Cabinet okays Litzman as health minister, drawing fury of Australia’s Jews

Cabinet okays Litzman as health minister, drawing fury of Australia’s Jews

Head of Australian Jewry writes angry letter to Netanyahu after UTJ head promoted from deputy post despite accusations he took steps to block extradition of Malka Leifer

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the ceremony for the opening of a new branch of his Agudath Israel party, ahead of the upcoming elections, in the northern city of Safed, July 4, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the ceremony for the opening of a new branch of his Agudath Israel party, ahead of the upcoming elections, in the northern city of Safed, July 4, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The cabinet approved the promotion of United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman to full health minister Sunday, amid fury from Australian Jewish community leaders over the elevation of an official who police recommended be indicted for illicitly seeking to prevent the extradition of an alleged serial sex abuser.

Litzman, who had served for years as deputy health minister, was given the position after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had held the post nominally, was forced to give it up due to pending prosecution in three criminal cases.

In what he said was the first time an Australian Jewish leader had sent an open letter to the prime minister of Israel, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler called Litzman’s appointment “a slap in the face to the Australian Jewish Community, the Australian people, the community of Australian [immigrants] in Israel and most shockingly to the survivors of Malka Leifer’s alleged abuse.”

Leifer is wanted in Australia on 74 counts of sexual abuse, accusing of attacking girls while she served as principal at a Melbourne Jewish school. She has for years avoided extradition, in part by claiming to be too ill, though police suspect an expert opinion determining her poor health was extracted under pressure from Litzman.

Leibler, the leader of Australia’s top pro-Israel umbrella group, began his letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by lauding the “unshakable” bond between the two countries and highlighting Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s condemnation of the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to probe Israel for war crimes.

But in raising his qualms over Jerusalem’s conduct in the Leifer case, Leibler told Netanyahu, “friendship must go both ways.”

(From L-R) Former Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan, Chair of the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) Jeremy Liebler, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, former Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, former Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson, Ginette Searle ZFA Executive and Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan meet in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 28, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/PMO)

“Yaakov Litzman is entitled to the presumption of innocence. However, promoting him to Health Minister when such serious allegations have been made and are being investigated sends a terrible message,” Leibler continued.

In an effort to calm their frustrated Australian counterparts, Israeli officials have explained to Canberra that Sunday’s appointment was merely a “formality” given that Litzman has already been serving as deputy minister with full ministerial powers and that the move was only being carried out due to the prime minister’s legal woes, a source with knowledge of the issue told The Times of Israel.

Last July, police recommended Litzman 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.

Sunday’s cabinet vote came after it became clear that Litzman could not continue to serve in his role as deputy with the power of a full minister if the formal health minister is not the prime minister, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Netanyahu had held that post for nearly two years, but has been forced to step down from the other ministerial positions he holds due to the charges announced against him last month in three corruption cases. The premier is expected to relinquish his roles as minister of Diaspora affairs, welfare, and agriculture in the coming weeks as well.

In this photo from February 27, 2018, Malka Leifer, right, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

Litzman recently won approval from the spiritual leaders who guide his ultra-Orthodox party to take on the full minister role, a position normally shunned by his ultra-Orthodox community. Like other United Torah Judaism leaders before him, Litzman had refused to take a full ministerial position due to the community’s reluctance to grant full legitimacy to a secular Jewish state.

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, the UTJ spiritual leaders 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.

Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school headmistress Malka Leifer (left) with her students, among them Nicole Meyer (center) in 2003. (Courtesy)

Leifer is a member of the Gur Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a member.

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 was 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.”

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

Ted Baillieu, a former Australian politician who was premier of Victoria, tweeted that Sunday’s appointment was “a disgraceful and low grade decision by Netanyahu.”

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