Sushi on Shabbat? Call to Boycott Kosher Asian Restaurant in Israel Backfires

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A suburban restaurant serving sushi and noodles found itself in the middle of a political tug-of-war, when a left-wing politician called on the public to boycott it for becoming kosher and closing its doors on Friday and Saturday.

“Secular coercion!” cried the headlines in Orthodox publications after Adit Diamant, a member of the city council in Ra’anana posted on Facebook that “as a long-time customer” of the River restaurant, she was dismayed to learn that it had changed ownership and become kosher.

With “so few restaurants open on Friday nights in Ra’anana and even fewer making deliveries, I am personally harmed by the change and absolutely intend to stop patronizing the restaurant on other days of the week," Diamant wrote. "I call on others who feel as I do to do the same thing. It’s important that the members of the 'free community' in Raanana make their voices heard and vote with their feet if they want someone to care about their needs."

Restaurant owners in Israel often decide whether or not to become officially kosher based on business concerns rather than religious conviction. They must weigh the benefits of staying open on Friday and Saturday against the number of potential customers who keep strictly kosher, and won’t eat in their establishments if they don’t have a rabbinical certificate. This is the reason the majority of restaurants in Tel Aviv are not kosher and the majority in Jerusalem are - with some major chains in Israel maintaining both kosher and non-kosher branches, depending on the location of the franchise. Five of the 15 River chain restaurants in Israel are kosher, including the branch in Ra’anana.

Diamant’s frustration stemmed from the fact that in Ra’anana, which has a significant Orthodox population, zoning laws require that restaurants in the center of town remain closed on Friday and Saturday. As a result, the vast majority of establishments in the city are kosher.

The River restaurant however, is located in one of the few complexes located on the outskirts of the city where restaurants are permitted to be non-kosher and remain open throughout the weekend - hence, Diamant’s dismay when learning the owners had chosen to be kosher and close down.

Her post was immediately seized upon by Orthodox politicians, whose communities frequently use their consumer power to pressure restaurants and other business to be kosher, seeing it as an opportunity to turn the tables. On Twitter, Interior Minister Arye Deri chided the left-wing Meretz party, to which Diamant belongs: “Boycotting a restaurant because it becomes kosher? A shame that you would do this. It offends millions of Jews in Israel and around the world." Critics on the right also charged Meretz with hypocrisy - national party leader Zehava Galonhas, in the past, sharply condemned settler boycotts of Arab establishments as being racist and unacceptable.

Meretz’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were bombarded with opponents calling Diamant “self-hating” “anti-Semitic” and even a “Nazi.” But even secular commentators and fellow Meretz members were critical, also posting their angry criticism on the local and national Meretz social media accounts. One wrote, “boycott a restaurant because it’s kosher? Speaking as a Meretz voter and activist, I am ashamed.” Another said, “I’m a total atheist, but I condemn the post completely.”  

The pressure resulted in Diamant’s post quickly being removed from the Meretz Raanana page. An apology appeared on the party’s local and national Facebook pages saying that “this evening a post expressing a personal opinion was misinterpreted. We apologize for the misunderstanding and to anyone who was offended by the post. We believe in encouraging the freedom of places of entertainment to remain open during the weekend. However, we also respect the legitimate right of every individual and business to make their own choices.”  

However, Diamant left the post up on her personal page, defending her decision to boycott the restaurant as “the only real way to offer a counterbalance to the pressure by people who want establishments to be closed on Shabbat.”