Health Minister Yaakov Litzman explained Thursday that he had visited a rabbi convicted of sex offenses as part of his “ethical duty” to care for all sick people, regardless of their backgrounds.
Litzman and Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush on Tuesday visited Eliezer Berland, 80, who is currently under house arrest, serving out his sentence over convictions on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault.
“As health minister I feel an ethical and public duty, as well as a personal responsibility, to help everyone who turns to me,” regardless of “religion, race, gender or standing,” Litzman wrote in a letter to lawyers representing Berland’s victims.
The minister, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said he had repeatedly refused requests from Berland and his followers to visit the rabbi in jail. However, he said, now that the rabbi has been released to house arrest due to his cancer, “and has paid his debt to society, I agreed to visit him to perform the mitzva of visiting the sick and to help him recover from his illness.”
Litzman stressed that his visit was not intended “to legitimize the serious charges [Berland] was accused of.” He rejected claims that the visit was an insult to Berland’s victims, and said he apologized if it was understood as such.
Berland was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Earlier this month, after serving five months behind bars, he was given permission to move to a hotel next to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus, where he will be under constant surveillance until October 2017, when his sentence will end.
Opposition lawmaker Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) said on Wednesday that by visiting Berland, Litzman and Porush caused harm to every law-abiding citizen who saw their leaders honoring a sex offender, Channel 2 News reported. “The filmed visits by leaders of the United Torah Judaism party at Rabbi Berland’s home are insufferable,” she said.
“It’s especially unacceptable from a segment of the population that emphasizes modesty in the most extreme of ways,” she added.
Berland’s lawyer, Rotem Tubul, said on Wednesday that the rabbi was “still very sick,” and had to be hospitalized from time to time. He added that during the Passover festival, which ended Monday, many rabbis and other figures came to wish him good health and a speedy recovery.
Long considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav Hasidic sect, Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he molested two female followers, one of them a minor.
According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and in Beitar Illit and held private meetings intended for spiritual guidance, counseling or benedictions. The rabbi would sometimes take advantage of the meetings and of his position in the community to commit sexual acts with women, including minors, according to the charges against him.
He was on the run from authorities until 2016, eluding several Israeli attempts to extradite him. He moved between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families.
Sue Surkes contributed to this report.