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Minister of Health Yaacov Litzman

Belgium’s health minister Laurette Onkelinx said she was “profoundly troubled” by the behavior of her Israeli counterpart, Yaakov Litzman, after the Haredi official refused to shake her hand at a conference.

Litzman, Israel’s deputy minister for health, belongs to the Haredi Torah Judaism party and considers it forbidden to touch members of the opposite sex.

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Litzman and Onkelinx met Wednesday at the annual World Health Organization (WHO) Assembly in Geneva. Onkelinx belongs to the Francophone Belgian Socialist Party of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

“My hands are clean!” read a text that appeared on Onkelinx’s Facebook page . “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.”

Belgium’s health minister Laurette Onkelinx.

Laurette Onkelinx is probably the most powerful woman in Belgian politics and is slated to succeed the Parti Socialiste’s chairperson Elio Di Rupo. Onkelinx comes from a political family. Her father, Gaston Onkelinx, has long been mayor of Seraing (near Liège) and member of the House of Representatives. Her older brother, Alain Onkelinx, has been a member of the Regional Parliament of Wallonia since September 2005.

“The minister’s childish reaction demonstrates her ignorance,” said Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Joods Actueel, Belgium’s largest Jewish publication, which reported the story. “Mr. Litzman’s refusal to shake Ms. Onkelinx’s hand had nothing to do with any view on women or impurity. Ultra-Orthodox women are also forbidden from touching members of the opposite sex. It’s the custom. A more seasoned politician would have been aware of this sensibility in advance.”

The website Juif.org wrote: “There are indeed only two possibilities: either this lady is ignorant, or has malicious intent. She may be ignorant, even if it’s sad to imagine this possibility regarding a woman who is rising to political power in a Western and modern country.”

Last October, two days before the Belgian municipal elections, Laurette Onkelinx was hit with a pie at an election event in Schaarbeek.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday re-elected Margaret Chan as its chief for five more years.

JTA content was used in this article.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I once taught in a reform Hebrew school and was scolded by mothers outraged that I had not shaken hands with their gentile husbands at PTA meetings. They summoned me to a meeting with the principal and parents of both genders. I was accused of racism. I stood my ground, announcing "In this day and age of torrid scandals, can't you appreciate that I keep my hands where they belong? OFF your husbands? I don't even shake hands with the principal, your rabbi." He burst out laughing and the problem-makers were dismissed.

  2. There are way of avoiding offending one another. If the minister considers that touching hands is not an option, he can a) wear gloves (no skin contact) or, b) salute the woman with a bow rather than a handshake. Both of these people are woefully inept in the matter of diplomatically avoiding problems and should not be nominated to government posts in the future.

  3. I agree that it is silly. We humans are perfectly able to shake hands with members of the opposite sex without it leading to anything unseemly. For those who don't feel they are able to do so, they can offer a polite bow in guise of salute. At any rate, there is absolutely no excuse for the rudeness both ministers showed each other.

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