He's put all our lives at risk, senior minister said to fume

Infected health minister accused of flouting rules, endangering Israel’s leaders

Yaakov Litzman’s positive test has forced Netanyahu and most of the top Israeli officials tackling pandemic into quarantine; he denies claims he ignored ban on group prayer

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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/File)
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/File)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who tested positive for the coronavirus late Wednesday, allegedly broke his own ministry’s guidelines on social distancing by attending group prayer services in the days before he was diagnosed, a TV report said Thursday.

Litzman’s positive test has forced almost all the Israeli politicians, officials, and health chiefs who are leading the country’s struggle against the pandemic, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, to enter precautionary quarantine.

The same TV station quoted an unnamed senior minister accusing Litzman of having “put all of our lives in danger” by flouting the restrictions.

Litzman, 71, who on Thursday night was participating in a cabinet meeting on the virus threat via videoconference from his home, was said to be in good health. His wife has also been infected.

Witnesses told Channel 12 on Thursday that the health minister, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, prayed at the home of a fellow member of his Gur Hasidic sect last Saturday — three days after government guidelines went into effect barring services from being held indoors. The witness said that while worshipers sought to practice social distancing, they were all together inside for over an hour and a half.

On Monday, after the guidelines had further intensified, barring any group prayer services from being held, whether inside or outdoors, Litzman was again allegedly spotted praying at a synagogue just outside of his home.

“My father prays every day at the ‘Beit Israel’ synagogue in the Ezrat Torah neighborhood [in Jerusalem] and told me that on Monday he prayed there together with Litzman,” another witness told Channel 12.

Litzman’s office flatly denied the accusations, and insisted that the minister has adhered to Health Ministry directives, including those relating to prayers.

Litzman and his wife, Chava, were diagnosed as COVID-19 carriers overnight Wednesday.

Initial conclusions from his epidemiological investigation indicated that the minister contracted the virus last Friday while shopping at a grocery store near his home in northern Jerusalem, but those results are not conclusive.

“In the days that he attended the services, he could very well have contracted the virus or have been infecting others,” a witness from his neighborhood told Channel 12, speculating that the minister would not have disclosed his presence at the prayer services to the epidemiologists. “Some people do not know they should be in isolation or if they had come in contact with him. They will pass [the virus] on and on until suddenly we have the beginning of a catastrophe in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.”

The TV report said officials had refused to disclose whether Litzman’s phone had been digitally tracked, as is being done with ordinary Israeli citizens under controversial emergency procedures, to ascertain his movements.

The TV network quoted a senior minister who accused Liztman of “knowingly demonstrating contempt” for his own ministry’s guidelines by failing to follow the rules on social distancing.

The unnamed senior minister said Litzman had “put all of our lives in danger.”

“We’re all taking the greatest possible care [to follow the guidelines] in these days. And yet the health minister, of all people, doesn’t recognize the gravity of the situation, and endangers us all, ultimately harming decision-making,” the minister added.

The minister also told Channel 12 that Litzman’s office was refusing to disclose the results of Litzman’s epidemiological investigation. “They’re hiding [it] from us,” the minister reportedly said.

As a consequence of Litzman contracting the disease, Netanyahu and most of Israel’s other top officials in managing the response to the coronavirus crisis have entered quarantine. Among them are Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; Prof Sigal Sadetzki, head of public health at the ministry; Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, whose spy agency has been instrumental in obtaining medical equipment for Israel; and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who has been coordinating the government’s response to the pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (L) Health minister Yaakov Litzman, (C) and Health Ministry General Manager Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Netanyahu, 70, and Litzman are in a relatively high-risk group for the virus because of their age. Netanyahu had just emerged from precautionary quarantine on Wednesday when he was forced back into isolation.

Litzman has participated in numerous consultations and appearances with Netanyahu and health chiefs in recent days and weeks. He came to the Knesset last Thursday for a vote on the Knesset speaker — and there is concern that may have exposed fellow MKs to the virus even though the vote was held with no more than 10 people in the plenum.

Litzman was also interviewed on Channel 12 recently, sitting in the studio alongside former Histadrut trade union chief Ofer Eini and the channel’s resident medical expert, former Health Ministry chief Prof. Gabi Barabash. Both have now gone into quarantine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu has insisted on Litzman, a longtime ally, retaining his post in the unity coalition now being negotiated. Opposition Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tweeted Thursday, “If Bibi does not fire Litzman from his post tonight, this government does not have the moral authority to manage the coronavirus crisis.”

At a cabinet meeting 10 days ago, Litzman reportedly urged Netanyahu to allow synagogues to stay open. “As long as you have less than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” Litzman said, according to a leaked transcript.

But Netanyahu was adamant. “There is a need. There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection,” he said. “There is no choice.

Police officers arrive to close synagogues in the city of Bnei Brak on April 1, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Unnamed officials at Litzman’s ministry on Thursday also charged that he is at least partly to blame for the spiraling situation in the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a virus epicenter, saying that the minister’s refusal to institute restrictions on movement before the Purim holiday last month enabled mass celebrations to go ahead, which allowed the virus to spread. They also slammed his refusal to close yeshivas and mikvehs “until it was too late.”

Earlier Thursday, a top official Health Ministry official said Litzman was doing well, but showing mild symptoms since being confirmed as a COVID-19 carrier.

Litzman has already come under fire over the past year over allegations that he illicitly pressured officials in his office to change their psychiatric reports in order to deem alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer unfit for extradition to Australia. Leifer has ties to Litzman’s Gur sect. Last July, police recommended that the minister be indicted in the Leifer case.

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