Deputy Health Minister Ya'akov Litzman is in hot water for refusing to shake the hand of his female counterpart from Belgium. Litzman met Belgian Health Minister Laurette Onkelinx at an international health conference in Geneva and, while greeting her as graciously as possible, politely declined to shake her extended hand, explaining that religious strictures prevented him from doing so. Onkelinx didn't care for his attitude, to say the least. But for Litzman, it wasn't not a matter of protocol, but of religious faith, and his right to fulfill the precepts of his beliefs, said the editor of the Belgian Jewish newspaper that broke the story.
The incident occurred at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva Wednesday, after the two were introduced. An insulted Onkelinx posted a scathing response on her Facebook page. “My hands are clean!” she wrote. “This is the second time a minister refuses to shake my hand because I am a woman. The first was Iranian. The second one was the Israeli health minister here in Geneva. This kind of fundamentalist attitude, connected to a certain perception of religion and women, profoundly troubles me.”
While some Orthodox religious authorities have ruled that a man is permitted to shake a woman's hand if it is extended in order to avoid tension, the majority of authorities – and certainly the decisors that Litzman, a member of the Gerrer Hassidic group, would heed – forbid a man from shaking hands with a woman who is not his wife, as a matter of propriety. In previous interviews, Litzman has said that the prohibition has generally not been a problem, as the vast majority of women he comes into contact with are aware of his beliefs and are willing to accommodate them. In those interviews, Litzman has said that his intention is not to insult anyone, but to fulfill his beliefs as he sees fit. “It's a matter of freedom of religion, which is, as far as I know, an important belief in the Western world,” Litzman said.
A member of the Gerrer community who is close to Litzman said that the minister was used to this kind of thing. “Belgium has a large Hassidic community, and the ban on shaking a woman's hand is well known. The question is, why would this minister put Litzman in this position, when she knew very well what his reaction would be? Was he being set up for a provocation?”