Hametz wars: Israel's annual unnecessary pre-Passover debates - analysis

These hametz battles have become as much a pre-Passover ritual in Israel as, well, pre-Passover cleaning itself.

Hametz is covered at a store in Israel  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hametz is covered at a store in Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The latest installment in Israel’s perpetual war over bread and leavened products (hametz) on Passover is so unnecessary on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start.

Indeed, this is a perpetual war because for decades, before almost every Passover, a battle erupts somewhere in the country over hametz, food forbidden to Jews by biblical law during the seven-day holiday.

Skirmishes over the issue led in 1986 to the passage of a law, popularly known as the Hametz Law, prohibiting businesses on Passover from publicly displaying “bread, rolls, pita or any other leavened flour products.” This law, which was passed when four religious parties held 12-seats in the Likud-Labor national unity government, does not apply to towns or neighborhoods where the majority of the residents are not Jewish.

But rather than putting an end to the pre-Passover disputes, this law only intensified them, as battles flared up in various municipalities over whether municipal inspectors should or would enforce it. A staple of Jerusalem’s secular-religious battles for years was whether an Arab baker in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City should be able to sell pita.

In 2008, a Jerusalem Municipal Court ruled that grocery stores and restaurants can sell leavened food inside shops because, according to this ruling, the 1986 law banned the display of hametz in public areas but not its sale inside stores and restaurants.

Bread (credit: VICTORIA SHES/UNSPLASH)Bread (credit: VICTORIA SHES/UNSPLASH)

The hametz wars carried on, swirling just before every Passover over issues such as whether hametz should be permitted to be brought into army bases and, more recently, into hospitals.

In April 2020, the High Court of Justice ruled that hospitals cannot ban patients and visitors from entering their premises with hametz during the holiday. These hametz battles have become as much a pre-Passover ritual in Israel as, well, pre-Passover cleaning itself.

This year is no exception.

On Sunday, Yamina MK Idit Silman, who is both the coalition whip and chairman of the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, took Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to task for sending a letter to the directors of the country’s hospitals demanding they abide by the High Court ruling.

Why was such a letter needed? Ynet reported that Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem was looking for ways to bypass the court’s ruling by asking employees not to bring non-kosher for Passover food into the hospital and having security guards politely ask the same of all visitors.

The whole saga, however, is a chronicle of things that simply did not need to be.

The vast majority of Jews in this country, some 70%, do not eat hametz on Passover. The vast majority of the 30% who do are not going to do it demonstratively in front of someone who will find it offensive. That’s just basic consideration and good common sense, which most people have.

This also explains why until the middle of the last decade, the issue of bringing hametz into the hospitals was not much of an issue. All the hospitals in the country are kosher, just as all the kitchens in the army are kosher, so that everyone can eat in them.

When United Torah Judaism’s Ya’acov Litzman became health minister in 2015, however, the fact that the hospital kitchens were kosher for Passover was not enough. He wanted to keep hametz out of the hospitals entirely, and security guards at hospital entrances were instructed to keep people from visiting if they were bringing in hametz, and sometimes searched bags to make sure they were not.

THIS UNNECESSARY stringency led to an unnecessary appeal to the court in 2018 by an organization waving the banner of freedom from religion. All of a sudden the question of not eating a sandwich demonstratively in the face of someone who might be offended by that act in a hospital went from one of basic courtesy and respect into a major religion-state issue, with the court ruling on the side of those who want to keep the state from mandating any and all religious strictures.

The pity here is that the courts had to get involved in something – again – that just should have been good common sense. Yes, public kitchens need to be kosher, and on Passover they need to be kosher for Passover, so the entire public can eat in them. No, the state should not dictate what a person puts in his mouth outside those kitchens.

The next level of things that didn’t need to happen in this saga was Hadassah Hospital’s directive on how to bypass the law. If there is a Supreme Court decision, one would expect the country’s institutions, including its hospitals, to heed the court’s rulings.

That unnecessary act was compounded by Horowitz’s letter, which smacked of a man just looking for a fight or, rather, playing to his audience. For Horowtiz’s audience, which happens to be Meretz voters, this issue, like all religion-state issues, is of utmost importance. Horowitz was able to gain political capital by writing to all hospital heads and turning this into a matter of high principle, rather than just speaking quietly to the head of Hadassah.

And then Silman – who recently has become an outspoken guardian of the religious status quo, coming out recently against an egalitarian section at the Western Wall – upped the ante, threatening a coalition crisis over this matter which she said was for her a cardinal issue.

Although she was right in saying that Horowitz should have had enough consideration for his coalition partners not to press on an issue he knows is important to them – this coalition only survives if each partner understands that there are certain red lines for the others – she was out of line in evoking the Holocaust.

“People during the Holocaust fasted on Passover in order not to eat hametz, and a minister in the State of Israel, in a coalition like ours, unfortunately, says we should let hametz in,” she said with much hyperbole. The Holocaust need not be summoned as a debate point in every issue.

None of this should have happened. Not the search for hametz in bags of guests going into hospitals; not the appeal to the High Court of Justice; not the court’s decision; not efforts by hospitals to bypass that decision; not the way Horowitz dealt with the matter; and not Silman’s overheated rhetoric.

Not every issue has to be blown up into one of high principles. Some things can just be left alone and be solved through common sense and basic consideration. How many Jews are going to smuggle a baguette into a hospital room and demonstratively eat it near the sickbed of a religious Jew?

At a time when the country is facing a new wave of terrorism, what it needs is a unified government focused on defeating that – not one where its coalition partners are quibbling about hametz to win points with their respective constituencies. At a time when the country is facing a new wave of terrorism, it needs a sense of unity and solidarity – not a religion-state crisis that will do nothing but divide.