Proposed Reform Would Leave Chief Rabbinate in Control of Kosher Law

Treasury-Rabbinate plan would spin off day-to-day supervision to regional monopolies answerable to local chief rabbi

Kosher tour of the Knesset kitchens
Itzik Harari

A proposal for overhauling Israel’s system of enforcing kashrut laws would spin off responsibility for day-to-day supervision to private sector bodies but enable the Chief Rabbinate to retain overall control and bar competition.

The proposal, which was developed by the Finance Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate, and obtained by TheMarker, comes as a deadline set by the High Court of Justice to reform the system approaches.

Sources who were shown the proposal were highly critical, saying it would address only narrowly the court’s main concern, which is to create a division between kashrut supervisors and the businesses they police. They said it fails to reduce supervision costs or fundamentally alter the system.

“Any reform that retains the Rabbinate’s exclusive control over kashrut preserves a status quo in which the Rabbinate does what it pleases,” said Shai Berman, chairman of the Israel Restaurant Association. “The restaurant industry is suffering increasing difficulties and the Rabbinate is one of the bodies that makes things worse,” he said.

The Rabbinate has a monopoly of awarding kashrut certificates, but numerous government reports have documented a system that imposes high costs on food manufacturers, restaurants and caterers, which are passed on to consumers, while supervision itself is spotty and inconsistent.

A 2015 Finance Ministry report estimated that kashrut requirements cost the food industry 4 billion shekels ($1.1 billion), of which 600 million shekels was due to the lack of competition.

A study by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that supervision costs ranged from 7,000 shekels for a food stand, to 297 million shekels for large food manufacturers. Those costs are only for paying supervisors and didn’t include the actual cost of following kashrut rules.

Last year, the state comptroller found that many supervisors did little or none of the supervision they were paid for, and that kashrut standards varied from city to city, as did supervision costs. The local religious councils who nominally monitor the system were negligent.

When the High Court issued its order a year ago, though, it only required that a mechanism for separating supervisors from the businesses they supervise be developed by no later than this September. Under the current system, each supervisor collects his own fees.

Under the treasury/Rabbinate proposal, kashrut supervision would be placed in three to five private entities – either businesses or nonprofit organizations – that would be selected by the Rabbinate in competitive bidding. They would be responsible for managing supervisors and collecting payments.

However, each entity would be awarded a specific geographical region – meaning they would not be competing with each other.

Moreover, the supervisors on their payroll would come from a nationwide database from which local authorities would choose candidates. Those candidates would be subject to approval by local committees comprising the local chief rabbi, the head of the local kashrut department and the local license holder.

“It’s a problematic plan. While it would solve the problem of supervisors’ [conflict of interest] with five regional entities, it would still leave each entity beholden to the local rabbi,” said Tani Frank, the head of religion and state affairs at Ne’emanei Tora V’Avoda, a religious Zionist nonprofit.

The movement is one of two organizations that is working with MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) on legislation that would create a national kashrut supervisor responsible for issuing licenses to qualifying organizations – a system they say would enable competition and lower costs.

The treasury and Rabbinate said in separate responses to queries from The Marker that discussions were still underway, but added that the government was under no obligation to reform the kashrut system above and beyond what the court requires.