In Major Blow for Rabbinate, Alternative Kosher Certificate Gets Stamp of Approval

Despite Attorney General's okay, parties in Netanyahu’s new right-wing government say they will fight for their monopoly on the word kosher.

Yair Ettinger
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Illustration: A kosher-certified shwarma restaurant in Jerusalem. August 21, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger

The Chief Rabbinate suffered a major defeat Wednesday when the attorney general told the High Court that restaurants receiving kashrut certification outside the Rabbinate should not be fined as long as they don’t use the word kosher.

For example, the private kashrut organization Hashgacha Pratit does not use the word kosher but says it meticulously observes religious law “concerning food ingredients and their preparation.”

This is a major victory for restaurant owners in Jerusalem — and more recently Tel Aviv — who have been fighting the Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services. These locales offer kosher food under the supervision of private Orthodox kashrut supervisors while bypassing Israel’s law against kashrut fraud.

Two and a half years ago the Rabbinate launched a harsher enforcement policy: It began to levy heavy fines against some eateries that used alternative kashrut certificates. These businesses did not use the word kosher, though some of their Web advertisements did; the Rabbinate considered this a violation of the kashrut fraud law.

But in a letter to the High Court of Justice, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wrote that restaurants would not be fined or indicted if they “present a document stating that the establishment is supervised by a particular body, subject to it being made clear that the document is not a kashrut certificate from the Chief Rabbinate.”

Shai Gini and Yona Sason from Topolino restaurant.Credit: Emil Salman

The Rabbinate  protested Weinstein’s decision. The ruling “damages the Chief Rabbinate’s authority set in law, and more importantly, it harms ... the great majority of the Israeli public that demands kashrut,” said Elchanan Glatt, the Rabbinate’s director general.

Two restaurants, Carousela and Topolino, are among Jerusalem locales that say they keep kosher but do not have an official kashrut certificate. The two restaurants filed the petition with the High Court.

In the petition, submitted with the help of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, the two restaurants want their fines canceled — as well as the annulling of the kosher fraud law under which they had been penalized.

“The owner of an eatery may not state in writing that his eatery is kosher unless it has been granted a kashrut certificate,” the law states.

The plaintiffs argue that this contravenes the Basic Law on the Freedom of Occupation, adding that there was no fraud because the restaurant owners had been honest with their customers. Both eateries say they are supervised by a private Orthodox kashrut organization in Jerusalem called Hashgacha Pratit, which is not a party in the case.

The restaurants say they observe the laws of kashrut and that religious Jews have continued to eat at both places even after their certificates were pulled. In their petition, the restaurants go further than Weinstein and ask that they be allowed to use the word kosher.

Having responded himself, Weinstein called on the restaurants to withdraw their petition, but they are expected to refuse, with the High Court holding a hearing on the matter in a week.

The United Torah Judaism party realized that this kashrut rebellion might succeed and received a commitment from Likud as part of UTJ’s agreement to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. The two parties committed to amend the law and guarantee the Rabbinate’s monopoly on the word kosher.

The other main ultra-Orthdodox party, Shas, has received an ever harsher commitment from Likud — the certificates Weinstein has approved would be banned even if they do not use the word kosher.

Ricki Shapira Rosenberg, the Religious Action Center lawyer who submitted the petition for the restaurant owners, said the ban on the word kosher was disproportionate.

“The Rabbinate has no monopoly on the word kosher. When restaurant owners make clear they do not have kashrut certificates, they are not deceiving the public,” she said.

“The Rabbinate is acting out of paternalism and requires everyone to accept only its kashrut. The general public wants a different kashrut, and there are restaurant owners who provide this.”

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who heads Hashgacha Pratit, said Weinstein’s decision recognized what his organization had long been saying. “It’s a day of celebration for everyone for whom the truth and justice concerning kashrut is important,” he said.