Far-right party submitted its bill to the Knesset on Dec. 12

‘Won’t back down’: Discrimination law stays in coalition deal — Religious Zionism MK

Simcha Rothman says the bill is aimed at avoiding forcing people to ‘act against their religion’; critics have warned it could legalize discrimination against LGBT people, others

MK's Simcha Rotman and Orit Strock in the opening of the Knesset summer session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on May 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK's Simcha Rotman and Orit Strock in the opening of the Knesset summer session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on May 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the recent outpouring of condemnation over demands by the Religious Zionism party to allow businesses to refuse service to certain customers on the basis of their religious conscience, the party said Tuesday that a clause requiring the new government to pass such legislation remains part of its final coalition agreement with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that “nothing has changed” in the coalition agreement with Likud and that the clause committing to the passage of such legislation has not been removed from the deal between the two parties. Coalition deals must be submitted to the Knesset by Wednesday if the new coalition is to be sworn in on Thursday, as Netanyahu intends.

Members of Rothman’s party have already submitted their planned legislation to the Knesset. On December 12, incoming Religious Zionism minister MK Orit Strock, together with party colleagues Ofir Sofer, Ohad Tal and Moshe Solomon, submitted a private members bill (Hebrew link) that would amend a law passed in 2000 prohibiting discrimination in the provision of services, products and entry to public places.

Although coalition agreements are not legally binding, if the incoming coalition were to adopt the bill, it would be expected to pass.

The proposed legislation stipulates that discrimination would be permitted “when done due to the religious belief of the person whose occupation is providing a public product or service or operating a public place.”

It would not be applicable if the product or service was essential and no reasonable alternative exists, and would not be applicable to state providers of products and services.

Rothman insisted, despite the backlash, that he and his colleagues would insist on what they said was the right of observant people not to violate their religious beliefs. Rothman was emphatic that the law would apply to protect all faiths, not just Jews.

On Sunday, Strock generated a wave of opprobrium when she stated publicly that doctors should be able to refuse treatment to patients due to religious objections, on condition that other doctors are able and willing to provide the same treatment.

She was speaking in the context of the legislative demands made by her party, although the amendment proposed by Religious Zionism does not refer to medical treatment.

That same day, Rothman made similar comments, asserting that if a hotel wanted to refuse service to gay people on religious grounds, it would be entitled to do so. “A business owner can do whatever they like in his business. He created the business and he doesn’t owe anyone anything,” Rothman told the Kan public broadcaster.

Strock’s and Rothman’s comments and the coalition deal clause have been roundly condemned by politicians from across the spectrum, along with numerous NGOs, businesses and even the president, who view it as divisive and likely to harm the fabric of Israeli society.

Religious Zionism party MK Simcha Rothman present the ‘Law and Justice’ program during a press conference in Kfar Maccabiah in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Despite his Sunday comments, Rothman told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that the bill would not enable discrimination against minorities.

“The bill doesn’t, and we didn’t say that it is possible to, discriminate against LGBT people or anyone else,” Rothman said.

In a Facebook post later on Tuesday, Rothman wrote that the current anti-discrimination law has “a number of absurdities” that have resulted in it becoming “a law that persecutes people or is used for political harassment.”

The current law, Rothman wrote, carries “the supposed aim of preventing discrimination against people or groups,” but it “forces people to act in a way that goes against their beliefs.”

Referring to his party’s proposed changes to the anti-discrimination bill, Rothman wrote: “Is it possible to have a slippery slope or misuse of the clause? It could be. But we have also seen that it is possible to misuse the current clause.”

Netanyahu on Sunday rejected Strock’s and Rothman’s comments and said he would not allow discrimination against any Israeli citizens.

“In the country which I will lead, there will not be a situation in which someone — be they LGBT, Arab, ultra-Orthodox or anyone else — enters a hotel and doesn’t receive service, or goes to see a doctor and doesn’t get service,” Netanyahu said.

At least 45 days must elapse from the time the bill was submitted before it can be brought to a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum, after which it would need to be prepared in committee for three more readings.

Thousands of people take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, June 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The purpose of the bill, according to Strock and Rothman, is to avoid a situation in which a business owner is required to provide a service that he asserts violates his religious beliefs.

This issue came to prominence in 2016 when a representative of the Gay Fraternity of Ben Gurion University requested a price quote for the printing of fliers and stickers from a printing shop in Beersheba named Color of the Rainbow.

Although the fraternity representative did not mention what the content of the fliers would be, the printing shop owners wrote back stating they would not provide a quote because: “We do not deal with abomination content, we are Jews.”

Color of the Rainbow was eventually fined NIS 50,000 ($14,200) by the Beersheba District Court for violating the law against discrimination.

Rothman told The Times of Israel that the purpose of the law is not to discriminate against any particular group, but instead to ensure that “we don’t coerce a person to act in contravention to his belief… Don’t force me to act against my religion.”

In his interview with Kan on Sunday, Rothman said that “when there is a religious obstacle for a religious person to do something specific, we will not force him to do something which runs counter to his faith.”

Strock herself insisted that the legislation was justified, stating on Twitter after the widespread denunciation: “In the State of Israel — which was established after 2,000 years of exile in the merit of Jews who gave up their lives… for the sake of obeying the Torah — an observant Jew will not be forced to violate Jewish law.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at a gathering in Tel Aviv, December 13, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In his denunciation of the proposed clause, President Isaac Herzog said he was “worried and concerned” by the increased targeting of the LGBT community.

“A situation in which citizens in Israel feel threatened because of their identity or belief undermines the fundamental democratic values of the State of Israel. The [bigoted] comments heard in recent days against the LGBT community and against any different groups and sectors worry and disturb me a great deal,” he wrote Sunday, promising to “act with all [my] power” as president to “prevent harm to the different segments of the population.”

Several Likud MKs have also voiced strong opposition to such legislation, repeating Netanyahu’s assertion that the coalition agreements will not permit discrimination.

“As Netanyahu underlined and guaranteed, the coalition agreements do not allow discrimination against LGBT people or to harm their right to receive services like any other citizen in Israel,” MK and likely cabinet minister Miri Regev told Channel 12 news.

Other Likud MKs, including Miki Zohar, David Bitan and Boaz Bismuth, have made statements insisting that Likud will not allow for such discrimination.

Likud spokespeople have failed, however, to respond to questions as to whether the clause in the party’s coalition agreement with Religious Zionism requiring the passage of the amendment would remain in the final version.

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