Leniency about Passover law shows secular party's rising power in Israel

No inspectors are sent this year to enforce ban on leaven foods, impose fines

April 22, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - At the Aroma cafe in the German Colony neighborhood, pumpernickel and rye breads line the shelves next to croissants and rolls. At the Bolinat bar downtown, German wheat beer flows freely from the taps.

It is Passover, and displaying or openly selling leavened products such as wheat, barley, oat and rye in Israel is against the law during the weeklong Jewish holiday, which ends at sundown tomorrow. But this year, secular authorities did not dispatch inspectors or levy fines.

The change reflects the growing influence of the determinedly secular political party called Shinui, the only part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government that campaigned promising to separate religion from government affairs. A Shinui Cabinet minister declared that officials had no business inspecting people's eating habits.

As a result, many restaurants are openly selling bread, pasta and beer and advertising to attract customers hungry for a prohibited repast. "I am not doing this to be anti-religious," said Shahar Levy, owner of Bolinat. "This is the type of life I want to lead, as do our clients."

For religious Jews, the flagrant defiance of religious law and the government's refusal to intervene erodes the Jewish character of Israel and is evidence of secularization.

The dispute over hametz - which means leavened - is a new wrinkle in a long and sometimes divisive rift between observant and nonobservant Jews over how their faith should be practiced and whether the state should impose religious law.

"I passed by this place and said, `What is this?'" David Partousch, who is Orthodox, said standing outside Bolinat yesterday and watching people drink beer from frosted mugs. "If we were in Tel Aviv, maybe I could understand it. But we're two minutes from the Western Wall. If people want to eat, they can eat at home. How can this happen in Jerusalem?"

Passover commemorates the Old Testament account of the flight of the Jewish people from Egypt and their passing from slavery to freedom. The story is to be relived, not merely retold, and thus the importance of a diet reflecting the meager rations available during the trek across the desert more than 3,000 years ago. The fleeing masses had no time to wait for bread to rise.

Before the start of the holiday, Jews perform a ritual of meticulously cleaning their kitchens to sweep away every bread crumb; restaurants in Israel symbolically sell food with leavening agents and then seek a rabbinical certificate testifying that their establishment is "kosher for Passover."

In 1986, Israeli lawmakers approved a law saying, "Business owners shall not present hametz products in public for sale or consumption." It was interpreted to prohibit only open displays of leavened food.

Dozens of restaurants in Jerusalem, big and small, closed for Passover or used the time to renovate. Their owners said it was too expensive and time-consuming to be certified as kosher for Passover, and they chose not to open without permission. The ones that opened legitimately served matzo instead of bread; an ice cream shop made crepes from potato paste, and its workers could barely keep up with the long line of customers.

Last year, five inspectors fanned out across Jerusalem and issued $80 tickets to shops where banned food items were visible from public streets. But no inspectors were out this year by orders of Avraham Poraz, the Shinui Party member who became interior minister in January. .

"The hametz laws are not my top priority," Poraz told state radio last week on Passover eve. "Selling hametz does not upset me. I do not intend to inspect the plates of what people eat."

His remarks prompted newspapers to declare this Passover a "hametz free-for-all"; reporters wrote of cafes selling "loaves openly without fear." Angry members of religious parties denounced Poraz and called on the attorney general to prosecute him for failing to enforce the law.

Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev, a member of the National Religious Party, told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that Poraz's decision "harms the Jewish character of the country and the delicate fabric of Israeli society."

Another NRP member, Shaul Yahalom, accused the government of "trying to liquidate this masterpiece of Judaism."

Laws upholding religious restrictions have steadily eroded over the years, not only in cities such as secular Tel Aviv, but also in Jerusalem, where two-thirds of the Jewish residents describe themselves as observant. While public buses do not run on the Sabbath, many restaurants, bars and movie theaters are open.

Interpreting the regulations has been difficult. While the Aroma cafe in the German Colony had its bread on display, the Aroma outlet in Jerusalem's downtown hid its croissants behind a plastic sheet.

The McDonald's in downtown Jerusalem is not kosher, is open on the Sabbath and discreetly sells cheeseburgers - a violation of dietary laws against mixing meat and dairy. But to honor Passover, the restaurant changed its menu this week and served only kosher meat on buns made out of unleavened matzo bread.

Levy, the owner of the Bolinat bar, said his establishment on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall has sold bread and beer on Passover for the past four years, yet this was the first year he was not fined. "As a Jew, I would like to think that we can practice what we believe without having it enforced by the state," he said, adding that he wrestles with "the difficult question" of how to preserve a Jewish state without having the state enforce Jewish law.

He grew up in a traditional kosher home, and his mother does not visit his bar on Passover. "I don't bring rolls to her house either," he said. "Religion should be respected, but not be a matter of law."

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