The Makings of History Pork and the People

Before the religious parties took aim at the industry, pigpens could be found nearly everywhere in Israel.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

In the summer of 1962, the Knesset passed a law banning the raising of swine in the State of Israel, with the exception of nine locales in the Galilee. The Pig-Raising Prohibition Law was a landmark in the history of the fight for democracy and freedom of religion in Israel. It was considered to be a victory of the National Religious Party, whose newspaper, Hatzofeh, asserted that the law strengthened the standing of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

An article in the quarterly Cathedra: Journal for Holy Land Studies, published by Yad Ben-Zvi, points out the considerable similarities between the attempts to prevent the passage of the law and current efforts to prevent the passage of legislation that will further damage Israel's image as a liberal state.

The author of the article is Dr. Giora Goodman, a lecturer in history at Kinneret College. "In general the [1962] law was a big success for its initiators and supporters," he writes. "Most of the inhabitants of the country would then only be able to see a domesticated pig in films or in illustrations in children's books."

The raising of pigs began to take root in Israel in the 1950s. In 1960, about 50,000 pigs were slaughtered, accounting for about 17 percent of the amount of meat from four-legged animals in the country. It was possible to see pigpens nearly everywhere.

There was perhaps nothing more difficult for religious people at the time than seeing that the state was permitting Jews to raise, market and eat pork - the deeply ingrained, ancient symbol of defilement. Furthermore, many secular people also refrained from eating it.

The efforts by the religious to eliminate the industry began in the First Knesset but yielded only partial success. The plenum devoted a lot of attention to the issue and it also came up in cabinet meetings. The prime minister at the time was David Ben- Gurion, who was himself secular, and who even held diplomatic meetings on Yom Kippur. In a letter to his daughter Geula, in October 1938, he mentioned that he had eaten a ham sandwich.

Goodman writes that Ben-Gurion believed the idea of prohibiting the raising of any animal was "absurd." However, in 1961 the prime minister wanted the NRP in his coalition and in return he agreed to institute such a ban on raising pigs; the fine set for violators was 10,000 liras.

Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan refused to assume the task of supervising enforcement of the law, and therefore that role was passed on to Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira, leader of the NRP. Regulations were issued, detailing, for example, how the pigs found in forbidden areas should be dealt with: by being burned to death, buried or drowned at sea; or by being transferred to zoos for use as animal feed, or to scientific institutions for use in experiments.

A person named Menachem Berry was put in charge of seeing that the rules were implemented. In one of the reports submitted to his superiors, he described how he discovered three pigs at Kibbutz Ruhama, ordered that they be taken to the dunes of Rishon Letzion and shot with a hunting rifle; a tractor then covered them with lime. This was a costly procedure, but it appears that the main expenditure incurred by the state due to the law was the compensation paid to kibbutzim that had to close down their pigpens and transfer the animals elsewhere. Kibbutz Lahav managed to convince the High Court of Justice that its pen was used for purposes of scientific research.

During the discussion of the transfer of the pigs to the north, there was not much talk about the objections of the Muslim and Druze population. However, it appears the government did take very seriously the protests of the Vatican, which fought for the rights of monasteries and convents to raise pigs - among them the Convent of Saint Vincent de Paul in the Ein Karem neighborhood of Jerusalem. The mother superior, Marguerite Bernes, was a Righteous Gentile who cared for brain-damaged children. She said she was prepared to be die defending the pigs, whose meat was necessary to nourish her wards. Standing in for the foreign minister, Abba Eban had to promise the French ambassador that the pigs of Ein Karem need not be destroyed or moved.

Goodman writes: "Beyond the ideological significance, the prohibition on raising pigs became one of the laws that most affected animal farmers in the Land of Israel."

The concentration of the pigs in pens in the Galilee caused serious sanitation hazards that were only tended to years later.

Exile to the north satisfied the religious, but the demand for pork did not decline. Instead, over the years, it has increased - especially among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Mizra and Tiv Ta'am stores, which sell it, can be found nearly everywhere around the country, which prompts formulation of a new historical thesis: In Israel, gastronomy is more influential than politics.



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