Far-right MK says doctors could deny treatment on religious grounds, sparking uproar

Religious Zionism lawmaker Orit Strock, who is set to be a minister in the new Israeli government, said on Sunday that doctors should be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that contravene their religious faith, as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment .

Strock’s comments were denounced as racist and discriminatory by numerous politicians from the outgoing coalition, while incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from her position. Netanyahu also denied that his coalition would allow a law to this effect to pass, although nascent coalition agreements reportedly state that the current law against such discrimination will be amended.

Chair of the Israel Medical Association Prof. Zion Hagay insisted that doctors in Israel would defy any attempt to allow the use of discriminatory practices in the treatment of patients.

“If a doctor is asked to give any type of treatment to someone that violates his religious faith, if there is another doctor who can do it then you can’t force them to provide treatment,” Strock told Kan public radio.

“Anti-discrimination laws are just and right when they create a just, equal, open and inclusive society,” said Strock, who is slated to become the minister for National Projects in the new government, with authority over the Department of Jewish Culture — hitherto part of the Education Ministry. “But there is a certain deviation in which religious faith is trampled upon and we want to amend this.”

Strock was speaking with regard to treatments where a doctor may have some religious objection, such as fertility treatment for unmarried women, within the general context of her party’s proposed legislation to allow businesses or private enterprises to refuse service on the grounds of religious conscience.

According to the Kan state broadcaster, a clause in the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism stipulates that legislation will be passed by the new government to allow business owners to refuse service to customers if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

Netanyahu denied, however, that the coalition deal provided for such a law.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich during a vote in the Knesset, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“MK Orit Strock’s words are unacceptable to me and my colleagues in Likud. The coalition agreements do not allow for discrimination against LGBT people or for harming the right of any citizen in Israel to receive service. Likud will guarantee that there will be no harm to LGBT people or any Israeli citizen,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Despite Netanyahu’s denial, Kan journalist Michael Shemesh tweeted an image of the clause in question of the coalition agreement, which states that the law against discrimination will be amended “in a way that will prevent injury to a private business which refrains from providing service or a product due to religious faith, on condition that it is a service or product which is not unique and for which an alternative can be found nearby and for a similar price.”

According to Kan, the clause appears in every coalition agreement between the Likud and the other parties of the incoming government, although only the deal between Likud and Agudat Yisrael, one half of the United Torah Judaism faction, has been formally signed so far.

The law as it stands prohibits discrimination by those providing public services or products on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other similar considerations, and anyone doing so is liable to be fined.

According to Strock, the legislation she and Religious Zionism are advancing would allow such providers to refuse service if they feel it violates their religious faith, as long as there is another similar service within a reasonable geographic range.

Strock gave by way of example a situation in which a Christian wanted to hold a Christmas party with a Christmas tree in a venue owned by a religious Jew.

“I assume an observant Jewish person won’t want to do this because it contravenes his religious faith… Jews gave up their lives to not do such things throughout history. The law must not treat Jewish law as something of lesser value,” she said.

“The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, a people that gave up its life for its religious faith. It is unacceptable that, having established a country after 2,000 years of exile and of laying down their lives for the Torah, this country will call religious faith ‘discrimination.'”

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Backing up Strock, fellow Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman made similar comments on Sunday, asserting that if a hotel wanted to refuse service to gay people on religious grounds it would be entitled to do so.

“A business owner can do whatever they like in his business. He created the business and he doesn’t owe anyone anything,” Rothman told Kan.

“The law states that a business cannot discriminate for a whole variety of reasons. This bill [proposed by his party] seeks not to abolish the general prohibition on discrimination but says that when there is a religious obstacle for someone to do something, it will be permissible for him to withhold service — rather than force him to do something that contravenes his beliefs,” said Rothman.

Asked if it would be permissible for a Jew to refuse service to Arabs on the basis that he believed Arabs should not live in the Land of Israel, Rothman declined to answer. He also refused to say what mechanism would be put into place to define whether or not refusal of service was based on a legitimate religious belief.

Strock’s and Rothman’s comments were castigated by numerous members of the incoming opposition and described as racist, homophobic and discriminatory.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid denounced Strock’s remarks and blamed Netanyahu for the rise of such sentiments, saying he was “leading us to a benighted state [ruled by] Jewish law.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv tweeted, “We should not be surprised by Orit Struck’s racist comments. It is her life’s teaching. We should be outraged by the equanimity of Likud MKs in light of these disgraceful and dangerous comments.”

Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak said he did not believe Netanyahu’s denials and warned that the country was moving in a direction that would allow for widespread discrimination.

“We have lived through periods in which there were signs saying ‘no entry to Jews,’ and now we see these laws that state that business owners can decide who they want to sell to. There will be grocery stores that will say ‘no entry to women’ and tomorrow there will be another that says ‘no entry to Arabs,” Ben Barak predicted.

Haggai, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, insisted that “doctors in Israel are committed to the doctor’s oath and will not allow any person or any law to change this fact,” in response to Strock’s comments.

“We will not allow foreign or political considerations to be introduced between doctors and patients. The health system has always been an island of sanity, a symbol of coexistence, a place in which Jews and Arabs work shoulder to shoulder, with the value of equality a guiding light for them,” tweeted Hagay.

“The Hebrew doctor’s oath says explicitly, ‘You shall help a sick person since they are sick, be they a foreigner or a non-Jew, and be they a citizen, despicable or honorable.’ And in Maimonides’ doctors’ prayer it is written ‘I will only see the human in a sick person.’ That is how it always was and how it will be forever.”

The chair of the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, Hila Peer, also condemned the remarks, describing them and the proposed law as “un-Jewish” and disgraceful.

“MKs Strock and Rothman want to mark out LGBT people so that we’ll remain in our homes as in the dark days of humanity. We will not agree to this in any way,” said Peer, calling on Netanyahu to oppose such legislation.

Responding to the criticism, Struck said, “No one intends to discriminate against LGBT people because of their identity or what they identify with. Not in medical treatment, or any other manner. LGBT people are human beings deserving of respect and love like anyone else.”

She insisted, however, that if there was “medical treatment that contravenes Jewish law, a religiously observant doctor will not be forced to give it, regardless of the identity of the patient.”

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