Will Mizra Still Be Able to Bring Home the Bacon?

Businessman Arcadi Gaydamak's decision to purchase the Tiv Taam supermarket chain and make it kosher will significantly reduce the number of places where Israelis can buy pork products.

"I believe that in a Jewish state, in which there is a large Muslim minority, selling pork is a provocation," the Russian-Israeli billionaire told Army Radio.

Gaydamak said he would not fire the workers of the Maadaney Mizra meat products company, of which Tiv Taam owns 75 percent, but would reach agreements on compensation if necessary.

Excactly 50 years ago, Kibbutz Mizra founded a meat processing plant. Over the years it became identified with high-quality pork products, although it produced other meats as well. For the secular public, Maadaney Mizra's stores were the only place to buy non-kosher meat. For the religious, it became a symbol of impurity and the casting aside of religious tradition.

Feelings ran especially high in 1990 during Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government, when it attempted to pass a law prohibiting the sale of pork. At Mizra, they remember a televised debate between an Agudat Yisrael MK and a kibbutz member: the MK said the kibbutznik not only sold pig, he acted like one.

Kibbutz Mizra was founded 84 years ago, one of the pioneering communities in the Jezreel Valley. Some of the atmosphere of those days is preserved in the museum run by 74-year-old kibbutz member Pini Shiboli - clothes and other small everyday artifacts, the first settlers' bedroom furniture, the German books they brought when they came here. But it is the large factory behind the museum that is best known to other Israelis.

The great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union brought Mizra competitors. Their products' quality was not as high, and they appealed to a relatively less well-off clientele. Still, the competition cut into Mizra's exclusivity in the market. The sale of the factory to Tiv Taam was a necessity most of the members accepted with equanimity, and things have been going better since then. They were even reconsidering re-launching their logo.

The news that Gaydamak was going to buy Tiv Taam, which hit the Web on Friday, was viewed with greater suspicion at Mizra. The tycoon's statement that he would turn the chain kosher has Mizra worrying about the income from its flagship products, and about job security.

We have no problem not to manufacture pork products," said a Mizra member who asked to be known only as A. "But the big concern is that our income will be hit hard," he said.

"People are willing to pay more for our brand, which says quality and care. Some of what is special is the non-kosher items. If we have to turn kosher we'll have to be compensated," A. said. He added that although they owned only the remaining 25 percent, their agreement with Tiv Taam gave them 50 percent of the management, "and there is an agreement that they can't force their opinion on us."

Kibbutz secretary Uzi Shemesh said: "This factory grew by the sweat of many brows, and any development makes emotions run high. Meanwhile, we are hearing things only through the media." Shemesh reiterated the sentiment that Mizra's non-kosher meat products are what makes it special. "That's its business and commercial strength. If they go in a different direction, things will have to be considered."