Monday, February 26, 2018

Keeping Kosher in Israel

OU Mashgiach (supervisor) - for illustrative purposes only (Jerusalem Post)
One of my first encounters with the religious politics in Israel was in the field of Kosher food supervision. It became apparent very quickly that many of the more religious Jews did not trust the supervision of the Rabbanut (the Israeli Chief Rabbinate).

Food establishments that had only a Rabbanut certificate were to be avoided. To the best of my knowledge this is still the case. In fact, many Charedim do not even trust the extra supervision of Rabbanut Mehadrin – which used to be acceptable until politics got in the way.  

Among Charedim, there are few Kashrus agencies that are considered trustworthy in Israel. Fortunately for them, the largest one in Israel by far is the Eida HaCharedis. They are considered to be the most reliable of all - and the most widely used by food processors and purveyors in Israel.

I am not here to judge the reliability of the Rabbanut Hechsher. But I find it ironic that two religious ‘rivals’ have similar views about the reliability of that Hechsher. The newly formed Tzohar organization doesn’t trust them either.

Last Fall, when I met with representatives of Tzohar, I was given an example of the kinds of Kashrus problems Rabbanut supervision has. They were told by a Rabbanut certified restaurant owner that there was had been no supervision at all of his restaurant. The Mashgiach (supervisor) simply asked for a bribe in the form of some of their raw product (a steady supply of chickens if I recall correctly) and that would suffice for his approval!

That is the height of corruption in the Kashrus business. I don’t know how widespread this kind of corruption is, but I suspect that this was not the only instance of it. Which makes it very understandable why they are not trusted. 

One would think that such a mutual distrust would result in a joint effort to improve or upgrade Rabbanut standards. Short of that one might expect agreement about establishing a new Kashrus licensing agency that is trustworthy. But neither of those two things are happening.

Starting a new Kashrus licensing agency seems like a good idea that should be universally supported. That is what Tzohar has done by forming Hashgacha Pratit. But that is far from the case. Charedim are clearly upset by Tzohar’s initiative and are fighting it. Although according to a Jerusalem Post article they have lost the fight.

I am not someone that automatically suspects nefarious motives on the part of the Rabbanut. I don’t think it is purely a desire to retain power and maintain monopolistic control of the Kashrus industry for no good reason.

So why are they upset? I believe it is because by allowing a rival Kashrus licensing agency to operate - it opens up the flood gates for a plethora of unregulated Kashrus agencies to open up.  Agencies that may not be as scrupulous as Tzohar... or even as the Rabbanut! It would be like having a rival organization to the FDA in America.

As it stood until now, any Kashrus agency that wanted to do business in Israel needed approval from the Rabbanut and was then licensed only by them... including the Eida HaCharedis. Hashgacha Pratit is seen as the slippery slope that will end any chance at establishing universal licensing standards causing a free-for-all in Kashrus.  

The obvious counter to that is that any standards the Rabbanut may have currently - are too easily observed in the breach! But as noted, I get why the Charedi world is so concerned. Sure, they want full power to be retained by the Rabbanut. But for the altruistic fear of the deteriorating Kashrus situation in Israel that might result.

I agree that is far more preferable for there to be only one agency that has control much the same way the FDA has control in America. But only if that agency is ethical and has a history on reliable Kashrus supervision. The Charedi world that is defending the Rabbanut are the same ones that trust their Kashrus the least! What will they gain if they are not trusted anyway?!

I would have preferred that instead of a new agency being created by Tzohar, that the Rabbanut instead  got its own act together. That they upgraded their standards and practices and became more reliable. Starting with a thorough internal investigation; finding the corruption and ousting their corrupt Mashgiachim.  But that is not and it seems never has never been the case. Of what value is the Rabbanut Hechsher is to anyone now?!

I have mixed feelings about all this. I don’t like the animus that exists between religious factions that ought to be natural allies. I would rather see cooperation towards the same goal. I realize that Tzohar is more than about Kashrus. But at least in this one area – cooperation would serve us all well. I would love to see the day when I can walk into a restaurant in Israel, see a  Kashrus certificate, and then sit down and eat without wondering about the reliability of the Hechsher. Unfortunately, that has never been the case in Israel. And it appears it never will be.