Activists placed a display of dozens of baby dolls in front of the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on Monday morning to protest efforts by Israel’s deputy health minister to allegedly help child sex abusers avoid punishment.
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party, was questioned by police last month on suspicion he sought to obtain a falsified psychiatric report that would have prevented an accused serial child sex offender, former school principal Malka Leifer, from being extradited to Australia.
Last week, Channel 13 reported on a second police probe in which Litzman and his chief of staff are suspected of pressuring a psychiatrist, Moshe Birger, to ensure that an imprisoned sex offender close to Litzman’s Gur Hasidic sect was placed in a rehabilitation program. Participation in the program can lead to home-visit rights and early release from prison.
Litzman has denied wrongdoing in both cases, saying his assistance to Leifer was part of his general effort to assist any citizen who appeals to his office for help, and calling the Birger suspicions “lies and slander that never happened.”
The Monday protest was led by an activist group against sexual assault called Lotem, a Hebrew acronym for “unit for combating gender terrorism.”
“In a country in which the deputy [health] minister tries to prevent the conviction of pedophiles by lowering their threat assessment, a country in which the deputy minister cynically uses his position to protect the sexual abusers and neglect dozens if not hundreds of lives and souls of children, and the honorable [health] minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t lift a finger — we, the Lotem organization, cannot remain silent,” the group said in a Monday statement.
“Why does it make sense that our health minister doesn’t protect us, and doesn’t prevent outside interests from attempting to influence and prevent the conviction of people who hurt the public health and our children?”
Signs at the Monday protest read, “Litzman — protect the children, not the abusers!” and “Who will have mercy on the kindergarten children?”
The latter was a reference to an iconic poem by poet Yehuda Amichai that depicts God as being merciful to kindergartners. It is a criticism of Litzman’s alleged prioritizing of the fate of suspected abusers over child victims even as he represents the religious UTJ party.
Leifer, a former principal at the Adass Israel school in Melbourne, has been charged in Australia with 74 counts of sexually abusing her students.
“I have a lot to say, but I cannot speak about it. It was all for the good of the public, everything was legal,” Litzman said at an opening ceremony for the new children’s ward at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital on February 20 about the police investigation into his alleged intervention.
He was questioned by officers from the police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit about the case last week.
He added that his conduct in Leifer’s case was “exactly as I act with every request from the public — according to the law.”
Leifer is also linked to the Gur Hasidic sect, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the Haredi branch.
A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel last month that police had recordings of Litzman and officials in his office speaking to Health Ministry employees and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.
Litzman’s comments came days after a judge rejected an appeal from Leifer’s attorneys to have her released to house arrest, saying he could not release her on medical grounds unless he received an updated psychiatric opinion regarding her condition. Laifer’s lawyers claim her detention over the past year has caused her mental state to deteriorate to the point where it is “life-threatening.”
Leifer, an Israeli citizen, slipped out of Australia and went back to Israel in 2008, days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced, in an escape plan orchestrated by officials at the Adass Israel school where she taught.
After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against her, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2012. Two years later, Leifer was arrested in Israel but released to house arrest shortly thereafter. Judges deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial and eventually removed all restrictions against her, concluding that she was too ill to even leave her bed.
She was rearrested last February following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained in custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement, where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the ultra-Orthodox town without any apparent difficulty.