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Israel: Health minister denies donations influenced his decision to let IKEA reopen

Outgoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Sunday pushed back against allegations that he allowed the IKEA furniture chain to reopen its Israeli stores because its owners had given millions of shekels in donations to his Gur Hasidic sect.

“The reports about the ties between the managers of the IKEA chain and ultra-Orthodox elements having led to the opening of the chain are nonsense that isn’t worth responding to,” the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Litzman’s denial came after the reopening of IKEA stores last week was met with criticism, as the government regulations allowing them to reopen did not, at the time, extend to smaller businesses.

According to business daily The Marker, Shulem Fisher and Matthew Bronfman, the owners of IKEA Israel, donated NIS 2.4 million (approximately $681,000) to the Gur Hasidic sect in 2018, and more than NIS 3.9 million (approximately $1,107,000) in total. This figure does not include any donations that may have been made since 2019.

The report also stated that Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the leader of the Hasidic sect, summers in a Safed home owned by Fisher.

The Health Ministry statement stressed that the decision to allow IKEA to open was made by ministry officials at the request of the Finance Ministry, while denying any ties between Litzman and Fisher.

“It’s surprising that during an emergency in which the entire [health] system is working to save lives with dedication and responsibility, there are those who publish false information and baseless details,” it said.

Some critics have questioned why IKEA’s megastores were allowed to reopen while indoor malls remained shuttered and pointed to the matter as a symbol of the government’s seemingly inconsistent regulations and attitudes toward different businesses.

On Sunday, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov admitted that the ministry’s decision may have been a mistake, because IKEA is “more of a mall.”

Footage screened on TV last week showed eager shoppers trying, but not always succeeding, to maintain the required two-meter social distancing as they waited in large numbers to enter.

Since IKEA’s reopening, the government has taken further steps to restart Israel’s economy.

Starting Sunday morning, all stores that are not in shopping malls were being allowed to operate if they adhere to guidelines on hygiene, protective gear and social distancing. This includes many retail outlets, hairdressers and beauty salons.

In addition, restaurants and food shops are allowed to sell products for takeaway, not just home deliveries, if a physical barrier is placed between the cashier and the customers.

Litzman has come under fire for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, with critics saying that he downplayed the situation initially and was slow to institute, and then enforce, social distancing measures in the Haredi community, including refraining from closing synagogues and stopping prayer quorums, or minyans, in a timely fashion.

Even before the current crisis, Litzman’s tenure has been marked in recent years by multiple controversies. In August, the Israel Police recommended that he be criminally indicted for bribery and aiding an alleged pedophile.

Original: TOI – JTA contributed to this report.