How the Pig Changed Israeli Society

Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez has written a fascinating book about the history of the pork laws, serving as a fascinating case study into how Israeli society has changed.

Ishai Rosen-Zvi
Ishay Rosen-Zvi
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The rise and fall of pork in Israel is a case study in the interface between law, religion, society and culture.
The rise and fall of pork in Israel is a case study in the interface between law, religion, society and culture.Credit: Reuters
Ishai Rosen-Zvi
Ishay Rosen-Zvi

In 40 C.E., a delegation of Jews came to Emperor Caligula, seeking a repeal of onerous decrees imposed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The emperor was walking around his palace dispensing orders to his staff, when suddenly he turned to his trembling guests and, according to the Jewish philosopher Philo, had one major question to ask of them: “Why do you refuse to eat pork?”

Abstinence from eating pork appears as far back in Jewish tradition as the Torah itself (which speaks of eating only animals with a split hoof that chew their cud; pigs don’t chew cud). But the issue only became significant in the Hellenistic era (which began in 332 B.C.E.). At the time, pork was a staple of the diets of peoples of the region, making the Jewish practice of refraining from eating it strange and particularly striking, and a symbol of Jewish separatism.

A pigsty in Kibbutz Lahav.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bacon slices cooked on a stove.Credit: Bloomberg

During the period of Greek King Antiochus IV (whose reign began in 175 B.C.E.), pork consumption was an indication that some Jews had assimilated Greek ways. Later, talmudic scholars identified pork with the Roman Empire to such an extent it came to symbolize the Romans. By the Middle Ages, we were witness to the opposite phenomenon: Jews being identified with the pig. The fact that Jews refrained from eating the animal was even seen as a product of Jewish kinship with pigs.

First legislation

In the Israeli context, pork first surfaced as a political issue in the early days of the state. Back then, food staples were rationed and pork was sold first on the black market and then officially rationed for those few who had signed up to get nonkosher meat. All of that produced parliamentary pressure that, in 1956 and again in 1962, led to legislation being passed on the sale of pork.

At first, banning the sale of pork was a power granted only to local authorities. Later, though, it was the subject of a national prohibition. In her new book on the subject, “Hukim ve’hayot aherot” (“Laws and Other Animals”), Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez argues that the laws were exceptional: Although they incorporated halakha (Jewish religious law) into the statute book, they did so out of a broader sense of “national pride and cultural heritage,” not out of fear of offending the sensibilities of religious people.

The rise and fall of pork in Israel is, therefore, a case study in the interface between law, religion, society and culture.

“The dominant spokesmen who advanced the legislation on the subject were in fact religious politicians, but their argument appealed to Jewish communal cultural reasoning and not religious feelings,” Barak-Erez writes. They appealed to the Yiddishkeit (Jewish ethnic identity) of Israel’s labor movement at the time.

The proposed legislation was explained through the place the pig had in Jewish history. For example, pre-state Labor Zionism leader Berl Katznelson – who was not known for his devotion to Jewish religious tradition – adhered to just two traditional prohibitions, which he saw as part of the Jews’ “national property rights”: Abstinence from eating pork; and fasting on Tisha B’Av, in remembrance of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem.

The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin also viewed the pig as a question relating to the “nation’s soul.” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, had reservations over the importance of the symbolism of the pig, in that he saw it as a “later,” postbiblical development.

Barak-Erez distinguishes pork laws from other religious legislation, due to the emphasis on the national cultural aspects of the legal provisions involving pork. One might ask, however, whether the distinction is so clear: Aren’t laws relating to marriage and conversion, for example, also part of the national story? Is it a coincidence that the state chose to impose religious tradition on those aspects of life that are gatekeepers of sorts for the nation?

Off the back burner

Interest in pork legislation waned in the 1970s. Barak-Erez says this was because pork consumption was minimal in Israel at that time; rationing had ended, and the major wave of immigrants from the Soviet Union, among whom pork consumption was common, had not yet begun. Also, the country’s religious parties’ attention was furthering settlement activity in the territories and they had no time to deal with religious legislation, the Supreme Court justice contends. At the end of the 1970s, however, the subject resurfaced.

Tel Aviv, it should be noted, was actually the first Israeli city where a municipal bylaw was enacted outlawing the sale of pork – back in 1954. It was actually enacted in response to a decision by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that municipal governments had no authority to act out of religious motives.

Barak-Erez links the issue’s resurrection in the 1980s to the rise of sectoral political parties. The tenor of the public discourse had already changed by then, with secular spokesmen resisting an expansion of the anti-pork laws, seeing it as religious coercion. “The readiness to understand these prohibitions as a legitimate expression of a national symbol was almost entirely absent in their comments,” Barak-Erez notes.

In the early 1990s, new Basic Laws on the freedom of occupation and human dignity were enacted, leading to an additional erosion of the bans. After that, the courts only allowed restrictions on pork sales in areas where most of the population was religious.

The public debate shifted to considerations of religious coercion and communal rights, rather than the importance of symbols and national identity. Israel became less unified and more tribal, Barak-Erez writes – marked on the one hand by a rise in liberalism, individual freedoms and multiculturalism; and, on the other, by a decline in traditional national identity.

The pig went from being a national symbol to a clearly religious one. “In a reality in which Jewish culture and the Hebrew language dominate the public space, there are those who are of the opinion that the importance of symbols that previously were needed to establish communal unity were declining in any event,” Barak-Erez writes. The erosion of enforcement of a ban on the sale of bread during Passover, she added, was another example of this phenomenon.

“The ban on pork took on its symbolic significance in the contexts of national humiliation and subservience,” she writes, in reference to the experience of Diaspora Jews. “Most of the leaders of the Israeli public in the state’s early years were not sabras [native-born Israelis], and they still carried with them memories (and perhaps scars) of life in the Diaspora, and the insults connected to the pig. Over time, this has been waning.”

This statement may be of particular importance. The pig belongs to a world in which the Jews distinguished themselves from the non-Jewish majority in whose midst they were living. Israeli-Jewish national identity, on the other hand, is built on a majority consciousness.

A lot of water has passed since the days of Berl Katznelson and Begin to this past year, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen dining at a New York restaurant where pork is served, alongside gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson. The new national identity requires Jewish tradition less and less, but it is no less national as a result.

It is not multiculturalism but, rather, a new national identity that has replaced traditional Israeli national identity. The new identity is increasingly built on a rejection and even hatred of the other, in its right-wing European form. The decline of the prior cultural heritage has given way to living in a “villa in the jungle” – as former Prime Minster Ehud Barak once described life here.

The pork law is a fascinating story, but it’s not a story about liberalism. Instead, it’s the ongoing saga of the changing face of nationalism here.

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