His spiritual leader said to have told Litzman to move on

Litzman confirms he’s leaving Health Ministry, prefers to solve housing shortage

After heading ministry for years, ultra-Orthodox leader says he wants to become housing minister amid pandemic; not clear he’ll get that job; ‘Good riddance,’ says former official

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Sunday confirmed he had informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his wish to move to the Housing Ministry.

After serving as head or de facto head of the ministry for most of the past decade, Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said that he now would “prefer to address the housing shortage” in Israel.

Some reports said he had been told to move on by the spiritual leader of his Gur Hasidic sect. It is not clear that he will be given the housing job.

In a lengthy statement, Litzman touted the Health Ministry’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and his own successes, while denouncing what he called “incitement” toward ultra-Orthodox Jews amid the pandemic.

“After about a decade in the Health Ministry, in parallel with the implementation of the exit strategy from the coronavirus crisis in Israel, and in preparation for the establishment of a new government, I decided not to return to the Health Ministry for a fourth time, preferring to lead a broad solution to the housing shortage in Israel in the Housing Ministry,” Litzman said in a statement.

“As the head of the Israeli health system in recent years, I can say with full confidence that our health system is strong and stable.”

Litzman’s decision to switch ministries came after he faced criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and a TV report alleged he took part in a group prayer that violated his own ministry’s directives days before he was infected with COVID-19, as well as for reportedly resisting the closure of synagogues and other religious institutions.

Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter of the Gur Hassidic Dynasty attends a rally of United Torah Judaism party, ahead of upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to a report on Channel 12 Thursday, Litzman was instructed by Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Gur Hasidic sect, to change ministries.

The Ynet news site reported that ultra-Orthodox leaders believe Litzman could be helpful to the community’s needs from the Housing Ministry, while avoiding being scapegoated for any fallout from the pandemic.

Blue and White officials told the Ynet news site they would demand the Health Ministry be given to a health expert rather than a politician in light of the coronavirus crisis.

They added that they were willing to give up another ministry in exchange for control of the portfolio, noting that Likud had been willing to give them the health portfolio during coalition negotiations if Litzman agreed, but Litzman had refused.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman joined the call for the ministry to be led by a professional rather than a politician.

Litzman, who leads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, has been the de facto head of the Health Ministry since 2009, except for a period between 2013 and 2015 when he was out of the government.

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

Several former and current officials in the Health Ministry, speaking anonymously to Channel 12, welcomed news of his departure.

A former official said “good riddance,” accusing the minister of having “used his power mainly to look out for the interests of his own community.”

A current senior official in the ministry said that “in recent years Litzman was missing in action at the Health Ministry. In his first term he did good work but something happened” afterwards.

Meanwhile, Prof. Zeev Rotstein, CEO of Hadassah Hospital and a Litzman ally, said the health system “will remember Litzman’s personal contribution of many years to the Health Ministry” including attaining unprecedented funds for state-subsidized drug treatments and several reforms.

Litzman has been largely absent from the public eye over the two months of the coronavirus crisis (some three weeks of which he spent being treated for a COVID-19 infection alongside his wife).

Though he appeared in some early briefings, the face of the Health Ministry’s response has been its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, leading some to speculate on the level of Litzman’s involvement in the ministry’s decision-making.

Litzman came under heavy criticism when a television report said he took part in group prayers in violation of his own ministry’s guidelines shortly before he was infected with the coronavirus.

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

He 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 of Hasidim.

Last July, police recommended that the minister be indicted in the Leifer case. He denies wrongdoing.

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