'Clear Conflict of Interest' Looms Over Israel's Kosher Food Industry

Rabbi linked to the business of kosher food is slated to become head of Chief Rabbinate Council, a job that involves the enforcement and standardization of kashrut supervision

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the "Bible Study Club" held at the PM's official Jerusalem residence on September 17, 2013
Marc Israel Sellem

Israel's government has yet to resolve the expected conflict of interests between the president of the rabbinical courts, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and his brother, Rabbi Moshe Yosef, who runs one of the largest private kosher certification organizations in Israel, Badatz Beit Yosef. This conflict could become a problem in two months, when the chief rabbi becomes the head of the Chief Rabbinate Council, which oversees the state’s official kashrut apparatus.

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In February, the Hiddush nonprofit association, which advocates for religious freedom and equality, wrote to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay and the rabbinate’s legal adviser, Harel Goldberg, asking to ascertain whether action was being taken regarding the conflict of interest, but has not received any reply.

Hiddush director Uri Regev wrote in February: “The area of kashrut is rich in funds, jobs, disputes and competition. Other issues that concern those responsible for the matter include the rabbinic figures and the powerful commercial interests that operate in the kashrut market. One of the largest businesses operating in this market is Badatz Beit Yosef Ltd., Which is owned by the family of Rabbi Yosef and connected to the rabbinical leadership of the Shas party, and the conflict of interests involved is clear.”

Regev said that after he sent his letter, Goldberg told Yosef that he would not be able to participate in a meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council that dealt with importing meat, an issue central to the workings of Badatz Beit Yosef. “It seems clear that Rabbi Yosef must be prevented from dealing with the organizational, regulatory, economic and halachic matters of kashrut that are liable to have ramifications for the activities and interests of Badatz Beit Yosef,” Regev said.

Sources told Haaretz that despite the family ties, the relationship between the brothers is totally businesslike. They said that there’s almost no link between the rabbinate and the private certification organization because the Badatz is independent and serves as an additional certification, augmenting the rabbinate certification. The sources added that rabbinate regulation of the private kashrut organizations is marginal and that there would be an agreement governing the conflict of interests shortly.

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In contrast, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, Dr. Shuki Friedman, told Haaretz that there is an inherent conflict of interest since most of the Badatz’s kashrut inspectors are also rabbinate employees. “As someone who is responsible for the enforcement and standardization of kashrut supervision, Yosef can act in a way that will serve the financial interests of Badatz. For this reason, it would be best if he avoided dealing with these matters, or at least a detailed agreement on conflict of interests should be signed,” Friedman said.

The Chief Rabbinate weighed in with a statement saying that “The body responsible for regulating the chief rabbis’ conflicts of interest is the Justice Ministry.

"In specific cases in which a concern of conflicts of interest arose, Rabbi Yosef has avoided attending meetings of the [Chief Rabbinate] council,” the statement read. "In preparation for his appointment as president of the rabbinate council, the relevant authorities are working in the rabbinate and the Justice Ministry to resolve the issue of Rabbi Yosef’s conflicts of interest.”