Battle Against the Kashrut Monster in Israel

If secular people don’t raise a cry, the court won’t protect our rights

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Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, supervises over the kashrut inspection at the Knesset, in 2014.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, supervises over the kashrut inspection at the Knesset, in 2014.Credit: Itzik Harari

Somehow, without anyone noticing, kashrut has become one of the most damaging aspects of secular life.

Kashrut is from the outset coercive. The philosopher Louis Althusser wrote that the most efficient way to insert ideology is through the body. The leaders of the Jewish community understood this long before him. By means of a system of rules that controls every bite we take all day long, they were able to discipline and regiment Jewish believers and control their lives. The success in preventing assimilation is apparently the greatest achievement of the historical kashrut system. But in Israel, this system is directed mainly at secular people, so everything gets complicated.

Suddenly kashrut is something that is enforced by the state on non-believers as well, and the system, which knew so well how to distinguish between insiders (Jews) and outsiders (non-Jews) is losing control, when outsiders (secular people) are also Jewish. This gets more complicated when the religious side begins to amass power and dictate its whims in the realm of food across broader and broader parts of society.

The claim made by religious people when they seek to expand the boundaries of kashrut is that for them, keeping kosher is a critical need and for us, kashrut is no bother. Recently, the journalist Erel Segal used this argument: “The secular person can get along for a week without bacon.” But the restrictions of kashrut have long ago stopped demanding only that we make do for a bacon-free week.

For example, a secular individual who has to spend Saturday on an army base or in the hospital in Israel, as opposed to a hotel or the airport lounge, can’t use a water heater to prepare a hot drink, or a water purifier for a drink of water. Must we so easily forego the right to drink water at supper or hot tea in the winter?

For example, secular patients in the hospital over Passover can’t eat their own food, not even in their own bed using their own utensils. Secular soldiers required to spend the week before Passover on base will have to live on matza and potatoes while the kitchen is being made kosher for the holiday, and is forbidden to bring leavened food from home. Is this a reasonable demand to make of a secular person? Is the right of a secular soldier to proper nutrition not equal to the right of a religious soldier to kashrut?

Moreover, on Passover, security guards look through people’s belongings to make sure no secular person is bringing in leavened food, and the sergeant major will inspect bags to make sure that the bags of secular soldiers contain no leavening. Are secular people willing to surrender their privacy just so others can carry out their religious obligations? Why does that secular public agree that eating a ham sandwich should get a soldier arrested, and cooking in the field on Yom Kippur should get an officer dismissed?

Why is all this happening? Because for some reason secular people have agreed that the issue of kashrut is to be discussed in the presence of one side only. They have been persuaded that discussion of kashrut take into account only the needs of the religious. They don’t have to agree to this anymore. At every juncture they must demand that the right of religious people to eat kosher must be examined in light of the right of secular people to eat what they like, to eat in freedom from religion, as well as the right to privacy in what they eat.

Once we begin to scrutinize demands through the prism of consideration for secular people, I believe we’ll reach the right balance. Maybe it’s right for the dining room on a military base to have a non-kosher section? And even if not, it is certainly not right for kashrut to extend outside the dining room – to the entire base, and in the hospital to the patient’s bed, and certainly not to the private possessions of the secular patient.

The time has come for boundaries to be placed on the expansion of kashrut. Secular people are already compromising everywhere that only kosher food is served. Religious people also have to compromise, and they know how to do this wonderfully when they need to. For example, when they travel abroad. Their right to kashrut will be given them only as long as it does not infringe disproportionately on the rights of secular people to refrain from kashrut.

In the Secular Forum, we’ve decided to fire the opening shot, and together with many other petitioners, we are demanding that the High Court of Justice prohibit hospital security guards from searching people’s bags for leavening. The hearing will take place soon, and if we win, we can begin to fight for our rights in other places as well. But if secular people don’t raise a hue and cry, the court might think it doesn’t have to protect our rights, only the rights of the religious. Can secular people find the strength to shout it out, or do they intend to give in and see how the kashrut monster conquers more and more bastions in our lives, making them intolerable?

Dr. Fruman is the chairman of the Secular Forum.

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