With hametz brouhaha, some see bread and circuses rather than coalition clash

Attacking Health Minister regarding Passover food in hospitals, coalition whip Idit Silman seems to be attempting to mollify the traditional party’s base and not start a fight

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Coalition whip MK Idit Silman (L) and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz attend a press conference at the Knesset, October 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Coalition whip MK Idit Silman (L) and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz attend a press conference at the Knesset, October 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Of all the people to open a new fissure in Israel’s governing coalition, Yamina MK Idit Silman might seem like the least likely. As coalition whip, Silman is charged with maintaining the ties that bind the fractious coalition and sweeping up the mess when internecine fights do break out.

But on Sunday, Silman did just that, coming out publicly against Health Minister and Meretz party head Nitzan Horowitz, who, she said during a Knesset Health Committee meeting, cannot continue being a minister after “crossing a red line.”

Horowitz’s offense, according to Silman, was sending a letter to hospital administrators, informing them that he expected them to obey a 2020 High Court of Justice ruling that hospitals cannot prevent people from bringing in hametz, or leavened food.

Observant Jews refrain from eating or even owning any hametz during Passover, and markets in Jewish-majority areas of the country stop displaying or selling bread, which largely disappears from public life, as does anything else not marked “kosher for Passover.”

But a series of court rulings circling the debate between religion and state in Israel have dented the tacit ban on hametz, including a 2020 ruling, which aimed to upend policies seen as discriminatory to non-Jews and Jews who are not religiously observant.

The note from Horowitz – who represents a left-wing, secular base – was triggered after Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center recently instructed its staff to ask visitors to abstain from bringing hametz into the facility during Passover.

Haredi and religious elements across the opposition predictably condemned Horowitz, but surprisingly, so did Silman. So why is this fight different than other fights?

Silman, whose role entails corralling coalition votes for government legislation and generally maintaining the health of the voting coalition, has been reserved in her public comments about other coalition leaders.

However, the voracity of her comments, and the background upon which she made them, suggest they were meant more to neutralize anger from Yamina’s largely religious and conservative voting base and less about taking a principled stand or seeking to set up a coalition-busting fight.

Staff at Hadassah Medical Center on January 18, 2021. (courtesy of Hadassah Medical Center)

Yair Sheleg, an expert in national-religious community affairs at the Shalom Hartman Institute, noted that though Yamina’s roots are in the religious Zionist movement, the party is itself supposed to be a balance between religion and secularism, meaning its voters are more concerned with Israeli policies that safeguard the state’s Jewish character than they are with a strict adherence to Jewish law.

“I don’t think there’s a religious crisis right now in Yamina,” he said. “The national character of the state is the standout issue of the religious Zionist movement, more than religion itself.”

“I think that Yamina supporters really want a Jewish character to the state. This means that many of the state’s authorities would have a Jewish character, or that Shabbat would be recognized as a different kind of day, rather than religious coercion upon the individual,” he noted.

But he said many Yamina voters are angry at the party over its alignment with a government that has pursued policies that would seem to go against those ideals.

“There’s pressure from the base, which can say, ‘Look, another piece of evidence that this government hurts Judaism,’” he said.

Breakaway Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, who has openly allied with the opposition since refusing to vote to instantiate the coalition and maintains his Yamina parliamentary affiliation in name only, said to Army Radio on Monday that the hametz crisis is a distraction from the larger issue, which to him is that Yamina has failed its base on two “flagship” election-platform issues: enforcing law and order in the Negev and supporting Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

The right accuses the government – and its Yamina members – of not restoring order to the Negev, especially given Yamina’s justification to its base that its coalition partnership with the Islamist Ra’am party would be part of the process. Critics accuse government authorities of turning a blind eye to thefts, gun-running, drug smuggling, and illegal construction by Bedouin in the northern part of the Negev. The opposition has blamed the government’s partnership with Ra’am, which counts many Negev Bedouin as voters, for the lack of a crackdown.

At the end of last year, riots broke out across the Negev in response to fear of demolitions of illegal home and Jewish National Fund tree-planting on land disputed between the State and Bedouin villages.

In January, the government approved a key Ra’am initiative: connecting some illegally-built Arab homes to the power grid. The law was enormously controversial, with many on the Israeli right accusing the government of encouraging criminality. Others condemned the coalition for not extending the law to illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank, which cannot be officially hooked up to the grid.

Israeli police detain a man as Bedouin protest in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Most recently, coalition tensions have been swirling around the issue of building in West Bank settlements, as Defense Minister Benny Gantz – who has butted heads with Bennett several times in recent weeks – is currently dragging his feet on approving building plans for 4,000 new homes. The defense minister’s approval is necessary to start construction.

The political right has also criticized Yamina for not supporting illegal outposts in the West Bank, including Homesh, an unapproved community that was evacuated in December, following a terror attack that killed one of the outpost’s residents.

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Yamina, made a voter-base political gaffe when referring to the West Bank as “the West Bank,” rather than “Judea and Samaria,” biblical language that highlight the Jewish connection to the land preferred by the settler movement, many of whom vote Yamina.

In this vein, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman told The Times of Israel that the hametz affair is “a political exercise in order to curry favor with Yamina’s imagined political base.”

Rothman, whose party leader MK Betzalel Smotrich was first introduced to Knesset by a previous Naftali Bennett-led party and competes in a similar pool for right-wing votes, has long been critical of Yamina’s decision to form a government with an Arab and left-wing parties.

“They’re trying to create an environment of accomplishment” by speaking out against bringing hametz into hospitals.

But, he charged, they “made a government with people who support terror,” referring to a right-wing trope about Ra’am and Meretz.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among attacks to Yamina from the right mentioned by Chikli and criticism over forming a government that spans the political spectrum from right to far left, Yamina has also faced criticism over the government’s response to the most recent wave of terror, which claimed 11 lives in a week at the end of March.

However, the most telling indication that Silman’s hametz affair might be less about religion or a coalition crisis and more about relieving pressure from the right may lie in her fellow party members’ responses — or lack thereof.

Rather than receiving support for her fight against hospital hametz and Horowitz, Yamina’s Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana shrugged off the tussle, telling Hebrew language media that the discussion is “unnecessary.”

“Nothing has changed in the past year,” he said. “The High Court decision came out two years ago.”

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