ger Hasid, Eliyahu Chassid, recently became a lawmaker and other rabbis and machers who seem to enjoy the Rebbe’s confidence more than he does have come to the fore. Two weeks ago, the Rebbe sent emissaries to ex-general Ronny Numa in an attempt to get an authorization to allow 2,000 Hasidim to pray on Rosh Hashanah in the cavernous Ger center in Jerusalem. They were allowed only 200. Litzman wasn’t involved in the meetings and got the message.

It looks like Litzman is being allowed to fall on his sword and resign on what is ostensibly a matter of principle. UTJ isn’t about to leave the coalition and he will be replaced in due course by a colleague as housing minister. Other senior Ger officials are currently running the powerful ministry anyway. Litzman will go back to the Knesset backbencher and is unlikely to be on UTJ’s candidate slate in the next election. This is just a changing of the guard. But it is a messy end to Litzman’s public career. The skulduggery of ultra-Orthodox politics, especially of such a secretive court as Ger, is supposed to take place hidden away. It is a symptom of the dysfunction at the highest level of Haredi leadership.

Litzman’s unpopularity is the least of Alter’s problems. This has been a year of splits and schisms in Ger, where 24 years of Alter’s aloof and oppressive leadership is proving too much for some of the Hasidim. And that’s just a microcosm of the problems ailing other ultra-Orthodox sects, where aging nonagenarian rabbis are struggling to assert anything remotely similar to the authority their predecessors enjoyed.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted their diminished leadership as they’ve failed to mount a joint front, both in the face of the government’s policies and toward their own community. Senior rabbis have wildly differing and often contradictory strictures to their confused followers on how to maintain communal life while protecting themselves from infection as the ultra-Orthodox coronavirus death toll mounts disproportionately.

The Haredi leadership vacuum and growing distrust of their public reflects the more general one in Israel during the pandemic. Both within the ultra-Orthodox autonomy and at the national level, there is a lack of figures capable of dictating a clear policy. Litzman’s resignation will not be the last.

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