Kosher Restaurant Revolt Brews in Jerusalem

Rebellion Grows Against Rabbinate's Certification Monopoly

Eatery Anger: Restaurateurs are fuming at the Israeli state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification.
courtesy of jerusalem movement
Eatery Anger: Restaurateurs are fuming at the Israeli state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 11, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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A restaurateurs’ rebellion is under way in Jerusalem.

A dozen eateries in the holy city are brazenly claiming kosher credentials without the state rabbinate’s say-so. They are shifting the perennial controversy over state and religion in Israel from well-worn subjects, like Orthodoxy’s monopoly over marriage and divorce, to the rights over this single word, kosher.

According to Israeli law, only businesses supervised by the state rabbinate can be described as kosher. But in a public nose thumbing at this stricture, in October a Jerusalem activist set up a Facebook page of “kosher but unsupervised” restaurants in the holy city.

The restaurants listed received prompt visits from the rabbinate, threatening them with fines — even though at their premises most of them call themselves kosher verbally only, not in writing. Amid this defiant mood, the Jerusalem Movement, a group that advocates for a more pluralistic city, resolved to run a full-fledged campaign to fight back. It launched the campaign at a high-profile party November 2 at one of the restaurants, attended by 150 people.

“You cannot have a franchise on a religious word,” said Asaf Ziderman, the Jerusalem Movement activist heading the campaign. His efforts have the support of an influential Orthodox rabbi, Aaron Leibowitz, head of the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva. Leibowitz has called the law “unjust.”

But Yehoshua Yishai, director of the rabbinate in Jerusalem, told the Forward that he considers the notion of a kosher claim without certification to be absurd. He said it is akin to skipping a service on a car and “say[ing] to the police: ‘Here, the car is checked, but I checked it myself.’”

The rebellion began in the summer, after a small Indian vegan restaurant in the city center, Ichikidana, objected to new limitations imposed by the local rabbinate on where it could source its produce. There have long been rumors of corruption in Israel’s kashrut establishment, and restaurant owner Lahava Silliman believed that the demand on her to patronize only a small number of suppliers was intended to give certain businesses favored by the rabbinate extra trade. “It was very transparent to me,” she said.


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