In Israel, the issue of leavened food in hospitals resurfaces with Passover coming

Israel’s government passed last week a law related to leavened food, hametz, in hospitals during Passover, resurfacing a controversial matter before the holiday starts. Supporters of the law play down its impact, while the opposition considers it shows how the government inserts more conservative religious views into Israeli society.

Matzah, unleavened bread typical of the Passover holiday during which chametz is forbidden | © Avital Pinnick

The Passover holiday begins on the evening of April 5 for a week.

And Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, on March 28, passed amendments to the Patient’s Rights Bill in final readings regarding the prohibition of hametz (leavened food) in hospitals during Passover.

According to law, hospital directors now have the authority to decide on prohibitions and restrictions on bringing hametz into the hospital building during the Pesach holiday. Each hospital must now place signs with the instructions in the building. Guards search for bags to prevent the entry of guns and bombs; they can now also look for hametz if directed to do so. And this can apply to any patients, visitors and staff of the hospital alike.

Halakha (Jewish law) strictly prohibits the consumption and possession of food with leaven (hametz) for the seven days (eight outside of Israel) of the Passover holiday. It celebrates the exodus from slavery in Egypt, which didn’t leave time for leavened food. Many Israeli Jews, even among secular Jews, eschew hametz during this period. But they also need to remove all traces of hametz from home, resulting in people destroying food and undergoing thorough housecleaning before the holiday starts.

Government lost its majority last year after a note sent to hospitals

Hospital kitchens serve kosher food, but bringing hametz during Passover – and potentially “contaminating” an area, food, and utensils with leaven – in a public building people can hardly refrain from going has resurfaced in a tensed political and social context. As a topic that comes on the table regularly, fermented food in hospitals initiated the collapse of the thin government majority coalition last year.

In April last year, Idit Silman suddenly resigned from the government coalition of then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, considering that the government undermined “the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and the people of Israel.” The government lost its majority in the Knesset as a consequence. Ms. Silman attacked the former health minister Nitzan Horowitz a few days earlier because he had sent a note to hospital administrators urging them to obey a justice decision whereby hospitals could not bar people from bringing in non-kosher-for-Passover food during the holiday.

In 2018, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition to the High Court of Justice against the searches for hametz, arguing a “degrading practice of humiliating patients, employees and visitors who do not abide by Jewish dietary laws.”

In a final ruling, the Supreme Court in April 2020 considered hospitals didn’t have the authority to ban hametz on their premises during Passover completely, or else they would violate an individual’s freedom of religion. It also ruled that “hospitals should permit food (including hametz) to be brought into their grounds during the Pesach holiday, while establishing suitable arrangements that will enable maintaining the Kashrut of the food served by the hospital.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews want a complete prohibition of hametz in hospitals during Passover

The decision outraged ultra-orthodox parties that have submitted a bill now that they are part of the new coalition leading the furthest-right and most religiously conservative government in Israel’s history.

Many assumed the resignation of Ms. Silman, now a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the minister of Environmental Protection, last year was only a pretext for defection when she said Mr. Horowitz crossed a “red line,” the Times of Israel reported. The former minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana considered the reaction disproportionate because, despite the court decision from 2020, hospitals continued to request that people not bring in hametz, nor did they serve hametz.

Mr. Kahana reacted to the recently-passed bill and declared it “would have been widely adopted in ‘normal’ days,” considering hospital managers were the ones who should decide on the rules. But he claimed “the way the bill was passed only adds more fuel to the fire” and called for avoiding “unnecessary provocations.”

Store hiding hametz in Israel during Passover
Store in Israel during Passover hiding shelves where hametz is usually displayed | © Israel Democracy Institute

The amendments, which remind of the controversial Hametz Law introduced in 1986, passed with 48 Knesset members in favor and 43 against, in the middle of massive social protests and a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to delay the highly controversial judiciary reform.

The government argues the law will not change anything but is only a consequence of a court decision. For Moshe Gafni, member of the Knesset and leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi and religious conservative party United Torah Judaism, “this bill is unnecessary. […] After more than 70 years in which the country’s hospitals were run peacefully and quietly, the [courts] enraged us [by ruling] that a hospital director doesn’t have the authority to intervene in this matter… [and] determined that the granting of such authority must be enacted in law,” he told Jerusalem Post.

The opposition also sees the law as a way for the government to insert religiously conservative views into Israeli society. Gilad Kariv from the Labor Party tweeted last Tuesday it harmed the “freedom of religion and conscience.” He argues there is no obligation to prevent others from eating hametz, and that hametz must not be seen only in one’s personal space. He is concerned a law of this nature could expand to other public areas.

Hametz only forbidden in public spaces during Passover

Many hospital directors say they would not search bags for hametz nor would they ban it. But on Sunday, a guard of a hospital in Netanya in central Israel confiscated cookies that were not kosher for Passover from a pregnant woman coming for a check, according to Mako, one of the largest news websites in Israel. It is unclear whether the security personnel received specific hospital management instructions.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute of 608 people in Hebrew and 173 people in Arabic, 48 percent believe people should be allowed to bring hametz into hospitals during intermediate days of Pesach (day 2 to day 6), while another 44 percent opposed it.

A large majority (76%) are opposed to allowing hospital workers to search visitors’ bags for hametz during the intermediate days of the holiday, and a majority of Jewish respondents (59%) favored having specific zones in hospitals for those who eat leavened bread, an option still allowed by the law. But government coalition supporters vastly supported (72%) completely prohibiting hametz in hospitals during Passover completely.

The Hametz Law, introduced in 1986, stated a business owner could not publicly display a leavened product for sale or consumption during Passover to avoid hurting the public’s feelings. In 2008, a court in Jerusalem ruled that a store or restaurant was not a public place and could sell hametz during Passover. Ultra-orthodox unsuccessfully tried to remove the mention of public space and wanted to ban the sale of hametz completely. Several attempts to repeal the law over the years also failed.

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