“Oy, you poor people can’t buy chametz on Passover? Well, get it through your skulls – this is a Jewish state.” That’s more or less the arrogant response anyone gets for complaining about the so-called chametz law, which prohibits the public display of chametz – leaven – for sale or consumption during Passover.
It’s one of Israel’s more twisted pieces of legislation, and it’s purely about religious coercion. Yes, “it lasts only a week,” and there are places that violate the law. But the very fact that such a law exists is a problem.
When government representatives, for example the Tel Aviv municipal inspector, penalize businesses that sell chametz, as happened this year, the aim isn’t only to keep chametz out of sight during Passover. “Chametz” is a code word, and this law is about a lot more than chametz. It’s a law that seeks to demonstrate the supremacy of religion in the public sphere.
Who really wants to consume chametz on Passover? A religious person won’t buy it, but rather someone who doesn't believe in adhering to the practice. So why do heretics like me need a special law that includes a fine just to make it clear that my values and opinions are of no value in Israel?
The fact that the chametz law addresses such an apparently marginal issue as Passover food, not something like a ban on women stepping foot outside the house without a head covering, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, doesn’t make it any less draconian. The principle behind both these laws – the Iranian and the Israeli ones – are identical.
Under the Israeli legal system, the chametz law is particularly significant. Religious laws are state law in the realm of family relations. Even if you’re an avowed secular person, the state forces religious marriage laws on you as a formal member of a particular religious group in the population registry. It has nothing to do with your beliefs or desires. Are you registered as Jewish? Then you must marry via the Rabbinate and according to rabbinical law.
The chametz law extends this distortion into the economic realm. This is where the real bonanza lies, the big money. The lifelong wish of every religious party is to pass a law that would let religious courts decide on property issues based on the laws of the Torah. After all, they view the state courts as “the courts of the gentiles,” and according to Jewish law, the public life of Jewish society as a whole must be subject to the laws of the Torah.
As in every oppressive system, the “word of God” in this instance presented by authorized interpreters is a cover for the privilege enjoyed by a certain group at the expense of others. According to these judges, a woman isn’t equal to a man, a religious person is superior to a secular person, and anyone who isn’t Jewish has no status. The distortions and injustices that occur at the religious courts regarding family issues will become the legal basis in Israel in all spheres. This is exactly the aim of the chametz law: to enshrine in law the concept that religious law comes before civil rights.
According to far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich, this is what it means to be a “Jewish state,” exactly like an “Islamic republic” – a theocracy that forces all its subjects to abide by religious law. In the emerging governing coalition, this approach may win unprecedented power. But a Jewish state shouldn’t mean a religious state. It’s a state where most of its citizens are Jewish according to their own lights, and they enjoy full religious freedom: the freedom to live according to their values, without state intervention or imposition.
This is what generations of Jews persecuted because of their origins hoped for: to be a free people in our own land. Here we must be free. Here Judaism blossoms thanks to this freedom, which has been such a rarity in Jewish history, and thus this Jewish state is a democracy. If it loses its democracy, if it ramps up the religious coercion, it will be a miserable state that embitters the lives of all its citizens.
Published in Ha'aretz.