Israel Must Obey Alternative Burial Law, Without Discrimination

It is no accident that instances of non-enforcement of this law frequently end up in court. These cases show the state’s ludicrous responses, whose sole purpose is to explain why it does not carry out the law.

A cemetary near Hod Hasharon.
A cemetary near Hod Hasharon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The recent Kfar Sava Magistrate’s Court ruling ordering the state to reimburse two individuals for the cost of the nonreligious burial of their respective spouses reveals the state’s unease when such services are provided by anything other than the religious establishment. The ruling also reveals the fact that the State of Israel regularly violates the Alternative Burial Law.

Although people often blame the religious establishment for the absence of alternatives to it for various services in Israel, in the case of burials, sole responsibility lies with the government, especially the Religious Services Ministry and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett.

The Alternative Burials Law (1996) specifies that every Israeli citizen has the right to a secular burial, funded, just as those carried out by local hevra kadisha religious burial societies are, by the National Insurance Institute. The law’s purpose was to rectify a discriminatory and unjust situation in which Jews in Israel had only two choices for burial in most cases: either in a cemetery operated by a hevra kadisha or in a private cemetery, at a cost that could reach tens of thousands of shekels.

The demand for a secular burial reflects not only the personal choice that is every citizen’s right but also, in some cases, necessity. Some Israelis, for example those who immigrated to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return but are not considered Jews under religious law, can only be buried in secular cemeteries or a section of a “regular” Jewish cemetery reserved for individuals of “doubtful religious status.” Nevertheless, in the 18 years since the law was enacted the state has established only a handful of secular cemeteries, provides minuscule budgets for their operation and does not allocate sufficient land to the nonprofit organizations that run them.

It is no accident that instances of nonenforcement of this law frequently end up in court. These cases show the state’s ludicrous responses, whose sole purpose is to explain why it does not carry out the law.

The Yesh Atid and Hatnuah parties, which are desperate for headlines trumpeting their sponsorship of draft laws for civil marriage, civil unions and other important issues that are on the border between religion and state, can start working for the implementation of an important law that was long since passed into legislation. But the state bears the main responsibility. It must obey the law as it is required to do, and not discriminate among its citizens.

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