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On Kosher Laws at Least, Israel is a House Divided

June 21, 2004
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Winston Churchill famously described Britain and the United States as two nations divided by a common language. For Israel’s Jews, the country is a nation divided by a common religion.

It’s not only Orthodox hegemony over events such as weddings, conversions and burials that frustrate many secular Israelis, it’s the debate over the more prosaic matter of food.

The latest battle in the fight over Israel’s kosher laws resulted in a legal precedent that may forever change the policies and politics of pork, known euphemistically in Israel as “white meat.”

Earlier this month, the High Court of Justice suspended longstanding bans that three cities had placed on the sale of pork.

The panel of nine justices instructed the municipalities of Tiberias, Carmiel and Beit Shemesh to assess which of their neighborhoods are sufficiently secular to warrant the full-time operation of non-kosher butcher shops, which petitioners had demande! d.

“The court accepted that the opinion of the majority of people in each area should be taken into account,” Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Israel Radio. For pork, “that means no in religious neighborhoods, but yes in secular ones.”

That drew the disdain of religious groups that long have accused Poraz’s centrist Shinui Party, one of the petitioners of the High Court, of waging a secularist crusade for the soul of Israel.

“The High Court has driven a big nail into the coffin of the country’s Jewish character,” said Eli Yishai, head of Shas, an Orthodox party.

Despite the myths about non-kosher meats being confiscated from incoming passengers at Ben-Gurion Airport, or of a kibbutz that raises pigs in a sty built on stilts to avoid “tainting” the Holy Land, pork is not that hard to come by in Israel.

Boosted by the influx in the last decade and a half of a million immigrants from the Soviet Union, many of them secular Jews and some of them non-Jews, bu! tcher shops throughout Israel sell bacon, ham or spare ribs. The meat either is imported or quietly procured from Christian Arab slaughterers. Religious Muslims also do not consume pork products.

But importers who wanted to market pork in Israel on an industrial scale, and health and tax authorities who sought better regulation of non-kosher establishments, were not satisfied with the status quo, and they were behind petitions to the High Court.

Despite its landmark ruling, the court chose to emphasize reconciliation rather than revolution.

“We should all remember that communal living is not a matter of all or nothing,” Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote. “Communal living should be made manifest in mutual concessions that reflect coexistence in a diverse society.”

In response to the ruling, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, argued that tolerance should only go so far in a democracy — particularly one whose Jewish character is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and laws.

“Let us imagine that the majority in! this or that neighborhood pursue drug dealing,” Metzger said in a statement. “Would we allow it? Or perhaps there is another town, where most residents are Thai workers sustained by the flesh of dogs and cats they killed. Can anyone conceive of this ‘majority opinion’ making it permissible?”

The chief rabbi added an appeal to the memory of Israelis’ ancestors.

“A people whose war of independence in Hasmonean times stemmed from a rejection of pork eating, and which endured no little suffering over 2,000 years for not yielding to those who wanted to force them to eat pork, must honor this ancient custom and a Hebrew city must forbid the selling of pork within its boundaries.”

In principle, such a ban still could be instituted, should the town councils of Tiberias, Carmiel or Beit Shemesh decide to implement one.

The High Court ruling allows for municipal bylaws to change over time. Given the natural growth rate of religious communities, even neighborhoods wit! h authorized non-kosher butchers eventually could find themselves outn umbered and forced to close down shops that sell pork.

Deliberations in Tiberias, Carmiel and Beit Shemesh will be watched closely by other Israeli cities with mixed secular-religious communities.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the primacy of local politics over the Jewish state’s national character.

Ashdod Mayor Zvi Zilker told Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, “The High Court ruling has thrust us into a completely needless mess. Instead of deciding on the matter, it rolled this hot potato back at us.”

In Ashkelon, 30 percent of residents are natives of the former Soviet Union, and for the most part they have gotten along well with the veteran Israelis there.

“I do not anticipate that we will be going from house to house, finding out who supports the ruling and who does not,” Zilker said. “Therefore, we will just keep up the current situation, where each community respects the other.”

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