A religious council posted notices during May's clashes in mixed Israeli cities warning that a local restaurant owner was not Jewish and that the food he was serving was not kosher.
The restaurant, located in the city of Kfar Sava, is owned by Mahmoud Saluda, a resident of the nearby Arab town of Tira. Saluda is suing the council for 215,000 shekels ($68,000) on the grounds that the notices were racist and defaming.
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“The public should know and take caution – we announce to all that the Shawarma Naama establishment (formerly Shawarma Tehila) is currently owned by a non-Jew and is not under the supervision of the Kfar Sava Rabbinate,” said the notice, which was issued by Rabbi David Ohayon, who is responsible for the council’s kashrut supervision operations.
The notice, which appeared with the logo of the religious council, also appeared briefly on the municipal website. In an interview, Rabbi Sasson Trabelsi, the council’s chairman, said that “the blame is mine because the notices were published with the council’s logo. We’ll fight it in court, and I hope we won’t be fined.”
The notices were posted during Israel's flare-up with Hamas in Gaza that coincided with Arab-Jewish violence in many mixed cities in Israel. Around that time a red handprint was left on the restaurant’s wall, which Saluda believes was the work of right-wing activists calling attention to homes and businesses owned by Arabs.
Saluda bought Shawarma Naama, when it was called Shawarma Tehila, about a year ago after working there as an employee for eight years. About two years before Saluda bought it, the business had changed ownership once and the new owners changed the name to Lebanese Shawarma, under which it operated with a kashrut certificate for about a year.
When Saluda bought the restaurant he said that “from the get go, I wanted the place to be kosher. I approached a mashgiach [kashrut supervisor] and told him that I want a certificate. He agreed to help me. I didn’t think there would be a problem.”
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The council’s kashrut department informed Saluda that he would have to pay 3,000 shekels a month for the certificate and to employ a mashgiach. Saluda paid the required fees, but after a mashgiach inspected the place, Ohayon informed Saluda that he would have to have a mashgiach present during all opening hours at a cost of 5,000 shekels a month.
“The mashgiach said that the fat is fine, the meat is fine, the vegetables are fine, but there are gas burners and it’s forbidden for non-Jewish workers to light them by themselves when they are preparing food,” Saluda said.
Hagai Kalai, Saluda’s attorney, said the demand for a full-time mashgiach was because his client isn’t Jewish.
Nevertheless, “It is to be regretted that the rabbinate and religious councils issue, time and time again, abusive and threatening warning notices in blatant formulations that harm the dignity of business owners,” Kalai’s firm said in a statement
At times, religious councils demand a full-time supervisor as a condition for a kashrut certificate, but a source at the Religious Services Ministry said that was not connected to the owner’s religion.
Saluda tried to convince the council to drop the demand, and when he failed he decided to remain open without a certificate. “I saw that I could survive [without one], so I gave up on getting one,” he said. “But then people told me about the notices that had been posted.”
In light of the war and violence that erupted in May, the wording of the notices was especially problematic. “When you say that ‘the owner isn’t Jewish,’ it’s clear that he’s an Arab. No one can be mistaken about that,” said Saluda.
When the red handprint appeared on one of the restaurant walls, “I didn’t understand what the sign meant, but my son [who works in the restaurant] showed me on Facebook that it is meant to single out Arab homes and businesses,” Saluda recounted. “That’s when it hit me. I feared for my workers and erased it immediately.”
The city rabbinate routinely issues notices about changes in businesses’ kashrut status to update the religiously observant population. “They should alert the public, but not with this wording,” said Trabelsi.
But Ohayon had a different explanation for his decision. “That person [Saluda] told people that [the restaurant] was kosher, that he had a religious friend who vowed that it was kosher. We were forced to issue the notice because there was a real danger,” Ohayon said.
Saluda denies the allegation. “That’s a complete lie. I am prohibited from saying something like that, it’s a violation of the law,” he said asserting that the notices were posted only because he refused to follow the rabbinate’s dictates.
Uri Keidar, the CEO of Israel Hofsheet, a nonprofit advocating religious freedom and pluralism, said the affair shows the urgency of reforming the rabbinate.
“Once again, we’ve been exposed to injustice from the perverse way the kashrut establishment harasses a business owner who simply wants to make a decent living,” said Keidar. “We are confident that the legal system will bring justice to the business owners.”