In a dramatic boost to the Chief Rabbinate’s power to police Israelis’ religious observance, last month the state religious body was granted the power to file criminal and misdemeanor indictments against Israeli restaurateurs and caterers who claim to serve kosher food but are not supervised by state kashrut officials.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who oversees the state prosecution system, decided last month to allow the rabbinate to file indictments independent of the state prosecution.
The new power is similar to that granted to some 20 other government regulatory agencies, from the Tax Authority to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Environment Police, who may launch criminal proceedings against violators of laws whose enforcement lies under their purview.
Under laws advanced in recent years by Haredi political parties, the Israeli rabbinate has long had a monopoly in Israel over the term “kosher.” It is illegal to use the term — which designates a food as permitted for eating under Jewish ritual law — without the rabbinate’s approval.
Critics have long contended that the rabbinate’s kashrut supervision system is poorly managed and riddled with corruption and kickbacks, and constitutes a bottleneck that helps drive up the cost of food.
Many opponents of the rabbinate’s monopoly, from liberal Jewish streams to some Israeli municipal rabbis, have also argued that the ritual status of food is a religious matter over which different traditions may disagree, and that the rabbinate’s control over the very term “kosher” in the Israeli public space therefore amounted to religious oppression by the state.
Several private kashrut initiatives, modeled on private American kashrut supervision systems like the Orthodox Union’s and others, were founded in Israel over the years, but have struggled to survive under laws that define their efforts as illegal.
The rabbinate has argued a food item’s ritual standing is an objective and knowable attribute, and its monopoly on kashrut is therefore necessary to protect kosher-eating consumers from fraud. But rabbinate officials have long complained about their inability to enforce their legal monopoly given the lack of cooperation from state law enforcement bodies.
According to the Haaretz daily, over the past six years about 180 business owners each year have refused to pay rabbinate fines over allegedly inaccurate kashrut claims, and instead asked to argue their case in court. Over 1,000 businesses are fined each year by the rabbinate for alleged kashrut violations.
But the state prosecution has failed to submit a single indictment over that period, a lacuna that has meant businesses have been able to skirt the rabbinate’s enforcement.
A rabbinate official told Haaretz that Mandelblit’s decision to let the rabbinate file indictments was made “because of issues of priorities and manpower” in the state prosecution, “which decided not to deal with these cases anymore.”
The unnamed official complained that the prosecution’s foot-dragging has meant that people who were slapped with fines could demand a court date instead, knowing “nothing would happen.”
The new policy means that dozens of misdemeanor indictments are set to be filed against businessowners, including those who use private non-state kashrut supervision, for violating the country’s Kashrut Fraud Law. The law office of attorney Ahmad Masalha, which won a rabbinate tender for the job, will file the indictments in the coming weeks. Rabbinate officials will serve as state prosecutors in the cases.
The rabbinate said Wednesday its new enforcement powers “will strengthen the rabbinate’s enforcement system and its ability to deal with kashrut violations and fraud, for the benefit of kashrut consumers.”