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Israel’s ultra-Orthodox seek to prohibit Passover non-Kosher food in hospitals

Back in the coalition and in greater force, ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians exploit their political clout to advance religious legislation.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men bake Matzoth (unleavened bread) at a bakery in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, on April 11, 2022. Religious Jews eat Matzoth during Pesach holiday (Passover). According to biblical narrative, due to the haste with which the Jews left the land of Egypt, the bread prepared for the journey did not have time to rise. To commemorate their ancestors' plight, religious Jews do not eat leavened food products throughout Passover. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament approved on Wednesday at a preliminary reading the so-called “leavened bread” law, banning bread and related non-Kosher products in hospitals over the Jewish holy day of Passover. The bill proposed by ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Moshe Gafni must still go through three plenary votes before becoming law but is expected to go into force by Passover, which falls on April 9 this year.

According to the Jewish tradition, all foods with leavening agents, such as breads and cakes, are forbidden from being eaten and even from being kept at home during Passover week. Instead of bread, traditional Jews eat matzah (unleavened) bread. Still, legislation in Israel does not prevent people from eating or selling leavened foods. Like the Israel Defense Forces and other public institutions, public hospitals always purge bread and related leavened products from their kitchens over Passover, but private hospitals do not. Also, public hospital staff generally does not search visitors and patients to enforce a bread ban.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians have been laboring for years to prohibit these foods from public spaces during the holy day. Thus, the approved preliminary vote on Wednesday represents a big achievement for them.

In April 2020, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled against the government policy banning bread in hospitals during Passover in keeping with the Jewish religious edict. Gafni, one of Israel’s most powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians, responded at the time to that ruling with harsh words, pledging legislation to overturn it. He even accused the justices of arrogant interference in the Knesset’s work. The clash occurred during the transition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after which he and his ultra-Orthodox allies were voted out of power. With their return to government almost two months ago, Gafni can now make good on his 2020 pledge.

The current proposal by Gafni argues that polls and studies consistently show that the majority of Jewish Israelis view Passover as the most important holiday on the calendar, and the majority of Jews around the world observe its strictures and rites.

Gafni might be correct, but legislating such a ban would be a poke in the eye of the nation’s highest court. It would be an affront to non-religious Israelis, undermining the status quo in place throughout Israel’s 75-year history. It would damage the long-standing delicate balance between religion and state, clearly giving ultra-Orthodox society the upper hand.

The bill further exacerbates the tense climate prevailing in the Knesset due to the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation. Knesset member Elazar Stern of the opposition Yesh Atid party, himself an observant Jew, warned that the official bread ban would have the opposite of its intended effect with more bread being smuggled into public hospitals. Opposition Knesset member Sharren Haskel accused the ultra-Orthodox of turning Israelis against the Jewish religion. The vocal plenary debate prompted opponents of the law to chant “shame on you,” the rallying slogan of the pro-democracy protests sweeping Israel in recent weeks.

Coalition whip Knesset member Ofir Katz of the Likud party has sought to allay concerns voiced by non-religious Jews and non-Jews, telling Al-Monitor that the proposed legislation simply anchors the status quo undermined by the High Court’s ruling. “This is not an aggressive bill. It authorizes hospital administrators to decide whether to ban bread in their facility. There is no coercion involved. This is the way it always was.” Katz added that a hospital director in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth, for example, would not be bound by the law.

This week’s preliminary vote was not the only achievement of the ultra-Orthodox, whose political clout is considered by some to be disproportionate to their 12% share of the population. The Knesset plenum also approved, in a preliminary reading, a bill proposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties that expands the powers of rabbinical courts and grants them authority to serve as arbitrators in civil matters. The transfer of civil powers to rabbinical courts hands them authority to rule on such matters as labor law and workers' rights, for example, while their current purview is broadly limited to issues of divorce, property, visitation rights of children, wills and conversions to Judaism.

In fact, the ultra-Orthodox parties are taking advantage of the overriding public focus on the government’s hugely controversial fast-tracked legal blitz to wage a revolution of their own. They know their coalition partners — Netanyahu’s Likud and the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties — depend on them for the government’s survival and dare not oppose them.

Also in the legislative pipeline is a bill reserving at least 15% of the bathing hours in public springs and nature reserves to segregated bathing for men and women. About two weeks ago, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party sought to introduce a bill prohibiting immodest dress at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, and stipulating a six-month jail term for violators. Netanyahu blocked the proposal, which generated embarrassment for his Likud, many of whose voters are secular.

Netanyahu has undertaken to restrain the ultra-Orthodox and his radical nationalist partners on many occasions since resuming power. During negotiations on forming the government coalition, for example, United Torah Judaism demanded a ban on electricity generation on the Jewish Sabbath and additional segregated beaches. Netanyahu, alarmed by the public criticism, took to the Knesset plenum podium to declare that Israel would not become a halachic state ruled by Jewish religious law. “There will be electricity on Shabbat. There will be beaches for everyone," he said. But these bills are still in the pipeline, and the Ultra-Orthodox may try to take advantage of their golden hour to push them through.

In the opinion of Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, the status quo has been significantly eroded under the new government. In his words, "If this trend continues, the public sphere in Israel will be much less liberal and much more religious."

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