Arab Petitioners Demand That Israel Allow non-Passover Food in Hospitals on Holiday

Arab rights group asks the High Court to issue interim order against policy that constitutes 'harsh and demeaning religious coercion'

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel preparing matzoh shmura, a special type of the traditional Passover staple, April 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Passover will be observed at the end of March, and as is the case every year in Israel, observant Jews will burn all leavened foodstuffs beforehand, and a total ban will be imposed on bringing any such foods into many local institutions – including hospitals – throughout the seven-day holiday.

This blanket prohibition is the basis of a petition filed Tuesday at the High Court of Justice by the Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, against the Health Ministry and the attorney general. The petitioners are demanding revocation of the ban on leavened food in hospitals and other health facilities during Passover, arguing that it constitutes illegitimate religious coercion and disdain for the needs of non-Jewish citizens.

On behalf of Adalah, lawyer Sawsan Zahar asked that the court to issue an interim ruling prohibiting the Health Ministry from enforcing this policy as of the coming holiday, until such time as there is a final ruling on the organization's petition.

According to ministry policy, the petitioners say, all citizens including Israeli Arabs are subject to comprehensive searches during Passover at the entrances of hospitals. If they have any forbidden (i.e., leavened) food it is confiscated or destroyed, and they are not allowed to go in if they refuse to hand the items over to the security guards.

“There is no doubt that this is harsh and demeaning religious coercion as it constitutes interference in the individual’s personal and private decisions,” the document states. “Moreover, this policy leads to violation of the principle prohibiting discrimination on the basis of one's nationality and religion, which is embedded in much social legislation and applies to patients, people with disabilities, hospital workers, students studying at hospitals and visitors.”

Adalah staff explain that prior to filing the petition, they appealed directly in recent years to the Health Ministry, asking it to rescind the Passover policy, after the NGO received numerous complaints from Arab citizens about the humiliation they experienced in its wake.

In the petition, Adalah noted that with other urgent requests for an interim High Court order in cases involving religious coercion, such a directive was indeed issued. For example, when the Arab station Radio Ashams asked to be allowed to continue broadcasting during the Yom Kippur, when radio and television in Israel go off the air, the court gave such an order.

This was also the case with respect to a (still-pending) petition against the minister of communications by Hala TV, which broadcasts in Arabic and also asked that the court allow, it by means of an interim directive, to broadcast on Yom Kippur. By means of the State Prosecutor's Office, the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting answered that it is prepared to allow the channel to operate on the holiday, and therefore the High Court decided it was unnecessary to hold any urgent deliberation on the petition.

Attorney Zahar noted that the current petition was submitted after Adalah corresponded with the Health Ministry and the attorney general about the problem, beginning in 2016. Last year, in advance of Passover, he said, a reply was received from attorney Dana Yaffe, of the Office of Legal Counsel and Legislative Affairs at the attorney general's office.

Yaffe acknowledged that the policy prohibiting people from bringing leavened foods into hospitals was indeed in effect, and that the issue was further complicated by the rabbinical laws regarding kashrut during the holiday. These and other authorities, she wrote, had not yet found an adequate solution to the difficulties involved, and it was her office’s intention to do so in the coming months. However, as of today, no such solutions have been suggested.

Adalah's current petition to the High Court also cites relevant items in the media, including an April, 18, 2017 editorial in Haaretz entitled “The ignorance of chametz law,” which mentions the policy forbidding leavened foods in hospitals.

The basis of the petitioners' legal argument is that there is no formal law authorizing the Health Ministry to keep citizens from bringing non-kosher foods into a public place.

“There is no law in the State of Israel that authorizes security personnel at hospitals in Israel to allow only the entry of citizens without leavened goods, nor is there any law that prohibits consumption of food that is not kosher for Passover in hospitals, or any law that conditions entry of visitors into hospitals on bringing in food that is kosher for the holiday," the petition states.

"It may also be argued that the policy discussed in this petition is contrary to the legislative approach that makes an exception for the Arab population when it comes to the application of religious laws pertaining to the Jewish majority, in order to avoid religious coercion. This contravenes the provisions of various laws that demand a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of religion and nationality.”