Monday was a day of high drama in the Knesset. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated outside – those opposing the government’s judicial overhaul during the day, while its supporters arrived in the evening. Finally, at 8.15 P.M., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deigned to announce a time-out in the legislation until the Knesset’s summer session.
But controversial legislation wasn’t entirely over for the week. There was still a small matter on the parliamentary agenda for the next day. The so-called chametz law – or, by its official name, amendment No.13 to the patients’ rights law – was passed 48-43 on Tuesday, and it is almost certainly the most superfluous bill to be voted into law by the Israeli parliament.
And let’s face it, that bar is quite high. Even the lawmakers who proposed it said so.
Co-sponsor Moshe Gafni, leader of United Torah Judaism’s Degel HaTorah faction, called it an “unnecessary law,” blaming the Supreme Court for “forcing” them to pass it. Sitting as the High Court of Justice, the top court ruled three years ago against hospitals directing their security guards to rummage through visitors’ bags searching for forbidden leavened food (chametz) at Passover.
The ultra-Orthodox representatives who backed the law, and got their governing coalition colleagues to vote in favor, were at pains to point out that the law was not as bad as the opposition has portrayed it. While it does state that hospital management will be able “to set regulations on the prohibition or limits of chametz in the hospital building,” it doesn’t give them any powers to enforce those regulations. If anyone still wants to take leavened food into an Israeli hospital this Passover, security staff can’t stop them. At the most, they can tell them off.
Another of the co-sponsors, Shas’ Uriel Busso, said that “if the Supreme Court hadn’t intervened, we wouldn’t have legislated.”
The attempt by the Haredi politicians to place the blame for the useless law they have foisted on the coalition, hospitals and the Israeli public on the court’s shoulders highlights the hypocrisy in their criticism of the judiciary. The court did not, as the Haredim claim, intervene in matters of personal religious faith. The petitions against the security searches for chametz dealt with civil rights in the public sphere. They have now passed a law limiting a fundamental freedom. Even if it may not be enforced.
In his Knesset speech, Busso claimed that “the aim of the law is to preserve the status quo that has existed for years.” This has no basis in fact. The original “status quo” letter sent by David Ben-Gurion to the Haredi leadership in 1947, defining the relationship between state and religion in the future Jewish state, promised that kashrut rules would be observed in all government offices and the army. And while it is perfectly reasonable to extend that to state hospitals – the law covers private hospitals as well – and expect their kitchens to be kosher throughout the year and on Passover as well, there is nothing in the status quo about other parts of government buildings. Employees and visitors are allowed to bring in whatever food they like and consume it.
The presence of nonkosher food or chametz at Passover elsewhere in the hospital does not affect the kashrut of the kitchens or the observant patients or medical staff. It doesn’t contradict halakha (Jewish religious law) in any way.
Even by the most stringent halakhic interpretations of the biblical injunctions of bal yeraeh u’val yematzeh – that chametz must not be seen or found (Exodus chapters 12 and 13) – it does not apply to someone else’s property in a public area. There is no prohibition on being next to someone else’s leavened bread. Forbidding patients, visitors and medical staff from bringing their own chametz into a hospital for personal consumption has therefore no basis in halakha and is an infringement of the rights of non-Haredi citizens and of the status quo, which is clearly on their side.
It is a clear case of the Haredi parties, backed by the rest of the coalition, imposing a parochial version of Judaism on the wider Israeli public, including non-Jews.
It is a law that does exactly what the Haredim are accusing the Supreme Court of doing: it interferes with personal religious belief. And instead of creating a more harmonious environment in hospitals during Passover week, it is almost certain to create ugly scenes where security guards act without authority and secular visitors seek to provoke a reaction.
It is a thoroughly useless law, but a very symbolic one. The announcement a year ago by then-Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz that the court’s ruling would be enforced and hospitals would not be allowed to search visitors for chametz was used as an excuse by Yamina lawmaker Idit Silman to announce her defection from the coalition. She accused Horowitz of “mocking a serious proportion of the Israeli public.”
We now know that Silman’s defection, which denied Naftali Bennett’s government its majority and led to the election in November, had been premeditated. Netanyahu rewarded her with a spot on the Likud slate and the post of environmental protection minister in his new government. But her choice to use the chametz ruling as an excuse for her opportunism allowed her to cloak it with fine, empty words on “Jewish identity.”
On Tuesday, it was Silman who introduced the law to the Knesset for the government, saying in her speech that “we are simply acting to secure the identity of a Jewish state.” It was about as hollow a statement as Silman made a couple of months ago when she said she was simply doing her job as environment minister when she held a long meeting with a group of climate deniers.
The timing of the vote on the law – just 24 hours after the Haredi parties had given their blessing to Netanyahu’s decision to suspend legislation on the “judicial reform” – was symbolic as well.
Over the past two weeks, as resolve among parts of the coalition began to crumble in the face of the protests, the Haredim tried to gingerly distance themselves from the whole process. They belatedly realized that in the deep conflict within Israeli society, many saw them as a major factor pushing for the evisceration of the Supreme Court.
Shas leader Arye Dery rushed to tweet conciliatory messages of “true dialogue” and “broad agreements,” while Gafni gave an interview to the party newspaper with a bizarre accusation that the authors of the government plan, the ultra-conservative Kohelet Policy Forum, were no longer right-wingers but in fact leftists.
While Justice Minister Yariv Levin and other ministers were still trying to force Netanyahu to stay on track with the legislation and bring the law allowing the coalition to appoint judges to a vote before the recess, the Haredi politicians were urging him to climb down. They had already been promised in the compromise proposal of President Isaac Herzog that a law exempting yeshiva students from army service would be passed and would have its own override clause against Supreme Court intervention, and that appointments of ministers would be court-proof as well – allowing the serial criminal Dery a way back to the cabinet table.
The priorities of the ultra-Orthodox are indeed different to those of Levin and Kohelet, whose main focus was to take over the Supreme Court. But even if that were to happen, the Haredim would still be ideologically opposed to the very existence of the state’s top court not ruling according to their interpretation of Jewish law. It would still have the halakhic status of “authority of goyim.”
That’s why their demand in the coalition negotiations was the “override clause,” so the court would have no jurisdiction over matters they care about such as segregation between men and women, and keeping chametz out of hospitals.
Silman was right about one thing: This is a struggle for the identity of a Jewish state. Even if Israel somehow manages to reach a solution to its constitutional crises, the battle over the public sphere will continue.