Middle East

Israel in food fight over kosher licensing

Arbes hummus restaurant
Image caption Non-kosher restaurants in Israel do not have to pay for the same licences as kosher venues

In the kitchens of the Ramat Rachel Hotel in Jerusalem, every leaf is washed meticulously, every grain of rice inspected for bugs and every cut of meat checked to ensure it complies with kashrut - Jewish dietary rules.

The man in charge of this is Yaakov Asulin. Every day he, along with at least two other supervisors, makes sure that the chefs and restaurant staff keep to meticulous standards when it comes to keeping kosher.

But he is not employed by the hotel. His boss instead is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the supreme religious body of Israel in charge of ruling over all religious matters including weddings and divorce.

"His job is very hard because he has to maintain all the workers and he has to check that everything is in place and on time and by the strict rules of kashrut," says Lannon Polon, the manager of Ramat Rachel Hotel.

"You can't mix cutlery, you can't mix certain products, of course we don't cook with milk and meat - most of the tourists, it's quite difficult for them.

"Most people in the world don't care, they eat meat and milk together and cheeseburger and ice-cream with steaks. We're conservative here."

What is "kosher"?

  • Kosher is the term used to describe food, and restaurants in which it is served, which adhere to Jewish dietary law
  • This includes the method of animal slaughter where it concerns meat, as well as how food is prepared, kitchens are kept and milk and meat products kept separated
  • In Israel, where there is a Jewish majority, restaurants do not have to be kosher by law, but they proliferate in Orthodox areas
  • Kosher restaurants (in Israel) can only be certified as such by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, though the cost of certification can be expensive

The hotel pays the supervisors directly and it costs the hotel around 23,000 Israeli shekels ($6,100; £4,600) a month to employ them.

While keeping kosher is a religious issue, it has also become a contentious economic and political concern in Israel, with some restaurateurs saying the religious authorities are exerting too much power over business.

Rabbi Aaron Lebowitz founded the Alternative Kosher Supervision Project. They also have inspectors but say they offer better service at a fraction of the cost.

Image caption Rabbi Aaron Lebowitz is challenging the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate

"Over the years in Israel, the monopoly that the Chief Rabbinate has, has bred corruption at worst and even at best there's no competition," he says.

"Because there's no competition, the quality of service, the quality of supervision and also the cost are not competitive and are not of high quality.

"If you want to prevent fraud, you don't do it by concentrating the power in the hands of one government agency," he says.

"If you want to prevent fraud, you do it by inspection and transparency and by allowing for competition in the field."

But his certification is only in 23 restaurants. Is that success?

"Change doesn't have to be top down, it can be bottom up," he says.

"In other words, the community can simply take back its autonomy and the things that are personal, the things that are belief- and religion-based, and if that becomes a movement then already the parliament and court will have to begin to accommodate what it is that the populace really want."

Uphill battle

But the Chief Rabbinate is convinced they are the only body who should be in charge.

"The Ministry of Health doesn't allow people who aren't qualified to give health services," argues Moshe Dagan, the Chief Executive of the Chief Rabbinate.

Image caption Kosher restaurants must display official certificates

"If somebody says 'I want to be an alternative to the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Transport', how would the state see it?

"You cannot privatise in fields given authority by the state. Otherwise, everybody might say 'I want to privatise institutions'."

Which is why any alternative kosher supervision system faces an uphill battle.

The High Court of Justice ruled earlier this year that no business is allowed to say their food is kosher without a certificate from the Chief Rabbinate - but for the customers of Arbes hummus restaurant, which is part of the Alternative Kosher Supervision Project, that does not matter.

"I know they [Chief Rabbinate] are taking a lot of money from them for the certification and I think this money is not going to the right place," says student Nitzan Ben Shaya, while enjoying a plate of hummus with friends.

Image caption Kosher food prepared in public places is checked by a special supervisors

"I think small business has to build its own certification and it's better for us and for Israeli economics.

"They're controlling the whole system and it's really hard for us - we are secular, we want to be Jewish how we want to be instead of them telling us how to act."

But for now, rules are rules and you can see that play out at the Mahane Yehuda market in the centre of Jerusalem.

All the food stalls and restaurants have certificates - the ones issued by the Chief Rabbinate have the word "Kosher" written on them.

Any alternative certificates have the word "Kosher" omitted.

All evidence of the deep divide over religion's role in public life in Israel.

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