Hametz law set to pass, in time for hospitals to ban non-kosher food on Passover

Softened version of ultra-Orthodox-led bill lets hospitals forbid leavened products, but does not explicitly permit enforcement

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

MK Moshe Gafni, right, and MK Yitzhak Goldknopf speak during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
MK Moshe Gafni, right, and MK Yitzhak Goldknopf speak during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset is set to pass a law that will enable hospitals to set policy banning or restricting the entry of leavened food, or hametz, ahead of next week’s Passover holiday, during which observant Jews eschew such products.

A softened version of an earlier proposal, the bill enables hospital administrators to set a policy and post it on their website or with signage, but does not explicitly allow security guards to search patients’ or visitors’ bags to enforce the policy. It is expected to pass during a special Sunday session of the plenum, convened to clear legislative priorities before the upcoming holiday recess.

Ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism sponsored the bill, outraged after a 2020 High Court of Justice ruling blocked hospitals from searching bags to check for hametz, in response to petitions decrying the searches as invasive and religiously intrusive. The court extended its ruling to army bases last year.

The fight over hametz in hospitals has transcended the holiday, becoming a symbol for both secular and religious Jews of their fight over the place of religion in the Jewish state. Opponents say it interferes with their freedom by forcing religious restrictions on secular Jews and non-Jews, whereas supporters point to the need to enable patients to maintain a kosher environment during the holiday, which can be spoiled by contamination with leavened food.

The issue came to a crescendo last April, when the  fight over hametz and its tie to religious values in the state was the immediate catalyst for a struggling member of the razor-thin coalition to defect, kicking off a three-month tumble toward the last government’s collapse.

If passed on Sunday, the new law would enable hospital administrators to set policy to forbid or contain the entry of hametz, after “consideration of other alternatives and taking into account patients’ rights and needs” as well as those of employees.

IDF Home Front Command soldiers escort mock victims into the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, during a drill, December 15, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A prior version of the bill blocked any foodstuffs that were not either fresh produce nor prepackaged with a kosher-for-Passover label from being brought into a hospital, including homemade food.

Many hospital staff members and employees are not Jewish, and could have been blocked from bringing home-prepared lunches and other items if the bill had advanced in its original construction.

Several of the country’s hospitals are waiting for the law to pass before publicizing their policy plans. However, administrators for Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital implied to Channel 12 last month that they would not search personal bags to look for hametz, even if they post signs dissuading its entry.

Shas MK Uriel Busso, who chairs the Knesset Health Committee, which prepared the bill for its final votes, said last week that the bill is “balanced” and “provides a response to exactly what the High Court of Justice was talking about.”

The court, said the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker, “said that there is no authorization, so we give the authority to the managers to decide, to hang signs, to inform.”

MK Vladimir Beliak is removed from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee by Knesset orderlies during a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nevertheless, secular MK Vladimir Beliak, of the opposition’s Yesh Atid party, decried the bill as “ostensibly declarative,” but really “another layer of religious coercion that you are foisting on the public that is different from you.”

“This law will be followed by more laws, another attack, more steps to reduce this [secular] public’s freedoms. You’re violating the unwritten contract between citizens and the government,” Beliak charged.

As part of what they brand the need to maintain the “religious-state status quo,” ultra-Orthodox parties have rolled back several tepid reforms the past government made to liberalize, but retain Orthodox control over, several state-funded religious authorities. Ultra-Orthodox communities have also long railed against what they characterize as the Supreme Court’s interference on issues touching on religion, from hametz in hospitals to knocking down sweeping military exemptions for full-time religious study.

Antipathy from corners of the ultra-Orthodox public toward the Supreme Court was expressed by a UTJ lawmaker last summer, when he said he would “blow up” the building. It also informs ultra-Orthodox parties’ enthusiasm for the coalition’s far-reaching and controversial plan to shift power from the judiciary to ruling politicians.

A core phase of the plan, which will give the coalition direct control over key judicial appointments, is expected to become law this week.

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