The High Court of Justice has given the government one last chance to respond to a claim that it is still avoiding its 15-year-old legal obligation to fund secular burials in Israel. In deliberations held last week, the justices said they were likely to accept a petition filed against the treasury and religious services ministry by the Menuha Nehona, or rightful rest, movement, which provides civil burial services, and strongly attacked the behavior of the government.
"They're always sticking spokes in the wheels," said Justice Asher Gronis, head of the judicial panel. Gronis said that if the government did not supply sufficient answers within 30 days, he would issue a definitive order "on all fronts," and accept the petition, which demands that the religious services ministry support the development of civil cemeteries.
Menuha Nehona, through its attorney Yifat Solel, filed the petition in January 2008, asking that the finance and religion ministries be obligated to grant equitable funding to civil cemeteries, which are public burial grounds operated by non-profit organizations, as opposed to private cemeteries available in some kibbutzim.
In 1996, the Knesset passed an alternative burial law, which says that each citizen has the right to a free civil burial, comparable to those sponsored by the religious local burial societies known as hevra kadishas. Ever since, the law has been stymied at every turn, and the High Court asked to intervene again and again in order to force the local authorities to carry out the law. The state comptroller has also not spared the government from criticism.
Local branches of Menuha Nehona operate a regional cemetery in Beer Sheva, and two local ones in Kfar Sava and Kiryat Tivon.
The national organization asked the High Court to require the government ministries involved to grant initial funds for the development of these cemeteries just as it does for the local burial councils.
At the hearing, attorney Danielle Marx of the State Prosecutor's Office said that the government was not required to fund some supporting services, such as access roads and parking lots. Marx added that non-profit organizations with only two years experience should not be funded.
"It would be an understatement to say that what is happening here is all out of proportion," Gronis said. "And I am speaking in moderation. Our inclination now is to issue a definitive order on all fronts, this should be clear, but we'll give [the government] one last chance."
Solel called the High Court decision "progress toward an end to the continued discrimination against secular people in Israel, who seek to be released from their captivity to the local burial societies."
Nahum Lichtman, chairman of Menuha Nehona's Kfar Sava branch, expressed hope that the decision would be translated into action quickly. "We are all volunteers who have taken on ourselves the application of basic rights," he said. "Today we must stand and beg alms from the government after having been forced to sign checks for hundreds of thousands of shekels. These sums must be paid by the government."
The director general of the Religious Services Ministry, Avigdor Ohana, was unhappy with Gronis' remarks.
"Perhaps the judges are not aware of all the efforts we have made to advance this matter," he said. He placed responsibility on the shoulders of Menuha Nehona, who, he says, did not make use of the large sums of money transferred to it over the last few years.
"Why do they put it all on us? It's not clear to me what is at the bottom of these statements. I want to give out the money, but when there isn't anyone to work with, it's a problem," he said.