Far-right MK says doctors may refuse treatment on religious grounds, sparking uproar

Religious Zionism MP Orit Strock, who is set to become a minister in Israel’s new government, said Sunday doctors should be allowed to refuse treatment that contradicts their religious beliefs, as long as another doctor is willing to offer the same treatment.

Strock’s comments were denounced as racist and discriminatory by numerous politicians in the outgoing coalition, while the new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from their position. Netanyahu also denied that his coalition would allow such a law, although allegedly forthcoming coalition agreements state that the current law against such discrimination will be amended.

The chair of the Israel Medical Association, Prof. Zion Hagay, insisted that doctors in Israel would oppose any attempt to allow discriminatory practices to be used in the treatment of patients.

“If a doctor is asked to treat someone who violates their religious beliefs and there is another doctor who can do it, you cannot force them to do treatment,” Strock told public radio Kan.

“Anti-discrimination laws are just and right when they create a just, equal, open and inclusive society,” said Strock, who is set to become Minister for National Projects in the new government, with authority over the Department of Jewish Culture – previously part of the Ministry of Education. “But there is a certain deviation where religious belief is trampled underfoot and we want to change that.”

Strock spoke in relation to treatments where a doctor might have religious objections, such as B. fertility treatment for unmarried women, in the general context of her party’s proposed legislation allowing corporations or private companies to refuse services on grounds of religious conscience.

According to state broadcaster Kan, a clause in the coalition agreement between Likud and religious Zionism stipulates that the new government will enact legislation allowing business owners to refuse service to customers if it goes against their religious beliefs.

However, Netanyahu denied that the coalition agreement provided for such a law.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with MK Bezalel Smotrich, party leader of Religious Zionism, 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 the Likud. The coalition agreements do not allow discrimination against LGBT people or violation of a citizen’s right in Israel to receive services. The Likud will guarantee no harm to LGBT people or Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Despite Netanyahu’s denial, Kan journalist Michael Shemesh tweeted an illustration of the clause in question of the coalition agreement, which states that the anti-discrimination law “will be amended in a way that prevents harm to a private company which refrains from providing a service or product for religious reasons, on condition that it acts.” It is a service or product that is not unique and for which an alternative can be found nearby and at a similar price.”

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

Current law prohibits discrimination by people offering public services or products on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and similar considerations, and anyone who does so can be fined.

According to Strock, the legislation she and Religious Zionism are pushing would allow such providers to refuse services if they felt it violated their religious beliefs, as long as there was another similar service within reasonable geographic reach.

As an example, Strock cited a situation in which a Christian wanted to hold a Christmas party with a Christmas tree in a restaurant owned by a devout Jew.

“I take it that a devout Jew would not want to do this because it is contrary to their religious beliefs…Jews gave up their lives not to 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 who gave up their lives for their religious beliefs. It is unacceptable that this country, after founding a country after 2,000 years of exile and dedicating its life to the Torah, should label religious belief as ‘discrimination’.”

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

Supporting Strock, Simcha Rothman, a fellow religious Zionist, made similar comments on Sunday, claiming that if a hotel wants to refuse service to gay people on religious grounds, it is entitled to do so.

“An entrepreneur can do whatever he wants in his business. He started the business and doesn’t owe anyone anything,” Rothman told Kan.

“The law states that a company cannot discriminate on a wide range of grounds. This bill [proposed by his party] does not seek to abolish the general ban on discrimination, but says it is permissible for someone to refuse service if there is a religious impediment to doing something – rather than forcing them to do something contrary to their beliefs,” said Rothman.

When asked if a Jew was permitted to refuse service to Arabs because 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 in place to determine whether or not the conscientious objection was based on a legitimate religious belief.

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

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

Labor MP Gilad Kariv tweeted: “We should not be surprised by Orit Struck’s racist remarks. It’s their life lesson. In the face of these shameful and dangerous comments, we should be outraged at the indifference of the Likud MKs.”

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

“We’ve seen times when there were ‘no entry for Jews’ signs and now we see these laws that say business owners can choose who they want to sell to. There will be grocery stores that say, “No entry for women,” and tomorrow there will be another that says, “No entry for Arabs,” predicted Ben Barak.

Ha gay, cHairman of the Israel Medical Association, insisted that “doctors in Israel are bound by the oath of the doctor and will not allow any person or law to change that 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 where Jews and Arabs work shoulder to shoulder, with the value of equality being a guiding principle for them,” Hagay tweeted.

“The oath of the Hebrew physician expressly says: ‘You shall help a sick person, since he is sick, whether foreigner or non-Jew, and whether citizen, despicable or honorable.’ And in the prayer of the doctors of Maimonides it says: “Only in the sick do I want to see the human”. It has always been like that and it will always be like that.”

The chair of the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, Hila Peer, also condemned the comments, calling them and the proposed law “un-Jewish” and shameful.

“MKs Strock and Rothman want to recognize LGBT people so we stay in our homes like in the dark days of humanity. We will not agree to that in any way,” Peer said, urging Netanyahu to oppose such legislation.

Responding to the criticism, Struck said: “Nobody intends to discriminate against LGBT people based on their identity or their identification. Not in medical treatment or otherwise. LGBT people are people who deserve respect and love like everyone else.”

However, she insisted that if there is “medical treatment that violates Jewish law, a religiously practicing physician will not be compelled to administer it, regardless of the patient’s identity.”

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