An organization that provides alternative kosher certification for restaurants that don’t want to use the ultra-Orthodox-controlled state rabbinate said the rabbinate is giving its customers unjustified fines in an attempt to scare them off.
In a statement Sunday, the Hashgacha Pratit kosher certification organization cited the example of the Hodu Haktana, or Little India, restaurant in Beersheba, which has received seven fines in the past month, five of them in a single day, for a total of NIS 8,000 ($2,300). In the past Hodu Haktana used the rabbinate certification but has since switched to Hashgacha Pratit.
The rabbinate has the power to fine establishments that do not have rabbinate-issued certification yet use the word “kosher” to describe their food.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a Jerusalem City Council member who founded Hashgacha Pratit, accused the rabbinate of putting pressure on restaurants that opt for alternative certification. Although the law mandates that the restaurants can’t display signs claiming to be kosher, they can inform customers that they are using an alternative certification and let patrons decide for themselves whether that’s sufficient.
“This is a sick obsession that’s destroying every remaining speck of proper administration in the Chief Rabbinate,” Leibowitz said. “This is exactly why the rabbinate lost the public’s trust.
“These aren’t fines, and we should stop referring to them as such,” he added. “This is extortion. It seems that the Chief Rabbinate is prepared to go to any lengths to keep its hands on the centers of power.”
Hashgacha Pratit was established as a friendlier alternative to the government-run rabbinate, which many view as corrupt and inefficient.
The Law Prohibiting Fraud in Kashrut states that “the owner of a food establishment may not present the establishment as kosher unless it was given a certificate of kashrut,” and that only official state or local rabbis may give such certificates.
However, in September the High Court of Justice ruled that Israeli restaurateurs are permitted to inform their clientele that they serve kosher food even if they do not have kashrut certification from the state rabbinate.
“The rabbinate decided to attack the restaurant,” Hodu Haktana’s owner, Hanoch Stamker, told Hadashot TV news. “The crime? Using the word ‘kosher’ more than three months ago.”
Although he noted that on the entrance sign to his eatery he had removed the word “kosher” from two places, on its website Little India still describes itself as kosher.
A spokesperson for Hasgacha Pratit told The Times of Israel that since the September High Court ruling, 11 of the 40 restaurants using its certification have been given either fines or warnings. Yet, if the restaurants challenge the fines in court, as is their right, the rabbinate invariably backs down and cancels them.
In a response given to Hadashot news, the rabbinate defended the fines, saying that Hodu Haktana was a serial offender in presenting itself as kosher.
“The business has a history of kashrut fraud and misleading the public, and despite the fines it received in the past, it continues to present itself as kosher on its website; hence the additional fines,” the rabbinate said. “The incident will be submitted for examination by the Rabbinate’s legal bureau and if it becomes clear that there was a fault in carrying out the enforcement, the matter will be corrected as needed.”