Health Minister Yaakov Litzman ascended to the pinnacle of Israeli politics by virtue of his close ties with the Grand Rebbes of the Gur Hasidim, the late Simcha Bunim Alter and his son and successor, Yaakov Arye. He owes his ministerial position, however, to inter-ultra-Orthodox strife: After the leader of a rival faction in his own United Torah Judaism party blocked Litzman’s way to the coveted chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, he was given the Health Ministry as a consolation prize.
Litzman has headed the Health Ministry for a decade, first as a deputy minister and then as the first-ever full-fledged cabinet minister representing the largely Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael party, which had hitherto refrained from accepting collective responsibility for the secular Zionist government’s actions.
The Council of Torah Sages, which approved Litzman’s ascent to the cabinet in 2015, must be having second thoughts, however. The vast majority of the Israeli public not only holds Litzman responsible for his ministry’s woeful lack of preparation for the coronavirus crisis, he has become a national laughingstock, a symbol of all that’s wrong with Israel’s coalition politics and a lightning rod for pent-up secular rage at their ultra-Orthodox compatriots.
Things were going downhill for Litzman even before the coronavirus escaped from Wuhan, China. The police and state attorney have recommended that he be prosecuted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust for a series of improper interventions in his ministry’s work. Most notoriously, Litzman is suspected of having pushed ministry psychiatrists to declare the ultra-Orthodox Malka Leifer, a former all-girls school principal accused of multiple sexual offences in Melbourne, Australia, insane in order to block her extradition.
Australian Jews were and are enraged both by Litzman’s conduct and by his continued and potentially future service as health minister, but most Israelis simply shrugged. They’re used to cabinet ministers intervening on behalf of their confidantes or constituents. Also, their prime minister and two of Litzman’s cabinet colleagues are accused of similar crimes of corruption, and the sky hasn’t fallen, at least not yet.
But when the coronavirus threat appeared on the horizon, Litzman’s situation went from bad to worse, and the Israeli public, moreover, was finally paying attention. Their health minister, they discovered, had no formal education or former experience in dealing with their health concerns and had no great respect for science, in general, or medicine, in particular. Like most religious Jews of his ilk, Litzman puts his trust in God, mitzvoth and prayers first and foremost.
And while most Israelis largely accepted and obeyed the early and relatively harsh preventive measures announced each night by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was clear that these were made urgent by the health system’s inability to deal with large numbers of intensive-care coronavirus patients. Officials and experts had warned both Litzman and Netanyahu - who served, until recently, as Health Minister as well – of the appalling shortages, but they decided that the state’s money was better spent elsewhere: A new residence for the prime minister, for example, or his own Air Force 1.
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Litzman’s first big mistake was insisting – or agreeing – to appear alongside Netanyahu at his nightly press briefings. An increasingly panicky Israeli public saw their health minister dressed in the festive garb of his Hassidic court, shtreimel on his head, mumbling undecipherable sentences in an a typical accent that, to most Israeli ears, still sounds foreign. At one early point Litzman pooh-poohed the threat of the coronavirus, asking, “What’s it called, anyway, this so-called epidemic? Malla or Walla?”
On Thursday, however, the Keystone Cops comedy turned into cruel farce, as Litzman and his wife Hava – nicknamed “Litzwoman” by the often-cruel secular media - were diagnosed as coronavirus carriers. By virtue of the diagnosis and Litzman’s contacts with them over the past few days, Netanyahu, cabinet colleagues, the Chief of Staff, the head of the Mossad and the entire top echelons of the Health Ministry handling coronavirus were all forced into quarantine.
Turns out that Litzman had not only lobbied for ultra-Orthodox synagogues and yeshivas to stay open for as long as possible, even while the coronavirus was already ravaging Haredi strongholds in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, he had ignored the precautionary guidelines laid down by his own ministry. The media was awash with reports of Litzman praying in a group here, refusing to have his temperature taken there and generally ignoring instructions to keep a safe distance from others.
But the craziest element of the Litzman saga is still in play: He is still slated to serve as health minister in the new national unity government now under discussion. Despite a massive public outcry on social media and intense criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis by cabinet colleagues and top officials at the Health Ministry, Litzman won’t budge. He likes the health ministry and, more importantly, Netanyahu won’t remove him, for fear of upsetting his right-wing bloc in the Knesset. So there you have it.
On the other hand, the same Netanyahu was just cited in Haaretz as maintaining that Israel is not a democracy and it is being run by a “deep state”. With the prime minister succumbing to his own paranoid delusions and cockamamie conspiracy theories, Litzman’s return to the scene of his mismanagement and misconduct, if not crimes, is just par for the course. Especially in such crazy times, Israel remains the world capital of meshugas (with Donald Trump’s U.S., admittedly, in strong contention).