The pork debate: religion in Israeli politics

The argument of separation between synagogue and state is gaining surprising notoriety over the white steak.

Abused pigs in galilee raid 370 (photo credit: Rinat Koris-Rahamim)
Abused pigs in galilee raid 370
(photo credit: Rinat Koris-Rahamim)
Haaretz publishes a pork recipe, sparking an outcry of complaints. Dr. Eli Landau publishes Israel’s first pork cookbook and is met with widely divergent reactions ranging from excitement to hostility. Arsonists attack pork shops in Netanya and Safed. These incidents are but small microcosms of the tensions that have erupted between Orthodox and secular Israelis over the role pork should play in Israeli society. The influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990’s created a large new market of pork eaters, reigniting debate about how the Israeli government should balance the concerns of its religious and secular populations.
Theodor Herzl wrote in “Der Judenstat” (the Jewish State), “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks,” calling for separation of synagogue and state. On the other hand, a religious philosopher claims President Ben-Gurion told him “I will never agree to the separation of religion from the State. I want the State to hold religion in the palm of its hand.” The discrepancy between the two views of the State is still unresolved. Ultimately, the question remains: how can the concerns of the religious and the secular be reconciled into a compromise?
One such compromise was made by Israel’s first president David Ben-Gurion, a man so secular that he once admitted to eating a ham sandwich. Ben-Gurion saw a value in maintaining tradition and appeasing the religious members of society. He acknowledged religious demands in regards to marriage, conversion, and divorce. He promised Kashrut in government institutions, and claimed the Sabbath as the national day of rest. Perhaps the most controversial provision of the compromise was granting control of Israel’s Jewish marriage and divorce to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which has resulted in a system which only Orthodox rabbis can perform marriages, despite the fact that only a third of Israelis identify as Orthodox.
Still, the most potent symbol of the religious divide in Israeli society is pork. In the summer of 1962, the Knesset passed a ban on pork production limiting pig breeding to majority Christian areas in the north. Currently, there are other restrictions on pork, such as laws prohibiting the importation of non-kosher meat into Israel, and municipal taxes on restaurants selling pork. But a demand for pork remains high. About 150,000 pigs are raised every year by 30 pig breeding farms. Pork is sold in some restaurants and supermarkets, often to Russian immigrants who come mostly from secular backgrounds.
The religious have valid historical reasons for caring about the role pork plays in a Jewish state. Historically, non-Jews would force Jews to eat pork as a method of oppression and humiliation. The ancient Greeks forced Jews to eat pork during a conquest of Jerusalem in 167 BC, as did the Spanish during the Inquisition in the 15th century. For their oppressors, the Jews violating their religious notion of purity was symbolic of them abandoning their religious identities; a Jew eating pork was a Jew who had lost his will to fight. The Orthodox feel it would be a betrayal of Jewish history to allow pork eating in a Jewish nation. It is not only the religious who see pork as an important Jewish symbol. Secular poet Natan Alterman wrote, “When a Jewish nation makes a pig a sine qua non, its history shudders.” Just as the secular Ben-Gurion recognized the validity of some religious demands, secular Jews might do well to examine the motivations of leaders calling for increased restrictions on pork.
On the other hand, many secular Jews point to the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a guarantor of religious freedom. The Supreme Court has sometimes intervened to protect this right; Justice Moshe Landau said, “Freedom of conscience and worship is one of the individual's liberties assured in every enlightened democratic regime.” Government intervention in religion has led to harsh criticism of the country itself; Meretz Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz went so far as to say, “Israel is the only democracy in the world where Jews don’t have freedom of religion.” The Orthodox would do well to examine the secular concern for individual rights and liberties when making their calls for further government intervention in religion.
Ultimately, any compromise between the two parties must both protect the fundamental right of free religious expression and respect the national narrative and history of the Jewish people. A fair agreement can be reached only if the secular and Orthodox populations attempt to see the motivations behind the other side’s view. We should not give up on trying to bring the two sides together; if a ham eater can compromise with ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, a mutually beneficial agreement is possible today.