Annual ‘hametz’ wars at center of crisis that could end Israel’s 36th government

Though it’s highly unlikely Idit Silman’s resignation from the coalition truly hinged on a battle over bread, her approach reflects a very real fight over Israel’s public character

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Bread and butter (iStock)
Bread and butter (iStock)

It is an annual tradition in Israel to have a brutal food fight in the weeks before Passover — specifically, over the ban on bringing leavened goods, or hametz, into public spaces during the holiday. Generally speaking, secular Israelis oppose such prohibitions, arguing it is a form of religious imposition, while more traditional and conservative Israelis assert they are necessary to maintain the Jewish character of the state.

The rules on hametz come directly from the Bible. Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus notes that the law commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, which, according to the Bible, took place so quickly that they did not have time for their bread to ferment. Therefore, on the Passover holiday, Jews are not only forbidden from consuming all leavened goods, but they are also required to remove them from their homes. A person who fails to comply “shall be cut off from Israel.”

Outside of Israel, this biblical decree is exclusively considered an individual issue, with Jews cleaning out their own homes, vehicles and workspaces of all hametz (or selling whatever remains so it is no longer technically in their possession) and leaving it at that. In Israel, however, the matter is more complicated: What does this prohibition mean for public spaces, e.g., hospitals and army bases?

For years, some hospitals had explicit prohibitions in place against bringing hametz inside. Bags were checked by guards for such “contraband” upon entrance to the buildings. Similar rules were put in place on army bases for soldiers and visitors alike.

These occasionally invasive searches at the entrances to hospitals and military facilities prompted a backlash from secular groups, which eventually brought the issue before the High Court of Justice to decide.

Representing the secular view, Israeli comedian Yoav Rabinovitz wrote this week sarcastically: “I don’t understand the problem with the state once a year forcefully imposing a religious norm in a public space that citizens are dependent upon to fulfill their right to healthcare.”

In recent years, those opposed to the bans on bread have been making gains. In 2020, the High Court declared such bans in hospitals to be illegal, and this year the court has tentatively issued a similar ruling regarding army bases.

In light of these legal victories by pro-secular groups, religious and conservative lawmakers have deployed increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric about the consequences, with some claiming the steps are destroying the Jewish character of the state.

On Wednesday the issue unexpectedly became the ostensible cause for the current government’s potential demise, as Idit Silman, the religious coalition chairwoman from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party used it as her raison d’etre for shockingly quitting the coalition, leaving it hobbled with only 60 votes in the 120-seat Knesset.

Silman had railed in recent days against Health Minister Nitzan Horovitz’s  instruction to hospitals to uphold the court order and not search the bags of people entering their premises. In her resignation letter to Bennett, she cited “the damage to our values and standards that are essential and pure.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and MK Idit Silman attend the vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And so the hametz wars are seemingly now poised to claim their first victim: Israel’s 36th government. Having only had a majority of one in parliament, the government and coalition will now be evenly split, with each having 60 votes. As it stands, at most this government will last until March 2023 — the deadline by which it will have to pass a budget.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that it was truly, singularly the hametz issue that led Silman to her decision, as the court order came long before this government was even formed and was handled under Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, without incident.

The degree to which it helped seal the deal for the MK — rather than alleged political promises made to her by now-opposition chief Netanyahu — is known only to her. But the issue itself is a legitimate and hotly contested one.

It lies directly at the crossroads of Israel’s goal of being both a Jewish state that upholds Jewish traditions and a democratic one that respects people’s rights to practice — or not practice — religion as they see fit.

It is a topic that splits the country fairly evenly. A poll commissioned by Hidush, an organization that supports religious freedom in Israel — and especially freedom from religion — found that 54 percent of Jewish Israelis supported allowing soldiers to bring hametz onto army bases for personal consumption during Passover, while 46% opposed. The survey, which had 500 respondents, had a sampling error of +/- 4.5 percent, meaning there could be an even closer split on the issue.

As in the case of many issues in Israeli politics, the matter also breaks along partisan lines. The Hidush poll showed near-total support for hametz bans among those who identified with religious and right-wing parties, while among those who identified with left-wing and centrist parties, there was near-total opposition to these bans. The exception in this is the right-wing but fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters are also almost entirely against barring leavened goods from public spaces.

Though the Chief Rabbinate has claimed that allowing individuals to bring leavened goods into hospitals could make it difficult to ensure that the food served by the hospital does not contain some trace amount of hametz, these arguments have largely been dismissed by the courts. Moreover, this does not match the reality of hospitals outside of Israel, which do not have such bans but are still able to provide kosher-for-Passover food to Jewish patients.

“There’s nothing wrong with it in terms of Jewish law. There’s something emotionally wrong with it. For people who don’t eat hametz on Passover, it makes them feel bad to see it,” said Tomer Persico, the academic director of Kolot study program and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as well as a frequent commentator on issues of religion and state.

