Shas head: Plan aims to 'crush' Israel's Jewish identity

Religious affairs minister seeks to reform kosher certification, irking Haredim

New plan would create private agencies, overseen by the Chief Rabbinate, to provide certifications to businesses in each city

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Ultra-Orthodox representatives of the Chief Rabbinate cross Jaffa Road in Jerusalem as they deliver a kosher certificate to a local restaurant, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox representatives of the Chief Rabbinate cross Jaffa Road in Jerusalem as they deliver a kosher certificate to a local restaurant, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana unveiled on Tuesday a plan to overhaul Israel’s kosher certification industry, sparking backlash from the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.

“The kashrut system of the State of Israel needs to be significantly streamlined,” said Kahana in a video announcing the proposed reforms. “The revolution I am leading will strengthen the Chief Rabbinate and create competition that will improve kashrut, as well as lower the price of kosher certification for businesses.”

Then plan released by Kahana would establish a series of private kosher certification agencies that will be required to uphold religious standards established by the Chief Rabbinate.

The private agencies will be authorized to issue certifications that note they are “under the supervision of the Rabbinate.” Each agency is expected to be headed by a rabbi who is certified by the city’s local rabbinate. The agencies — which will also need to demonstrate financial viability — will make public the religious standards they are maintaining in their certification.

The proposed plan would also see the creation of an overarching supervisory body of the Chief Rabbinate to monitor the private agencies and ensure they uphold the standards they have promised to meet.

According to the plan, however, if an agency wants to issue a certificate with a lower level of kashrut than the Chief Rabbinate, it can do so with the approval of three city rabbinate-approved rabbis, and issue a different certification — including one that can be given to restaurants open on Shabbat.

“The current kashrut system is plagued by problems with quality, uneven standards, poor employment conditions for supervisors, problematic supervision and varying levels of competency,” said Kahana.

The minister referenced a tragedy several months ago, during which a 23-year-old with severe dairy allergies died after ordering dessert at a kosher meat restaurant in Rosh Pina, which had allegedly mistakenly purchased dairy whipped cream after running out.

Newly appointed Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana at his ministry in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The citizens of Israel deserve better kashrut,” Kahana added, saying his plan will allow businesses to choose between competing kosher certification agencies, leading to lower prices, and “will be great news for the kosher-keeping community.”

The Chief Rabbinate has long resisted any reforms to its monopoly over kosher certification in Israel, and has sought to quash private competing agencies.

In 2018, the religious-Zionist Tzohar organization launched its own private kosher certification agency, months after a Supreme Court ruling paved the way for kosher competition. That ruling allowed kosher agencies to issue certifications to private businesses, as long as the certificates did not use the word “kosher.” More and more eateries have adopted the private agency’s services over the past three years, bearing certificates with the word “Tzohar,” but not “kosher.”

The Chief Rabbinate itself issued a statement rejecting Kahana’s new plan, calling it “a dangerous initiative to destroy kashrut in Israel.” According to the rabbinate, the proposal “would mean the end of kashrut in the state and the creation of a ‘bazaar’ of groups with impure motives that will begin handing out certification.”

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein (L), Rabbi Dr. Moshe Be’eri (C) and Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurant Association, at a press conference on the establishment of a new kashrut system in Tel Aviv, on February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

Several Haredi lawmakers also reacted in anger to Kahana’s proposal.

United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni told the Kan public broadcaster that the proposal would “eliminate kashrut in Israel.” Gafni said that if the Religious Affairs Ministry “wanted to streamline the system, they should have done it in conjunction with the Rabbinical Council.”

Gafni said he believes that kosher certification in Israel should be nationally run: “I don’t think anyone will rely on this new system.”

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri slammed the proposal as creating “destruction and corruption.”

“There is no doubt that the main goal is to recognize Reform kosher certifying agencies,” claimed Deri on Army Radio. “There is no economic consideration in this process, only the creation of destruction and corruption.”

He added that the plan seeks to “crush the Jewish identity of the state.”

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