Passover food fight? Health minister, coalition chair spar over hospital diet

Health minister says bread should be allowed into hospitals on Passover; coalition chair says, “not on my watch.”

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Less than two weeks before the Passover holiday, an epic food fight has commenced between the health minister and the chairperson of the Knesset’s health committee, who also happens to be the person in charge of keeping the government’s coalition together.

On Passover, Jews are forbidden to eat, get enjoyment from, or even own any bread products, known in Hebrew as chametz. As a large majority of Israel’s Jewish population keeps the holiday strictures in one form or another, almost all supermarkets in Jewish areas pack away and cover up all their cereals, pastas, snacks and other foods containing the forbidden ingredients.

So, if you want to grab your usual sandwich or have a yen for pizza, you have to go to the Arab part of town — if you happen to live in a mixed city or near the more non-Jewish areas of the country.

The current controversy focuses on hospitals, specifically Jewish ones, which constitute the vast majority of medical institutions in the country. For decades, they have been chametz-free zones during the weeklong holiday. The kitchens serve only food that is kosher for Passover to all patients — be they Christian, Moslem, Jewish or atheist — and no leavened product is allowed into the buildings.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that hospitals cannot forbid chametz from being brought into hospitals by visitors, citing the principle of protecting patients’ religious freedom — including, they said, freedom from religion.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of the vehemently secular Meretz party sent a letter last week to all hospital administrations reminding them of this ruling after learning that Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center would try to get around it by “requesting” employees and visitors not to bring in food that was not kosher for Passover.

“It is our duty to allow each patient to behave in his own way, without coercion,” Hrowitz wrote. “We have to preserve the well-being and dignity of those who wish to observe the commandments of the holiday, as well as the well-being and dignity of those who do not wish to do so.”

MK Idit Silman, the religious coalition head and chair of the Knessset’s health committee, said in her opening comments at the committee’s meeting Sunday that the minister should have left well enough alone – and if he doesn’t drop the subject, he should be ousted from his position.

Stating that up to 70% of the population respects the holiday, she said Horowitz was acting with “contempt” towards them. He was bringing controversy into “a place that is all about friendship and caring for the other…and we do not expect a minister to come to destroy it,” she said, especially under the auspices of a “government based on unity and thoughtfulness.”

If the minister continues with these kinds of statements that “personally hurt and show disrespect for his coalition partners” and the public, Silman continued, “we cannot allow such a person to continue being a minister.”

“During the Holocaust, there were those who fasted throughout Pesach rather than eat chametz,” she said.

No leavened bread will cross hospital thresholds, Silman vowed. “Not on my watch.”