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Passover Laws Divide Coalition

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon’s government faced a possible new coalition crisis this week after the Interior Ministry, led by the anti-clerical Shinui party, declined to enforce laws against public display of leavened foods, or chametz, during Passover.

The ministry policy led to protests from Orthodox politicians, who called on Sharon to bring his secularist coalition partners to heel and preserve “the Jewish character of the Jewish state.”

“The prime minister needs to impose order on Shinui, which is damaging the Jewish character of the state and the delicate social fabric of Israeli society,” the minister of labor and welfare, Minister Zvulun Orlev of the National Religious Party, told the daily Yediot Achronot.

Under a 1986 law, restaurants and stores are permitted to sell leavened food products during Passover, but they are forbidden to advertise it, display it openly or serve it to sidewalk diners. Enforcement is assigned to the Interior Ministry, which was controlled for decades by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. The ministry fielded so-called “chametz patrols,” teams of inspectors on loan from the Sabbath enforcement division of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. Violations were punishable by a $70 fine, which was rarely enforced.

This year, however, following the transfer of the Interior Ministry from Shas to Shinui after last winter’s parliamentary elections, inspections were abandoned entirely, after Interior Minister Avraham Poraz announced that he had “more burning issues to deal with than sifting through the plates of diners in restaurants.”

The seven-day Passover holiday this month saw what was widely described as an unusually open display of chametz sale and consumption, particularly in Jerusalem, where bars and restaurants posted signs and notices advertising “business as usual” and even “chametz sold here.”

It was not clear, however, whether the widespread flouting of the law was a result of the Interior Ministry policy or a long-term trend. At the popular Bolinat Cafe in Jerusalem, a waiter who identified himself as Shahar told the daily Ha’aretz that bread, beer and cake had been sold during Passover for the last four years “to meet the demand of our customers.” “Over Passover we get more than twice the number of customers we usually have because the choice of places that sell chametz is limited,” Shahar said.

The leader of Shas, former interior minister Eli Yishai, blamed what he called the “chametz madness” on the National Religious Party, which he accused of “lending its hand to the trampling of the law.” Yishai called for the law to be amended to ban the sale of chametz outright.

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