(March 6, 2023 / JNS) In the latest faceoff between the legislative and judicial branches of government, the Knesset on Sunday approved the initial reading of a bill that would allow hospitals to ban chametz, leavened foods, during the weeklong Passover holiday.
The Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, ruled in 2020 that hospitals could not enforce a similar law.
Supporters of the bill view it as a necessary corrective to unjustified High Court intervention in a longstanding status quo, while opponents counter that it is an extraneous form of religious coercion.
The proposed legislation, which was brought forward by the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, passed the first of three requisite Knesset readings Sunday night by a vote of 51-46 and is expected to become law by the end of the month, in time for Passover, which begins on the evening of April 5.
The bill would grant hospital administrators the flexibility to determine “the special arrangements” needed to ensure that hospitalized patients can keep kosher for Passover.
“Among other things, this includes—once other alternatives have been considered—establishing protocols banning or limiting the entrance of chametz into the hospital building, in full or part, during the Passover holiday,” the bill states.
A related law had been in place for over three decades until it was struck down by the High Court in 2020 when it ruled on a petition by a secular group that hospitals could not require security guards to search visitor’s bags for chametz during the holiday.
Halachah, Jewish religious law, forbids the eating or ownership of leavened products during the holiday, in keeping with the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
About three-quarters of the Israeli public follow this stipulation, public opinion polls indicate.
The highly emotive issue of whether bread and other leavened products should be banned from hospitals over the holiday served as the catalyst for the fall of the last government when a legislator from then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s party who was increasingly ill at ease over his cross-party alliance bolted the coalition after Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) instructed hospitals to follow through with the court ruling.
Knesset member Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), a longtime critic of the High Court, told the Knesset in the pre-vote debate that “this law shouldn’t be necessary” because the court “does not have the authority” to interfere with hospital administrator decisions to preserve kosher-for-Passover standards in their hospitals.
“Why do we need to argue now between the coalition and the opposition? What are we going to change? Are we going to force a certain lifestyle on someone? Why did the High Court intervene on this issue?” he asked and then offered his own answer: “Intoxication of power of the justices that allows them to do anything when it comes to religious issues.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid countered that the bill was an unnecessary piece of religious coercion that the coalition members passed “like thieves in the night” and which would have the opposite effect to that intended.
“This government is two months old, it hasn’t passed anything for the public good, but the most urgent issue tonight [was] religious coercion,” he tweeted.
“When you do things through coercion, the result will be the opposite. If you pass this law, there will be more chametz in hospitals,” said Lapid.
The bill that advanced on Sunday is a watered-down version of earlier proposed legislation that would have banned any foods not labeled “Kosher for Passover” from hospitals with the exception of fresh produce.
Lost in the whole debate was a remark by the head of the contractors association that employs security guards at the hospitals, who said their job is to search for weapons and explosives, and not for sandwiches and other leavened products.
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