Litzman’s promotion

Ya'acov Litzman, the deputy health minister (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ya'acov Litzman, the deputy health minister
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After welfare minister Yitzhak Meir Levin resigned on September 18, 1952, from the post he had held since the provisional pre-state government, the notion of a haredi minister became semi-taboo in Agudat Yisrael, Levin’s own party.
On July 17, 1960, MK Binyamin Mintz of Poalei Agudat Yisrael (Aguda’s political partner/twin then) was appointed postal services minister, a position to which he clung bravely, against all odds, until his death less than a year later. That made him the last Ashkenazi haredi politician to ever take on a full ministerial office.
What happened to him in the wake of his decision is instructive in view of the smooth sailing accorded Ya’acov Litzman after he was sworn in Wednesday as a fully fledged health minister.
Thus far Litzman – a Ger Hassid just as Levin and Mintz were – preferred to remain as a deputy minister while in fact holding responsibility for the entire ministry.
This masquerade was necessitated by the reluctance on part of Ashkenazi haredim to formally assume responsibly for Zionist policy-making lest this imply perceived acceptance of Zionism. The Zionist ethos was rejected for failing to await divine redemption of the Jewish people rather than jump the gun with activist self-help.
This was no negligible, arcane quibbling until now.
In his day, Mintz was hounded mercilessly. His determination to join the government precipitated a split between Poalei Aguda and Agudat Yisrael. Mintz was officially shunned by most haredi society as having disobeyed the Council of Torah Sages, which forbade him from taking on ministerial office. That in itself was a dreadful punishment for one of his background.
Then there were numerous acts of hounding, such as distributing and posting bogus notices of Mintz’s death and even summoning ambulances to the Knesset due to false reports of his having been stuck by a heart attack.
Mintz finally died suddenly in May 1961.
But whereas the controversy in haredi society then was searing and relentless, it passed almost uneventfully now.
Litzman, also of Agudat Yisrael, was given a choice by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that he cannot continue to run a ministry while rejecting a ministerial title. He had to either quit heading the Health Ministry or become a minister in title as well as responsibility. Litzman chose the latter and no pandemonium broke out in the haredi world.
That surely indicates a great deal.
For one thing, admit it or not, it denotes clearly the triumph of Zionism. Regardless of rhetorical excuses, Zionism is for all intents and purposes recognized as no longer a movement that must be opposed even for appearances sake. True, it’s maintained that the rabbinical green light for Litzman was given with reservations in order to protect haredi interests and shouldn’t be construed as an ideological shift. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that it is nothing short of a shift, especially when noting how dispassionately the issue almost went under the radar.
Moreover, the hassidic establishment inter alia, without pausing to acknowledge this, bowed down to the verdict of the nonreligious Supreme Court. Nothing prevented Litzman from relinquishing the Health Ministry and accepting instead a Knesset committee to chair. This would have meant retaining coalition perks without flouting the long-held taboo.
When Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid appealed to the court against Litzman’s deputy ministerial status, it clearly hoped to wring a coalition upset and force Litzman out.
The assumption was that Agudat Yisrael has remained as inflexible on the issue as it always was. In the end the joke was on Lapid, who – as the new health minister put it – only managed to increase Litzman’s salary.
The surprise to Lapid was that Aguda proved itself exceedingly more pragmatic than given credit for. This is nothing to scoff at and a welcome development even if it was triggered by a juvenile stunt (by Lapid) and a provocative High Court decision.
Litzman’s promotion can be seen as a harbinger of greater openness in much of haredi society (though not all of it) along with greater readiness to make concessions and integrate constructively into mainstream Israel.