Kosher food in Israel is an $800 million racket of corruption - opinion

The direct cost of corrupt kashrut services is very high and burdens the economy with about $800 million, as well as raising the cost of almost all goods to our families, rich and poor.

 Kashrut certificates outside a restaurant in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kashrut certificates outside a restaurant in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

My first engagement with kashrut in Israel came 70 years ago, in 1953. I had grown up in a kosher home in Toronto and was observant. With marriage, there never was a question about whether we would keep kosher. Obviously, we would have two sets of dishes, buy kosher meat, and check at the super for non-kosher ingredients. The familiar OU symbol was still in its adolescence, and we knew nothing of it in our circles in Toronto.

When I was in my adolescence, the kosher certificate given by our circles, founded by two great Eastern European immigrants, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, followed by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, was challenged by Rabbi Abraham Price. Suddenly the Orthodox community was divided by those who ate only from one set of butchers with a certificate from Rabbi Kamenetzky, and others who ate only from Rabbi Price’s certified butchers.

At the time, I did not understand what must have been the underlying reason, which will become obvious as I write. But subconsciously, it must have influenced my attitude towards kosher certification in Israel.

Back to 1953, or maybe 1954, I had never tasted hummus, which was still considered a “Sephardi” dish. Our Ashkenazi palate still reigned supreme in our religious kibbutz, and later in our kosher Jerusalem household. A colleague one day said, “You never tasted hummus? Come!” And around the corner, we went to eat at the now-defunct Shemesh restaurant on Ben-Yehuda Street. I asked the owner, the slight, short, swift-moving Yehezkel Shemesh, a swarthy son of a Persian immigrant, if his restaurant was kosher. “Yes,” he said. Fine. I did not search for a certificate and got hooked on hummus and tehina and became an ardent admirer of what we then called “Oriental food.”

One day, a few years later, when I wanted to introduce my super-Ashkenazi friends to this unusual menu, I realized that they would eat only where there was a rabbinic kosher certificate. I told this to Yehezkel, with whom I had already become a family friend. 

 A kashruit supervisor checks chickens during the freezing process. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
A kashruit supervisor checks chickens during the freezing process. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

He said, “Look, I can’t afford a certificate. My certificate is there,” he said, pointing to the last table near the door, against the wall. There sat a small, swarthy man wearing a felt fedora. “That is my father. Do you think I would serve him treif [non-kosher food]?”

How did kashrut in Israel become a corrupt business?

The penny dropped in my naive respect for religious practice. It never occurred to me that you had to pay for kashrut. Why do we pay rabbis, if not to do this?

Then I slowly became aware of different types of certificates. This rabbinate and this “Righteous Court” (Badatz, short for Beit Bin Tzedek). I discovered that often the same kashrut supervisor worked for two or three Righteous Courts, as well as the local rabbinate. At that point, I recalled the old Yiddish joke, quoted in a recent issue of The Jerusalem Report on Israeli humor. It goes like this:

A man enters a restaurant, sees the proprietor behind the counter, and asks, “Is this place kosher?” The reply: ”Of course it is; don’t you see the portrait of the Gaon of Vilna hanging on the wall?” The questioner: “If you were hanging and he were cooking, I’d have no problem.”

I said to myself, “A pox on all your houses. You issued the certificate. If the kashrut is at fault, it’s you who will hang.” Thus I ate, regardless of whatever rabbi signed or issued the kosher certificate. 

By then, I realized that kashrut was big business. Actually, for some, being a rabbi is big business. The personal payments for conducting weddings; and for the more prestigious, the overseas parents who want to show that chief rabbi this-and-that flew in specially to conduct their “lucky” child’s marriage. And kosher certification nationally employs hundreds (or thousands?) of “supervisors,” involving whopping budgets and ensuring their votes and that of their dependents.

