Australian Jews slam pending appointment of Litzman as health minister

Australian Jews slam pending appointment of Litzman as health minister

Head of country’s top pro-Israel group calls elevating the lawmaker to full minister an ‘insult’ to victims of accused sex offender he allegedly worked to shield from extradition

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at an election night event in Petah Tikva for his United Torah Judaism party, September 18, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at an election night event in Petah Tikva for his United Torah Judaism party, September 18, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

The expected appointment of United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman as health minister was denounced Saturday by some Australian Jews over suspicions the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker sought to prevent the extradition of an accused serial sex offender to Australia.

Israeli police have recommended Litzman, who is deputy health minister, be charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly pressing ministry employees to issue a false psychiatric report to block Malka Leifer’s extradition on medical grounds. They also recommended he be charged with bribery over an unrelated matter.

Leifer, a former school principal wanted for alleged sex crimes in Australia, is known to have links to the Gur Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a member.

Jeremy Leibler, head of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said Saturday Litzman’s appointment as health minister would be an “insult” to Leifer’s alleged victims.

“We have previously called on Litzman to step down pending finalization of the criminal investigation into his conduct in relation to Leifer. It would be completely inappropriate and an insult to Leifer’s survivors for Litzman to take over as health minister,” Leibler told The Times of Israel.

Dassi Erlich, who along with her sisters alleges she was abused by Leifer, expressed outraged over Litzman’s expected appointment Sunday.

Leifer’s case has tested ties between Israel and close ally Australia, where she faces 74 charges of sex abuse.

In 2000, Leifer left Israel to work at the all-girls Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne. When allegations of sexual abuse against her began to surface eight years later, members of the school board purchased the mother of eight a plane ticket back to Israel, allowing her to avoid being charged.

She was arrested in Israel in 2014 after Australia filed for extradition, but a Jerusalem court suspended the proceedings in 2016, deeming her mentally unfit to stand trial. She was rearrested in 2018 after being filmed appearing to lead a fully functional life.

Since her initial arrest, the court has heard Leifer’s case dozens of times. At the last hearing this month, a panel of psychiatrists set to deliver its ruling on Leifer’s mental state said it needed more time because it appeared the panel was unaware of the scheduled hearing. A new hearing is set for January 14, but with a separate trial over her extradition yet to begin, and appeals expected, it’s unclear when, if ever, Leifer will face justice in Australia.

Litzman has denied wrongdoing in connection to Leifer’s case, saying in February his intervention was “for the good of the public.”

Former principal Malka Leifer, wanted in Australia for child sex abuse crimes, seen at the Jerusalem District Court, February 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The cabinet vote on Litzman’s appointment comes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to drop all his ministerial posts due to criminal charges against him.

In addition to being prime minister, Netanyahu also currently holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and Diaspora affairs portfolios. While the law appears to indicate a prime minister can continue to serve while under indictment, other ministers must resign their posts once charges are filed.

Netanyahu’s role as health minister is nominal only, as the ministry is actually run by Litzman, who has been deputy minister for several years. Litzman won approval from the spiritual leaders who guide his ultra-Orthodox party to take on the full minister role, normally shunned by his community, if Netanyahu is forced to give it up.

Like other UTJ leaders before him, Litzman had refused to take a full ministerial position due to the ultra-Orthodox community’s reluctance to grant full legitimacy to a secular Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hosted by Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party (left), at a meal to celebrate the birth of Litzman’s grandson, June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

However, a group of rabbis who serve as spiritual advisers to the ultra-Orthodox party agreed last month that Litzman could become minister should Netanyahu resign the post.

According to reports, the rabbis only gave the green light because the ministerial post is part of a transitional government, with stunted powers.

In 2015, Alter and other rabbis also gave Litzman permission to become a full minister, after the High Court ruled that deputy ministers could not fulfill the role of ministers. In 2017, after he resigned to protest train infrastructure construction being carried out on Shabbat, the government passed a law making it legal for deputy ministers to hold de facto authority over the office, allowing him to return.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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