Opinion

Enforcing Kashrut in the Israeli Army Is Racism and a Tool for Religious Coercion

File photo: Israeli soldiers onboard the Israeli vessel Saar 5 Class Corvette 'INS Hanit' attend a training session during the 'Novel Dina 17' exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, April 4, 2017.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

“Kashrut is friendship,” declares another absurd Israel Defense Forces document. This time it concerns instructions about the kashrut of the kitchens on missile ships. There is no kitchen staff on these ships, and the sailors themselves are the ones who are supposed to deal with bizarre demands, such as the “separation of challah” if dough is prepared from a quantity of 1,660 grams of flour or more, or a prohibition against baking pizza with yellow cheese. It turns out that this is part of their combat training.

But kashrut is the last thing that could be called “friendship.” On the contrary, it is a means of segregation whose objective throughout the years was to make friendship between Jews and non-Jews difficult. In the State of Israel kashrut assumed a role it didn’t have in the past: forcing it on the other, the secular Jew and the non-Jew. There is nothing like the army to serve as a laboratory for these coercive relations.

In the past the army had a tolerable status quo regarding kashrut: The kitchen, the dining room and the Shekem (canteen) were kosher and the IDF took no interest in what happened outside of them. That was the spirit of the General Staff orders, with one exception: a bizarre prohibition against bringing any food onto army bases during the Passover holiday. That’s how it used to be.

In the past year, and in recent months in particular, there has been a dramatic change in connection with kashrut enforcement in the IDF. This change is almost certainly related to the departure of former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and is due mainly to the entry of Naftali Bennett to the Defense Ministry and the spirit of theocracy that he brings with him, in light of his “achievements” in the field in the school system.

The fantasy of the Military Rabbinate to increase its authority and control all the soldiers everywhere has led it in the past few years to try getting its hands on all the food found outside the army’s traditional kashrut domains as well. The current spirit of the commander enables the rabbis to increase this coercive enforcement. The Military Rabbinate has now targeted the personal refrigerators and home-made food that soldiers bring to the bases with them.

In the past year there has been an increase in the number of complaints to the Secular Forum from soldiers who were not permitted to bring food from home to the base, to store meat items (even if they are kosher) in the refrigerators they brought from home to their army room, to grill cheese sandwiches in the unit’s toaster, and so on.

The most infuriating paragraph in the IDF document requires a non-Jewish soldier who wants to cook something to ask a Jewish soldier to light the oven or the stove for him.

Woe to anyone who violates these infuriating prohibitions. A soldier who ate a homemade sandwich in the field containing pork was sent to prison. A soldier who kept a package of (kosher) hamburgers in the refrigerator was confined to the base for 28 days. Commanders who allowed their soldiers to eat their own nonkosher food were dismissed from their posts. The IDF kashrut terror has long since crossed the reasonable boundary – of the kitchen and army food – and persecutes secular soldiers wherever they wish to eat.

It’s important to remember that in addition to being the most effective tool for religious coercion, kashrut is also racism. Again, the most offensive paragraph in the document for the sailors on the missile ships is the one that explains that a non-Jewish soldier – for example an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who is not recognized as a Jew by halakha (Jewish religious law) or a Druze soldier – who wants to cook something for himself must ask a Jewish soldier to light the oven or the stove for him.

The reason is that the kashrut laws demand adherence to “Jewish cooking” and refraining from “non-Jewish cooking.” For similar reasons, a non-Jew – and even an Ethiopian Israeli whose Judaism is in doubt according to halakha, or an ordinary secular Jew – must not be involved in the production of kosher wine. Just think how you would react if in the German army a Jew were forbidden to light a stove or an oven.

We can argue about the role of the kashrut laws in Jewish history during the years of exile – to what degree they contributed to preserving the Jews on the one hand, and to preserving the hostility towards Jews on the other. But the decision to continue the strict observance of kashrut even in the entirely different circumstances of the State of Israel makes it a tool for segregation, coercion and racism.

There is nothing more absurd that today’s presumption on the part of many religious Zionist Jews of being the standard-bearers of nationhood while they adhere obsessively to the kashrut laws that separate them from the rest of the population. How can someone who isn’t willing to eat anything in the home of his fellow citizens talks about nationhood? It’s disturbing to think that the trends we are seeing in the army are the religious solution to this tension: the creation of a new, religious nationhood by forcing kashrut even on those who aren’t interested in it. In that case, not only is kashrut not friendship, it’s coercion and racism, as well as a genuine danger to the secular public.

“Shabbat is Judaism’s greatest gift to the world.” That’s nonsense of course. All Judaism did was to bring the idea of a day of rest from the nations of the ancient Middle East to Christianity, which disseminated it throughout the world. If anything, Judaism’s contribution was to turn this positive value into a collection of weird obligations and prohibitions that uproot the positive aspect of a day of rest, along with a series of absurd inventions designed to evade these prohibitions (Shabbat clocks, Shabbat elevators, etc.).

In the case of kashrut, there isn’t even the basic positive value that would justify this expensive madness. The time has come for us to be able to say out loud: The subject of kashrut in Israel has long since been transformed from the need of a minority, which the majority is willing to respect in the name of liberalism, to a means of religious coercion and racist values, which undermine our way of life and our values. The time has come to say that we are not willing to respect a system that is not only crazy and expensive, but is also divisive, coercive and racist.

The writer is the chairman of the Secular Forum and author of the book “The Road to Secularism” (in Hebrew).