But finally, something the Jerusalem Rabbinate dared do that had never been done before. It created three levels of kashrut. It is this that I totally fail to understand. As you will see, three levels of kashrut obviously means that the supervisors checking on butcher shops or restaurants that are on the lowest level (Jerusalem Rabbinate) or the second-level mehudar (“beautified” or “enhanced”) will more than likely not eat of their own supervision. They and the rabbis who employ them will – I am sure – eat only mehadrin (“most beautiful” or “most careful”). Furthermore, to add insult to insult, the kashrut authority in Jerusalem includes in its top category, Badatz (Haredi-ultra-Orthodox supervision by various ultra organizations and/or rabbis). That may mean that the Jerusalem rabbis running their own kashrut operation may eat only Badatz. If these rabbis do not trust their own supervision, why should I?

To add insult to insult to insult: As I understood it, when we were still meat eaters, all kosher slaughtering (shehita) in Jerusalem was according to the Sephardi Beit Yosef standard.  In Ashkenazi jargon,  glatt means “smooth” – that is, there is no part of the slaughtered animal that needs double-checking. Now the Jerusalem Rabbinate level one permits meat that may have required checking.

I grew up with Ashkenazi kashrut in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles, so that I do not see that as my problem. But there may be others who do. And anyway, my wife and I do not eat meat. 

Another difference is the amount of time each level provides for its supervisors to spend on the spot. Each level –  its half-hours or hours and how many days a week.

Now, if there are errors in the above, do not blame the writer. I called the Jerusalem kashrut telephone number three days running and left a message. (No living human voice answered, only a recording.) 

In desperation, I sent an email. As they say in Yiddish, toyt shtum, dead silence. Am I annoyed? Damn right. I am paying through the nose for this service.

As far as I can find out, the direct cost of all these services is very high and burdens the economy with about $800 million, as well as raising the cost of almost all goods to our families, rich and poor. I have seen kosher for Passover certificates on bottled water, salt, and coffee. If that is not overkill and an unnecessary charge, then perhaps I have misunderstood what I have been taught.

That this is a monopoly is attested to by the law permitting only the Chief Rabbinate to have control over the term “kosher.” At this moment, there is a case before the Supreme Court over that issue. Religious Zionist rabbis have rebelled against the monopoly and are providing supervision by their kashrut organization called Tzohar. The organization is not allowed to use the word “kosher.” The black-hatted and black-hearted “Official” (Chief) Rabbinate is now being challenged in what may be a landmark court case.

That there is corruption (taking bribes for kosher certificates) and hypocrisy rampant in the ranks of the kashrut controllers is a known fact, having reached police investigation and guilty sentences.

The public should know about this. And under the present “everything is for sale as long as we are in power” government, there can be no change. Netanyahu has sold even more to the ultra-Orthodox. Another reason to hope that this retrograde gang falls soon.

When I was a child, I loved cowboy movies. The “bad guys” always wore black hats. Now, I know that not all black hats in Israel cover corruption and hypocrisy, but Lord Acton was right: “Power tends to corrupt.” 

Our sages warned against power in Avot 1:8. The great sage Shmaya, who lived in the first century BCE, said, “Love work, loath mastery over others, and stay away from the government.” 

The words “mastery over others” I would translate as “power,” but the actual Hebrew word is rabbanut. For centuries, that word has been translated as “rabbinate.” Perhaps one day, all rabbis will practice what they preach. Till then, I am afraid that the burden of proof is on those who don’t. The “bad guys.” 

A few words about my last column, “Faces and facets of Yiddish humor.“ Two faithful readers, Dr. Mayer Bassan and Daniel Avihai-Kremer, both corrected me about the Sputnink and cosmonauts. The former wrote:” Sputnik in 1957 was just a satellite, and a very small one, with no cosmonauts. The first cosmonaut was Yuri Gagarin in 1961.” 

Daniel, who is one of my three sons-in-law, reminded me that the Soviets sent a dog name Laika into space in 1959. I suppose that was to reassure the future cosmonaut that a living creature could survive space travel.

As you can see, I appreciate corrections and am girding myself for abuse by the kashrut racketeers. All for the sake of Heaven, of course! ■

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