Just a few months ago, it seemed that the Chief Rabbinate had acquiesced to Hiddush’s demands and given up extorting submission to its religious edicts which have nothing to do with the kashrut of food, just as Israeli law requires of them. Now it turns out that even during this year’s Christmas, Israeli hotels continued to fear retaliation by the rabbinate and removal of their kashrut certifications should they dare place Christmas trees in their lobbies (or even in a privately reserved halls) to honor visiting groups of Christian pilgrims.
The rabbinate had already turned trampling on rule of law into standard policy, but now it broke all records by violating and making a mockery of its own kashrut regulations, which had been revised in keeping with instructions by the attorney general.
The continued abuse of authority by the rabbinate clearly irks the tourism industry, and causes harm to Israel’s hotels. For instance, Arie Sommer, CEO of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, renounces this discrimination against other faiths in Jerusalem’s hotels.
“Jerusalem is a holy city [for Jews], but it is also sacred to Muslims and Christians. When I travel abroad, I see a lot of places with a menorah next to a Christmas tree, showing respect for my religion, but here [in Jerusalem] we do not respect our guests’ religions. I hope there will be a change so that our guests, particularly Christians, will feel at home.”
There is clearly no connection between the kashrut status of food and Christmas decorations, but the anti-Christian discrimination continues. Noaz Bar Nir, CEO of the national hotel industry, Israel Hotel Association, explained, “There are [official] regulations published by the Chief Rabbinate, which reject the link between kashrut and displaying Christian symbols, but the local city rabbinates are not subject to the Chief Rabbinate, and do as they please.”
According to Bar Nir, local rabbinates threaten hotels with revocation of their kashrut certificates.
“They have tremendous power, and they exploit it,” he said. “Christian symbols, Shabbat restrictions, etc. In some places, if a family wants to play music in a private room, it is permitted, but many local rabbinates forbid [even] this.”
An investigative article on the subject [published by Walla] revealed that these claims were confirmed by a source within the Chief Rabbinate, who stated that local city rabbinates do not necessarily abide by the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations.
“Jerusalem’s...rabbinate, for example, is very strong and does what it wants in regard to kashrut procedures,” the official said. Another senior official, who works at the Jerusalem rabbinate, explained on condition of anonymity that “generally, [employees of] the [Jerusalem] rabbinate are instructed to obey the law, but in practice, if somebody ‘turns the place Christian,’ the rabbinate will find fault with the hotel’s kashrut certificate.”
Multiple hotels throughout Israel were contacted and asked for private halls for festive Christmas Eve holiday meals for a group of Christian students who were supposedly visiting from abroad. The Prima Kings Hotel in Jerusalem rejected the request, saying: “Christmas dinner? Not here. A meal is fine, but without [Christian] symbols.”
The Leonardo City Tower in Ramat Gan was asked about putting up a Christmas tree in a private hotel room. The receptionist responded that she had spoken with the hotel manager, and was told that the rabbinate would have a problem with this.
“It’s not the kashrut supervisor, it’s the rabbinate,” she explained. “The supervisor [only] works for them. They will make trouble [for us].”
When asked about the connection between kashrut and Christmas trees, the receptionist responded that “our clientele are tourists, but our problem is specifically with the fir tree.”
The receptionist at the Ruth Rimonim hotel said, “This is problematic, you know, this is Safed...We’re a kosher hotel, we cannot. There is no such thing as a Christmas tree [here].” When pushed to explain, the hotel employee answered, “It’s the rabbinate.”
At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, when asked about putting up a Christmas tree at a private event, the receptionist responded, “This hotel has a religious character...We have guests here who are religious [Jews]. The hotel has a rabbi, and he does not approve of such things, not even for New Year’s parties, for the same reason.”
These examples of religious bullying by representatives of the rabbinate are prohibited by Israeli law, which grant the rabbinate a monopoly over kashrut certification, but limits its discretion to considerations involving the food alone. This was explicitly ruled by the Supreme Court. The situation is utterly intolerable and unacceptable – if local rabbinates are free to disregard the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations, let alone disregard Israeli law, whose Chief Rabbinate is it, exactly? Is it all a show, and fraudulent claim of higher religious authority, when in effect every local rabbinate can do as it pleases? What do we need the Chief Rabbinate for, then? Shouldn’t Israelis finally be informed of the truth that there is really no “universal” Halacha of kashrut, nor even an agreement as to what is kosher in the State of Israel itself? And if so – isn’t it high time to do away with these wasteful and anachronistic institutions, and leave religion to voluntary choice and association? Most of Israel’s established rabbinate, including the Chief Rabbinate, represents a fundamentalist and extreme ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism, which is motivated by its rejection of and resentment of other faiths, particularly of Christianity. Hiddush is now in the process of pursuing this further, realizing the difficult situation hotels find themselves in, fearing to stand up against the rabbinate’s illegal policy and fight for their rights to receive kashrut certification, as mandated by Israeli law, free of irrelevant, discriminatory considerations.
The ban on placing Christmas trees in hotels is but one example of the many ways that the rabbinate disregards the law and extorts submission to its norms in breach of the law. The review Hiddush conducted exposed many examples of the rabbinate continuing to require compliance with restrictions on music, photography, etc. on Shabbat, threatening to revoke the food kashrut certification should these restrictions not be met. Hiddush is taking up these blatant violations of the law with the attorney general, demanding stricter enforcement of the law, lest the rabbinate be tacitly allowed to establish its own state within a state, above the rule of law.
Whether the responsibility for these violations of Israeli law and court precedents lies with the Chief Rabbinate or with local rabbinates, those who choose to deviate from Israel’s civil law, which regulates their authority, should be charged with criminal and disciplinary offenses. Otherwise, they will simply continue disregarding the law. While the ban on Christmas trees in hotels does not affect the majority of Israel’s residents, it receives a lot of international publicity, and damages Israel’s already problematic image. The rabbinate’s policy sends an aggressive and condescending message to those of the Christian faith. It’s hard to understand how religious Jews, who are intimately aware of the history of religious persecution suffered by Jews in exile, have come to the conclusion that when they hold the power, they should punish Christians and attempt to suppress symbols of their sacred holidays.
Once again, Chief Rabbi David Lau’s hypocrisy is abundantly apparent, for he personally preached to the pope about how committedly and thoroughly Israel protects religious freedoms for everyone – but he himself perpetuates a humiliating and offensive system, which discriminates against Christianity and its symbols.
The State of Israel must, at least, do away with the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut certification. The kashrut market must be opened to competition, and the state should serve as a regulatory and supervisory authority in order to prevent fraud, rather than as the sole authority responsible for granting kashrut certification for food, which has led to endless corruption, abuse of authority, and religious coercion.The author is a rabbi and heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, a trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.