It is, then, largely an issue about a no-less-important but more amorphous notion of Israel’s Jewish character, he argued.

“It’s a fight over equality, over how the public space looks. In this way, it’s similar to the fights over civil marriages, conversions, public transportation on Shabbat, and all other fights about religion and state or Jewish identity in public in Israel.”

Hospitals and army bases

In 2020, following a petition from the Secular Forum, the High Court ruled that bans on hametz in hospitals were illegal as the matter stood then, though it left the door open for compromise or further legislation on the matter in the future.

In their decision, the judges weighed both the rights of patients who do not adhere to the biblical prohibition on leavened goods during Passover and the rights of patients who do follow this rule to have access to food that is acceptable to them. Ultimately, though, the court ruled against the bans.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli hospital. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli hospital (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Particularly in hospitals, a place where people lose a significant portion of their rights and are forced to deal with physical difficulties amid a break from their daily lives at home, we must act fairly and compassionately and preserve, as much as possible, the person’s respect, privacy, humanity and [the right] to meet their basic needs,” the judges wrote.

According to the April 2020 ruling, which came shortly after that year’s Passover holiday, guards cannot search the belongings of visitors, issue any instructions about bringing in food that isn’t kosher for Passover, or discuss the matter in any way. The courts explained this lattermost stringency as being necessary in light of the “clear and inherent differences in power” between guards and visitors.

Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Knesset members railed against the decision at the time. The Chief Rabbinate said the court’s decision may prompt observant Jews to avoid hospitals during Passover and thus endanger their health. (This, however, is not seen outside of Israel where hospitals are undoubtedly not hametz-free.)

This ban on bans went into effect last year for the first time, under then-prime minister Netanyahu and then-health minister Yuli Edelstein, and was implemented without major incident or complaint, including from those Knesset members currently decrying the policy.

Advancing the issue further, earlier this year the High Court of Justice tentatively struck down bans at army bases as well, following a petition from Hidush and the parents of 14 Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

An IDF non-commissioned officer dips a pot in boiling water to prepare it for the Passover holiday in a video produced by the Military Rabbinate in 2014. (Screen capture: Youtube)

Though the case remains open, the court on March 1 issued a temporary injunction barring the military from conducting searches of soldiers’ personal items for hametz on army bases or searching the bags of visitors to army bases for leavened goods.

The judges also encouraged the military to consider scaling back its ban, allowing soldiers to consume hametz in some areas of army bases while keeping the rest of the facility free of leavened goods.

Legislating the bans

With these bans failing to stand up in court, some Knesset members have proposed specific legislation in order to allow the prohibitions to go forward.

Two similar laws are already on the books, one from 1962 — the so-called Pork Law — that bans the rearing and slaughter of pigs across the country and, more directly, another from 1986 — the Hametz Law — that forbids displaying leavened goods for sale during Passover (though it does not actually forbid selling them).

Persico noted that these laws were passed at a different period in Israel’s history when the public held a different worldview.

“There used to be a feeling that these things were not just religious but national. That started to change in the 1990s. Things that were once accepted are now not,” he said.

A woman shops for matzah at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Moreover, those laws are less personal, he said. The Pork Law does not make it illegal to eat pork, nor does the Hametz Law forbid the consumption of bread on Passover. Indeed many secular Israelis travel to nearby Arab towns to purchase and then eat pitas and other breads each year during the holiday. The existing laws are also not vigorously enforced, Persico noted.

A law barring bringing leavened goods into a hospital, however, directly controls the eating habits of the patients inside, who generally speaking are not there by choice.

“Getting into your plate is a step too far,” he said, even for the more libertarian wing of Israel’s conservative parties.

Indeed, such proposals have met opposition not only from secular groups but from religious and right-wing Knesset members, including Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, who is certainly no bastion of secular ideology.

“No one in the State of Israel thinks that a law allowing guards to search the bags of visitors at the entrance of hospitals would prevent hametz from getting into hospitals,” Kahana wrote in a Facebook post on the subject last month. “A law like that would cause exactly the opposite outcome. More anger, more Jews distancing themselves from Judaism.

“I am one million percent convinced that asking citizens of Israel who don’t strictly follow keeping kosher on Passover to help their brothers who do strictly follow this important commandment would bring far better results,” he said.

On this — and relatively few other things — Kahana and Persico agree.

“Religious people entirely have the right — and if you ask me, it’s totally acceptable — to ask secular people to be considerate. And secular people should be considerate! I’m not secular, but if I were, I would be considerate and not bring hametz to a hospital or if I did, I would keep it hidden,” Persico said.

“This is supposed to be something that happens on a person-to-person level, out of common sense and basic solidarity between people living in a society. It’s not supposed to be something that the government imposes,” he added.

A spokesperson for Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital said that this indeed would be its tack this year: It would fully abide by the court ruling, but would ask “employees and visitors to be considerate and not bring in hametz.”

She added: “No one will be forced or compelled. There will be no searches and security guards will not be involved.”

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