Because of this government, I’m eating hametz
This year, directly because of this Israeli government, I have decided to eat hametz during Pesach. It’s a sentence I never thought I’d write, and to some it might not seem Earth-shattering, and others might talk about cutting off noses to spite faces, and that’s OK. But let me explain why it feels a big deal to me, and why it should seem one tiny part of a very big deal to others.
I was brought up in and around kashrut. Before I moved to Israel, my family owned a popular kosher hotel in the UK, somewhat legendary for its prioritising of food (midnight fish buffets!); observance of kashrut was strict, and sometimes hanging out around the kitchens, and often in the in-house bakery, I’d see it, then taste it, in action. Chaggim in the hotel were enormous affairs, and to some extent our calendar would revolve around them. We were what you might call Orthodox-lite, or moderate-Orthodox (which is where most British Jews were until the polarisation of the early-1990s) — we’d go to shul, we’d usually drive there, we’d park a decent walk away to respect the conventions and not be seen to be hypocritical. And I never felt that we were hypocritical. We did what we believed in, we stayed fairly close to religious rules, and certainly close enough that Judaism was a big part of our lives, a big part of our thoughts, and I loved it.
I still love it. I love it for its sense of community, for that warmth, I love its sense of textual and spiritual investigation, I love its ideas, I love its merging of the sacred and the sense that everyday life itself is sacred. And I love the things that mark out our small people, the things we’ve always done through centuries of persecution that make and maintain us as a family. That includes kashrut.
So I always also loved Pesach, eight days that couldn’t help but feel special through the very awkwardness of having to keep especially strict, arcane rules. And I was pedantic, talmudically pedantic, about the way I kept them. I was the guy who, in my first job at a TV channel (with no kosher restaurants around where I worked in central London) used to go to the cafe around the corner and, during Pesach, would buy a plain jacket potato that I wouldn’t let them cut, and then I’d take it back to my workplace, and eat just the inside with the plastic knife and fork I’d brought from home. To quote Tevye, “Sounds crazy, no?” I liked the crazy. But there’s crazy, and there’s scary-crazy.
The hametz law just passed by this Israeli government is, to my mind, emblematic of the government’s scary-crazy plans. Most of the government, well over half, are religious people who seem to have a theocratic agenda. Banning hametz from hospitals rather than leaving it up to the discretion of patients, seems like a first step in a very scary direction, one that could take Israel a long way down a path to religious theocracy. I look at Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, where ‘modesty police’ beat people in the streets for not obeying religious edicts, and then I read reports of unofficial modesty police in the streets of some Haredi communities, and of fevered government supporters last week beating protestors with sticks, and I shiver.
For the first time in Israel’s history, we have a government dominated by people with fundamentalist religious agendas. For the first time in its history, we have a government determined to put through laws that will effectively eradicate independent checks and balances on government power, enabling them to do what they want. And ‘what they want’, in the case of the numerically dominant United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Religious Zionism factions (including the particularly extreme Jewish Power) – and we can probably roll in some of the more religious Likud MKs as well – includes a string of religiously-motivated laws.
Where might this take us? As Yuval Noah Harari has noted, unlike some other countries where full democracy was destroyed such as Hungary and Poland, there is in the case of Israel no European Union or equivalent, with formal rules and principles, to act as any kind of moderating influence. Nor, in those countries, is religious fundamentalism (or religion at all, in fact) a driving force.
Again, I love Judaism. I regard religion as mostly a hugely positive force in the world that can inspire great good. But we all know that the opposite is also sometimes true. Power corrupts. And when religion is fused with power-politics, well, that’s when we sometimes get into the realm of scary-crazy.
Anyway. I am so appalled at the idea of forcing ill people to bow to religious laws that they may or may not share, at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, and I am so concerned by what I see as the start of a parade of religious laws that could change the very nature of life in this country, that I am doing the one thing I can to make a point. I don’t want to eat hametz during Pesach, and I imagine it will make me pretty miserable to give up on a tradition that I truly love. But what is happening now is not only bad for Israeli society, it is bad for Judiasm.
I know very many people, I imagine we all do, who have been less and less inclined to practice their Judaism because of what now feel like its political overtones. For people like that, and there are a multitude of them, even lighting the candles on Shabbat can feel like somehow giving a blessing to the fundamentalist cohorts of Bezalel Smotrich or Simcha Rothman, or giving a pass to the charedi leaders who reportedly try to prevent criminals within their society from coming to justice (looking at you, Yaakov Litzman) or put convicted criminals in control of massive amounts of public money (ahem, Shas).
Those who are fixated on, shall we call it, halachic legislation, on coercing millions of Israelis to live their lives according to strict interpretations of biblical laws, may think they’re doing what is right for the Jewish state. They aren’t. Forcing people does not inspire, it breeds resentment. It pushes people away, from our religion and from our shuls and from our traditions and eventually from our country. And then what? Where does that lead? Modesty police armed with sticks in the streets of Israel’s cities? Or just in our hospitals?
So here’s my protest, and my warning — meant as a plea and an appeal to good nature and plain sense and to those who genuinely care about our religion and people and culture. This Pesach I will eat hametz. I will make a point of it. And I will pray that next year I can again keep the kashrut laws with a good conscience.