Friday, July 01, 2016

Minister Yaakov Litzman: The Public Face of a Secret World 

There's no easy way to begin this column, to ease you kind and gentle reader into a painful subject. So I'll just start out by stating a blunt and stark fact: Israel's health minister is the right-hand man of the leader of a closed sect, a group which answers many of the definitions of a personality cult.

The man in charge of our massive hospital budgets, enforcing professional and ethical standards of doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and care-givers is also the chief enforcer for a secretive tyrant who rules with an iron hand the most intimate details of the lives of thousands of followers through an intricate system of mind control, physical, financial and mental intimidation.

So what? You may say. Israel's defense minister has threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam, assassinate Hamas' prime minister and escaped on a technicality multiple charges of money laundering. The finance minister is in hock to various tycoons and can't even make decisions on the energy sector because of his friendship with a shadowy financier. And of course there's the communications minster who is also the prime minister, who spends his time trying to rein in news organizations that are critical of him and boost those which publish glowing reports on him and his wife.

So why single out Yaakov Litzman, the health minister whose personal advisors regularly deal with thousands of weekly complaints from ordinary citizens, who carries out surprise visits to hospitals checking up on the welfare of patients, who has made sure that even far-flung medical centers are equipped with the most advanced equipment and brought down the prices of vital services such as dentistry for children?

No, I can't fault Litzman for being a conscientious and hard-working public servant. From what I know and have seen of his personal life, he leads a simple existence. He lives in a tiny Jerusalem apartment, smaller than that of any other Knesset member, eats simple meals brought to his office in plastic containers and with the exception of his ministerial chauffeured car, enjoys no more luxuries than any of his fellow Ger Hasidim. But that is what also sets him apart from other politicians. The most popular minister in Netanyahu's fourth government is also a soldier of Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the seventh Gerer Rebbe, Admo"r – our master, teacher and rabbi of the largest and most powerful Hasidic sect in Israel.

Ger – or as it is more commonly known in Hebrew, Gur – has been at the center of controversy in Israel over the last week following the discovery on Sunday of the body of Esty Weinstein, a 50-year-old woman, daughter of a prominent Gerrer family, in a car near Ashdod beach where she had committed suicide. Weinstein had left Ger many years ago and led a secular life – losing contact with six of her seven daughters and their families who remained in Ger.

Her family has called her death tragic and asked the media not to pry into the personal reasons leading up to her suicide. Weinstein's friends and colleagues in the Hillel organization, which assists men and women who have left the Haredi community, insist that her suicide attempts were a result of anguish from her estrangement from her daughers and grandchildren and the ongoing psychological torment from the years of repression within Ger.

I won't go into the details here of how spiritual enforcers appointed by the rebbe give "guidance" to young husbands on how they must never look at their wives, call them by their name, touch them or have sex more than twice a month. Of the "Takuness" – the rules regulating every tiny facet of daily life including not putting hands in pockets, never uttering a word in bed and only wearing sweaters with buttons. Or how teenagers are kept secluded in their yeshivas and if they report sexual urges, given antipsychotic medication to repress their natural feelings.

English readers should check out Yair Ettinger's excellent reporting for Haaretz on the Weinstein saga and if you read Hebrew, you can easily download her unpublished memoir of a tormented life "Doing his will," and many other personal accounts of former Ger Hasidim.

But I focused on Health Minister Litzman because the mild-mannered and efficient politician is the public face of a secret world. Litzman believes it is the government's role to actively improve our personal health, recently taking on the soft-drink and fast-food lobbies to regulate our daily intake of sugar and salt. But he will never speak in public about the sect whose interests he represents as well, and certainly never acknowledge the terrible deeds carried out by the emissaries of his dour leader who has served now for two decades, as did his father before him.

Haredi apologists accuse the general Israeli media of voyeurism and prurient intrusiveness when it investigates such matter. Often they are right. There is a tendency among many secular journalists to regard the ultra-Orthodox as some quaint tribe living in a reservation. But the truth is that Israel's government and its wider society, as well as the leadership of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, have largely allowed the Haredim to live their lives apart, abandoning in the process victims of mental neglect, sexual abuse and deprivation of basic access to welfare and education.

There is nothing anti-Haredi about investigating and covering these practices. The majority of Haredim don't live like the Gerrers and not all Gerrers observe the Takuness; many of them actually feel that the current Rebbe has sucked the joy and beauty out of Ger's customs, replacing them with uncompromising rigidity. And of course mind-controlling cults exist outside the Haredi world as well, and sexual abuse and repression exist in all sections of society.

The problem is that through a combination of indifference, ignorance and political expediency, we have permitted one section of Israeli and Jewish society to live apart, hide its darkest crimes and stood aside silently while some leaders have accumulated power over others that no human should be allowed to wield. We are responsible for the basic welfare of every child, woman and man in society, even if our health minister in some cases wants us to look away.

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