Rising anger as stores get OK to sell hametz

Rabbinate: Hametz ruling attack on Torah.

Bread 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Bread 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In a landmark decision, a Jerusalem court has ruled that Israeli stores and eateries can sell hametz (leavened products) over Passover, court documents released Thursday showed, infuriating religious leaders and lawmakers who bemoaned it as a blow to Israel's Jewish identity. The ruling, which is expected to be appealed, touches on the delicate question of how Israel should maintain its Jewish character while protecting personal freedoms and avoiding religious coercion. The decision by the Court for Local Affairs, which was handed down late Wednesday, two weeks before the holiday, was lambasted by the Chief Rabbinate as "an attack on the Torah" and was immediately condemned by haredi and modern Orthodox lawmakers, who vowed to appeal it. The ruling annuls lawsuits that the Jerusalem Municipality filed last year against four non-kosher eateries and a minimarket for failing to pay fines issued for selling leavened products during Pessah. A largely unenforced 1986 law bans the public display of leavened products for sale or consumption during the weeklong holiday. The legislation, which has mostly been ignored - except when a haredi party such as Shas controlled the Interior Ministry - was revived last year when five Jerusalem businesses were fined nearly NIS 13,000 each. On Wednesday, Jerusalem Municipal Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher Tzaban ruled that stores and restaurants were not "public places" because, unlike open markets, they were closed-off and could not be seen by passersby. Since the kiosks, restaurants and pizzerias sued by the city did not meet the legal definition of a public place, they had not violated the law, the judge wrote in her 13-page ruling released on Thursday. Attorneys for the defendants repeatedly stressed last year that the law banned the display of leavened products and not their sale, an argument clearly accepted by the court. An attorney for the city had argued that in a largely traditional city such as Jerusalem, common decency and mutual respect demanded that the sale of hametz be banned during Pessah, noting that leavened products were available in Arab neighborhoods. "The prohibition against seeing or having possession of hametz on Pessah is not subject to [secular] legal interpretation," said Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger. "The court's decision is an attack on Israel's Torah. I am sorry that the court 'passed over' Jewish law." "A court that issues such a ruling is placing a smoking gun in the face of the Jewish nation," said Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), adding that the court should itself be made to undergo the traditional pre-holiday burning of leavened products. The condemnation by opponents to the court's ruling was so intense in part because the decision could set a precedent to be used in later legal arguments across the country. Cohen vowed that Shas would insist at the cabinet meeting on Sunday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately instruct Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to appeal the court decision. "This ruling is devoid of reality," said MK Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party). "It is a critical blow to the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, and to understanding between Orthodox and secular." It was "inconceivable" that a Jerusalem municipal judge made such fateful decisions on Jewish law and on the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation, he added. Left-wing parliamentarians and the business owners who were sued praised the "enlightened" court decision. "This ruling is a victory for democracy and for freedom in Jerusalem," said Meretz city councilman Sa'ar Netanel, who has been active in the case from its onset. "Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski (United Torah Judaism) received a stinging slap in the face from the court today," Netanel said, adding that Jerusalem was the only municipality that had filed indictments based on the legislation. "This Pessah the residents of Jerusalem can enjoy freedom as befits the holiday without the mayor and the municipality invading their plates," he said. The Jerusalem Municipality issued a statement on Thursday saying it had acted in accordance with the instruction of its legal office, and would act in accordance with the law. "In contrast to what has been claimed, this law has been enforced by many Israeli authorities," the city said. "We are very pleased with the ruling since all we want to do is live and work in peace," said Allison Lahav, the Toronto-born co-owner of Chili Pizza, which was one of the five businesses sued by the municipality. The pizzeria has operated in downtown Jerusalem for more than eight years. Lahav said she had never looked for a "religious fight," and voiced concern that extremist haredim might resort to violence following the ruling. "We got a little piece of democracy today," she said. "Hopefully it will last." "A law that was meant to safeguard the religious public was exploited by the extremists in the municipality to create baseless hatred within the four walls of our restaurant," said Shahar Levy, owner of the Restobar in the capital's Rehavia neighborhood. Levy said he never intended to offend the haredi public or his neighbors. The other eateries sued by the city were Riff-Raff, Iwo Meat Burger and the Terminal 21 minimarket. A sixth business, a convenience store, reached an agreement with the city and paid a fine. Last Pessah, about 100 haredi demonstrators stoned police after officers forcibly dispersed the protesters who had blocked traffic, set garbage bins on fire on Rehov Strauss and tried to approach Rehov Hillel downtown, where several non-kosher eateries were selling leavened products during Pessah. Although most Jewish Jerusalemites avoid all leavened products during the holiday, mainstream Orthodox leaders have voiced opposition to hametz inspections, calling them counterproductive. Matthew Wagner contributed to this report.