Bill clears 1st reading in 51-46 vote

Ahead of Passover, coalition advances bill that lets hospitals ban hametz

Legislation gives flexibility to hospital administrators to set kosher-for-Passover rules; 2020 High Court order blocked hospital guards from checking visitors’ bags for hametz

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A contentious bill enabling public hospital administrators to ban leavened goods, or hametz, for the upcoming Passover holiday cleared its first reading in the Knesset late Sunday, passing in a 51-46 vote during a special session organized to push the legislation through despite the upcoming Purim holiday.

Backed by ultra-Orthodox MKs and decried by a number of Jewish organizations, the bill grants hospital administrators flexibility to determine “the special arrangements needed to ensure the patients hospitalized there can keep kosher for Passover.”

“Among other things, this includes — once other alternatives have been considered — establishing protocols banning or limiting the entrance of hametz into the hospital building, in full or part, during the Passover holiday,” the bill states.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, accused the coalition of clearing the bill in its first of three readings “like thieves in the night.”

“This government is two months old, it hasn’t passed anything for the public good, but most urgent tonight [was this] religious coercion,” tweeted Lapid.

Supported by the government, some religious groups and religious opposition MKs have warned that the bill could antagonize Jewish Israelis against religion, rather than bring them closer to their faith, amid long-standing secular-religious tensions over how to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Supporters hail the bill as a necessary corrective, overriding a 2020 High Court of Justice ruling that hospitals could not force security guards to search the visitors’ bags for hametz during the week-long Passover holiday.

A much more stringent, earlier version of the bill proposed by ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism was tempered down by the Knesset’s Health Committee. UTJ initially demanded a blanket ban on bringing not only hametz, but also any food not explicitly labeled “kosher for Passover” on its manufacturer’s label, with the exception of fresh produce, into a hospital.

The revised bill would give greater control to hospital directors to decide how to ensure that their facilities accommodate religious patients and visitors who cannot eat leavened goods on Passover.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, 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.

Gafni and his party colleagues, as well as the coalition’s other ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, have long chafed at what they call the High Court’s heavy-handedness and interference in areas that touch on their observance-guided lifestyles.

“They don’t care about people who keep mitzvot!” Gafni shouted at the plenum, arguing that this bill would not change the status quo between religion and state. The latter argument is oft repeated by ultra-Orthodox parties and at times refers to rolling back progressive changes to the balance between religious and secular interests. In this case, preserving the status quo would in fact roll back the current arrangement in order to permit enforcing the kosher-for-Passover policy upon all hospital visitors, regardless of their observance level.

For years, hospitals and other public institutions banned hametz during the Passover holiday — when Jews traditionally refrain from eating leavened goods — with some even instructing guards to search people’s bags for forbidden foods at the doors. But in 2020, the High Court declared that hospitals could not conduct such invasive searches — after years of pushing the government to find some compromise or pass some legislation on the issue — and last year the court issued a similar ruling regarding army bases.

Last April, the annual debate over whether hametz should be permitted in hospitals provided the catalyst for the last government’s three-month crumble, before the Knesset called snap elections. The former coalition’s then-whip, Idit Silman, now a Likud MK, quit the political alliance and deprived it of its razor-thin majority.

Among other values-based gripes with the previous coalition, Silman cited a letter that the then-health minister sent to hospital administrators urging them to adhere to the High Court decision ahead of Passover.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: