Israeli hospitals scramble to comply with ‘chametz law’ for Passover

Bethan McKernan  

The Guardian  /  April 5, 2023

 New law bans people from taking leavened food made from grain into medical centres during Jewish holiday.

Passover celebrations in Israel this year are once again being overshadowed by a row over the consumption of leavened food such as bread in public buildings, in a symbolic fight about the role of religion in the state.

Last week, the Knesset passed the “chametz law”, which bans people from taking leavened food made from grain into hospitals during Passover. The law, sponsored by an ultra-Orthodox party, is in accordance with traditional Jewish teachings stipulating that observant Jews cannot eat chametz or have it in their homes during the week-long holiday.

The law leaves it up to hospital directors to decide how to enforce the policy, and does not allow security guards to search bags belonging to staff, patients or visitors for bread and baked goods.

Since the law was passed, public and private hospitals have scrambled to determine how to implement it before Passover begins at sunset on Wednesday.

Adar Alboim, a spokesperson for the huge Hadassah Ein Kerem public hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, said staff had put up signage requesting that chametz products are left at the entrance. “We emphasise that this is only a request and not a requirement on behalf of the hospital,” she said, adding that bags would not be checked.

The measure is already facing a legal challenge. On Sunday, Israeli media reported that a pregnant woman was not allowed to enter the Laniado medical centre in Netanya for a regular appointment unless she left a snack of wafer cookies in a box at the entrance and collected a ticket to pick up the food later.

The wafers were not kosher for Passover because the hospital had already been cleaned in preparation for the holiday, and the security guard suggested she eat the wafers in a tent next to the entrance set up for non-kosher food consumption.

In response to the incident, Israel Hofsheet, an NGO promoting religious freedom, filed a petition with the high court on Tuesday protesting against the law on the grounds that it supersedes patients’ right to treatment.

The new law was designed to contravene a high court ruling from 2021 that a Passover chametz ban in hospitals and army bases violated personal autonomy.

Recent polling from the Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly half of all Israeli Jews support allowing chametz into hospital buildings during Passover, even if they are observing.

In April last year, the fight over chametz was the catalyst for the downfall of a short-lived “coalition of change” that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from office in 2021. Idit Silman, a Knesset member who supported the chametz ban, defected over the issue, in the process losing the government its razor-thin majority.

Netanyahu returned to power in December last year at the head of a coalition of far-right and ultra-religious parties, the most hardline government in the country’s history. The administration is working to reverse many changes made to Israel’s religious status quo enacted by the previous government.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian