An Important Victory in the Battle Against Religious Coercion

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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, November 2020.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, November 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

On Sunday the High Court of Justice rejected a request by the Chief Rabbinate and the attorney general that it reconsider its ruling from last April allowing chametz (leavened bread) to be brought into hospitals during the Pesach holiday. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote that the risk of undermining kashrut in the hospitals doesn’t outweigh the risk of undermining the basic rights of hospital visitors. The court thereby clearly marked the boundary between the state and citizens’ food choices in a democratic country.

The ban on bringing chametz into hospitals exists nowhere in the law or in Health Ministry regulations. It is simply a condition the Chief Rabbinate set for hospitals that want to obtain a kashrut certificate. In recent years, both visitors and patients have reported that hospital security guards rummaged through their belongings and even confiscated chametz.

The Secular Forum and Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel therefore petitioned the court, and last April Justices Ofer Grosskopf and Uzi Vogelman ruled that hospitals have no authority to bar people from bringing in chametz over Pesach, search visitors’ belongings or make comments about the kashrut of their food, because the sweeping ban on chametz “undermines basic rights of cardinal importance to individual autonomy and freedom from religion.”

This is an important victory in the battle against religious coercion and against the justification for enforcing it through security guards functioning as religious police. Nevertheless, this judicial slam of the door merely portends that the battle will move to the Knesset. Religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox MKs are already preparing a legislative offensive. Shas party chairman Arye Dery rushed to declare that immediately after the March election, his party will demand the enactment of an amendment to the Patients’ Rights Law to ban the entry of chametz on Pesach and make hospital directors responsible for enforcing it. Degel Hatorah party chairman Moshe Gafni promised to demand the enactment of legislation enabling the Knesset to override High Court rulings so as “to stop and make order out of” the justices’ “unlimited power.” And MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) said that “one of the next government’s main tasks will be to reform the High Court’s thuggish, unauthorized rampage to determine Israel’s values.”

The battle over chametz, the High Court’s ruling and the reactions to it are another reminder of how vital the court is as a check not only on ultra-nationalist tendencies that erode and endanger democracy, but also on anti-liberal religious tendencies. These are the core issues bubbling under the surface of the highly personalized political debate in the run-up to the next election. Therefore, it’s necessary to demand right now that all the candidates depicting themselves as the great hope of democracy and liberalism announce that they don’t intend to support benighted laws of the type proposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties. And they certainly need to publicly oppose enactment of an override clause.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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