(photo credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)
‘They’re lucky that I’m honest,” my friend declared, “because I could have made a fortune cheating.” And thus I first learned about the unholy regime of kashrut in the Holy Land.
My friend owned a large catering plant which supplied kosher meals for the foreign airlines serving Israel and which served the subsidized cafeteria meals in many of our largest industrial plants. He does not keep kosher, but his business supplied only kosher food. As he explained the system to me, the mashgiach or kashrut supervisor came to “supervise” his establishment only once a month – the day the check for his services was ready for delivery.
Many times, this caterer was approached by meat and other product suppliers suggesting steep price reductions by substituting non-certified goods for part of his order. My friend could easily have included a percentage of non-kosher products, lowering his costs and passing the savings directly to pocket, for the mashgiach “did not know what was flying” and “could care less – so long as he got his check on time.”
My friend’s integrity would not allow him to deceive those relying on his representation that the food he provided was kosher. These customers were the “lucky” ones. For he, himself, did not observe kashrut but he nevertheless cared more about those who did than the mashgiach entrusted with this responsibility. My friend resisted the temptation to make a lot of money by taking advantage of the ritually observant but morally derelict mashgiach who obviously had no genuine loyalty to the laws of kashrut or to the ritual fidelity of Jews. The mashgiach was there to cash his check.
This anecdotal testimony may reflect more than an isolated incident.
As cited in a report soon to be issued by the Institute for Zionist Strategies in cooperation with “Hashgacha Elyona,” 80 percent of those surveyed by Hitorerut Yerushalayim party of Jerusalem’s city council reported that the mashgiach assigned to their establishment either never showed up (14%), did nothing (25%), or performed only partially (41%).
The IZS report surveys the performance of the present system and gives it failing marks. It concludes that the problems stem from the monopoly that the local rabbi has been granted on kashrut. No merchant of any kind can claim to offer kosher food unless it is certified as kosher by the local rabbi. Even if he obtained certification by some super-strict authority (one of the 30-40 “badatz” certifications floating around), without the imprimatur of the Chief Rabbinate (delegated to the local rabbi), the food offered for sale cannot be labeled, described, or sold as kosher. If the local rabbi does not want to give you a certificate you are not kosher.
And if your business needs to be kosher, you are out of luck.
Such an absolute monopoly breeds severe problems, for too much money is at stake. And as Lord Acton taught, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Thus, the study cites documented incidents where certification is denied unless relatives are hired or unless the merchant agrees to pay an additional fee for a particular badatz certification or unless he agrees that he will use only the rabbinate certification and will not use any badatz certification.
Unlike my friend’s testimony and despite the teachings of Lord Acton, the IZS report assumes that most of these all-powerful rabbis do not maliciously abuse the system: rather, the system simply follows its own course toward bureaucratic abuse. The indictment is not corruption but callousness instead of sensitivity, imperiousness in place of commitment, and smugness rather than the drive to improve. It is business as usual: What was, is, and what is, will continue to be.
The IZS study analyzes the extensive kosher certification system in the US, which is built on a far different model than ours, and concludes that the system there works well on an absolute scale and certainly, far, far better than our own. The main difference is that the US model is based on competition whereas the Israeli model is rooted in absolute monopoly with a strong tinge of condescension.
There, different certification organizations vigorously compete with each other. Success is achieved by those who earn reputations of reliability, consistency and service.
Moreover, since the larger (more successful) certifying bodies work with the industrial food processors while the more local certifying bodies specialize in the smaller merchants and restaurants, the different organizations are required to cooperate with each other to the benefit of all. Competition surprisingly brings cooperation because reputation for service reigns supreme.
The Israeli regime of kashrut is respected by almost no one. Not those who most rigorously observe kashrut, not those who seek certification for business reasons, not those who cannot afford the excessive fees or “the politics of kashrut,” and most of all, not by the public ostensibly served. The kashrut system in Israel gives kashrut a tawdry image, halacha a bad rap and the public good a black eye. It’s time for a change. It was time decades ago.
The IZS report recommends the competitive model for kashrut certification.
In addition to the local rabbi, other rabbinic authorities would be authorized to give certification within each jurisdiction.
The recommended reform provides for rigorous halachic safeguards, close but efficient administrative supervision, and easily understood and readily available procedures for appeals and complaints. Most importantly the recommendations call for continuous and systematic monitoring of what is actually happening on the ground and how the broad public and the certified businesses are being treated day to day.
The subject recommendations can be supplemented, amended or replaced. But there must be a broad public dialogue and open deliberation leading to fundamental change. The present system has been criticized by commissions, committees and reports over decades. It is an abject failure. Its inherent design is defective and demonstratively flawed. It is doomed to extinction because it cannot be fixed. The reform will be welcomed by all those genuinely interested in kashrut.
The author is an attorney in Israel and the US, and is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.