Israel: Far-right coalition raises spectre that doctors could refuse treatment on religious grounds

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  December 25, 2022

The Israeli far-right sets its sights on healthcare by campaigning for doctors to be allowed to deny services based on religious beliefs.

A lawmaker from Israel’s far-right Religious Zionism party said on Sunday that doctors shouldn’t be required to treat patients when it contradicts their religious beliefs. 

The remarks by the party’s lawmaker Orit Strock sparked a backlash after she said that “as long as there are other doctors who can provide the same service”, a doctor shouldn’t be compelled to compromise on their religious beliefs. 

Speaking to Israeli public radio Kan, she added that she “cannot fathom the thought that the Halakhic law [Jewish religious law] will be seen as a discrimination on religious grounds in the Jewish state we established after two thousand years of exile and self-sacrifice”.

On Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had formed a new Israeli government, after his Likud party, far-right religious Zionist factions and ultra-Orthodox parties had secured 64 of parliament’s 120 seats. 

Politicians from the outgoing coalition government denounced Strock’s comments. 

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid condemned his successor Netanyahu for “leading us towards a dark, halakhic [religious law] country”.

Chair of the Israel Medical Association, Zion Hagay, insisted that doctors in Israel would defy attempts to implement such discriminatory practices on patients. 

“If a doctor is asked to give any type of treatment to someone that violates his religious faith, if there is another doctor who can do it, then you can’t force them to provide treatment,” Strock told Kan.

“Anti-discrimination laws are just and right when they create a just, equal, open and inclusive society,” said Strock, who is expected to hold a ministerial role in the new government. “But there is a certain deviation in which religious faith is trampled upon, and we want to amend this.”

She was referring to doctors who may have religious objections, such as fertility treatment for unmarried women.

Precedent for discrimination 

Netanyahu has denied the coalition deal will introduce such a law. 

“MK Orit Strock’s words are unacceptable to me and my colleagues in Likud,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“The coalition agreements do not allow for discrimination against LGBT people or for harming the right of any citizen in Israel to receive service. Likud will guarantee that there will be no harm to LGBT people or any Israeli citizen.”

Israel’s president voiced concern for the well-being of all members of the public regardless of their identity or values

“A situation whereby citizens of Israel fear threats against them based on their identity or values runs counter to the basic democratic and ethical principles of Israel,” President Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely symbolic, wrote on Twitter.

Some Israeli journalists pointed out that there was a precedent in the coalition agreement to push such a law forward. 

In the coalition agreement reached last week, it was also determined that private businesses could refuse to provide a service due to the seller’s religious beliefs, provided that a suitable alternative was found within geographic proximity at a similar price. 

The clause inserted in the coalition agreement was billed as an attempt to redress that the state “has often violated the rights of Israeli Jews within their own businesses”, Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Israel’s Jewish Power party, said in an interview with Kan on Friday morning. 

Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism political alliance, and Ben Gvir, will take up prominent positions in the incoming government.

Smotrich, a self-declared homophobe and settler activist, has been named finance minister and will also be placed within Israel’s Defence ministry, with oversight of settlements inside the illegally occupied West Bank.

Ben Gvir, who was previously convicted in Israel of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization, will be named national security minister, with oversight of police and the force that controls security at al-Aqsa Mosque.

Among the reforms planned by the incoming government is giving parliamentarians the right to overrule Supreme Court decisions, as well as legal reforms that could end Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on charges of corruption – which he denies.