Ultra-Orthodox Ministers Are Some of Israel's Best

Economy Minister Arye Dery and health chief Yaakov Litzman might not be beacons in the center-right government, but they fight the natural-gas lobby and help the poor.

Olivier Fitoussi

Could an ultra-Orthodox minister ever succeed in the eyes of the secular majority? Can someone who wears a shtreimel ever be a good minister who serves the entire public and not just his constituency? Can social reform and a beard go together?

The current cabinet isn’t awash in impressive ministers. There are next to no ministers who work for the people and don’t just spout slogans, even though most of the government’s voters are less well-off. And yet in the government gloom, two thin candles flicker — Economy Minister Arye Dery and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. They might not be beacons, but they do dispel the darkness a bit.

The two get very little credit from the secular community. Everything they do, even if it’s positive and courageous, immediately triggers a suspicious or hostile response. At best, they’re ignored; they‘re rarely applauded.

Compliments for a minister called Yankel or one whose middle name is Makhlouf? Never. Their way of life and black clothing prevent secular people from appreciating what they do, even when they deserve it.

Reams of words have been written about Israel's natural-gas program, and except for Haaretz, few have opposed it. The media succumbed happily, most politicians supported it, and even the social-justice champion, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, played coy and stayed mum.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman
Tali Meyer

The one who stopped the program, at least temporarily, was the economy minister. Other than Egypt’s gas discovery, Dery was the only stumbling block in the program’s smooth path; he was the thorn in the prime minister’s side, the minister who prevented the plan from passing in the Knesset this week.

Dery wanted proper administration and the approval of the antitrust commissioner, as the law requires. Something that should have been obvious turned into a scandal. How dare he? What does he understand compared to the gas barons? In another moment they would have found ways to circumvent Dery and the law; only the Egyptian gas discovery gave Dery momentum.

Yet Dery barely received recognition for his efforts. If former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, for example, had been the one to face down the aggressive gas lobbyists — something hard to imagine, of course — he would have been carried on people’s shoulders. But Dery? Surely he acted as he did for roguish, self-serving reasons, as usual. After all, he was and always will be a criminal, and besides, he’s of Middle Eastern origin and ultra-Orthodox to boot.

Our health minister is even more ultra-Orthodox; his clothing is even stranger than Dery’s, as is the way he speaks. He too doesn’t have much chance of being appreciated.

This is his second time in the job. During his first term, as deputy minister, he was impressive. But he’s a Gur Hasid who looks and acts like one, replete with pants tucked into his socks. When in his previous term he implemented a dental-care reform for children — all children — he was immediately accused of being concerned only about ultra-Orthodox children.

Now with the introduction of mental-health reform, no one dares make this claim. Litzman makes surprise visits to hospitals and often surprises us with his liberal positions, like his support for medical marijuana, freezing single women's eggs and abortions for minors. Now Litzman is trying to improve the public’s access to MRI exams; hopefully he’ll succeed.

Is there another minister who invites Israelis to call him if they’re waiting in line too long? Litzman has appointed a professional director general for his ministry, he lives simply, and many doctors (not all, of course), only have praise for him.

He is a very active minister and is responsible for the last surviving, albeit crumbling, piece of the welfare state. Devotees of social welfare should be cheering him on.

But they don’t, because Litzman isn’t one of us. He’s ultra-Orthodox, a Haredi, and Haredim only know how to suck the government dry, not serve in the army. Parasites. There are no other Haredim.