Opinion

The Kosher Monopoly Oppresses Israel's Secular Majority

The secular public doesn’t dream of preventing ultra-Orthodox residents from celebrating the Sabbath as they see fit. So why can’t the religious public act accordingly?

A kashrut certificate in a Tel Aviv cafe.
Eyal Toueg

One of the most deplorable sections in the State Comptroller’s report published this week concerned the issue of kashrut. The comptroller tells of a corrupt kashrut supervision system, operated like a monopoly by the Chief Rabbinate. The system consists of some 4,000 inspectors (mashgihim), whom restaurateurs and hotels are forced to pay wages. The comptroller found blatant violations of the kashrut-checking procedure, and that inspectors falsely reported a large number of work hours – even up to 27 hours a day. How? With God’s help.

The religious councils that represent the inspectors are aware of the corruption, but turn a blind eye. Some of the religious council workers also serve as kashrut inspectors, even though this is forbidden. As far as they’re concerned, it’s a mitzvah to extort as much money as possible from the goyim’s rule – that is, the secular public.

The situation is convenient for all sides. The business owner pays for fictitious overtime, the inspector doesn’t follow the law and the business owner is allowed to bend rules and cut corners. Only the kashrut-keeping public loses out. The kashrut certificate it relies on is false and ill-gotten.

There’s another angle the comptroller missed: the cost of kashrut. The large and cumbersome apparatus maintained by the Rabbinate raises the kashrut certificate’s price considerably, and this is one of the reasons for the high cost of living in Israel.

The kashrut certificate raises food prices by 5 to 10 percent, and this is an outrage. The solution is to cancel the Rabbinate’s monopoly and enable anyone ordained as a rabbi to issue a kashrut certificate – just as anyone qualified for construction engineering can sign construction plans. As soon as this happens, kashrut will become cheaper and more accurate.

The kashrut monopoly is just one way in which the religious establishment oppresses and harms the secular majority. The worst damage is caused in matters of marriage and divorce. Due to the Rabbinate’s control of these issues, hundreds of thousands of people cannot marry in Israel. It also discriminates against women. It is hard to believe that we’re ready to accept such a violation of a basic right in the 21st century.

Israel is also the only country in the world where there is no public transportation on Saturdays and holidays, which hurts the poor – those who cannot afford to buy a car. They are doomed to live under curfew on Saturdays and holidays.

And if all this isn’t enough, the ultra-Orthodox parties are threatening to pass a law that would bypass the High Court of Justice and ban the opening of grocery stores in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. The High Court ruled recently that 164 grocery stores can operate in the city on Saturday. This is a sharp reduction of 30 percent from the 238 stores that are currently open on weekends, but even this doesn’t satisfy the Haredim. They want the steal the poor man’s sheep as well. Interior Minister Arye Dery wants the authority to approve any municipal bylaw regarding the Sabbath, which will enable him to ban food stores from opening nationwide.

The lack of symmetry in the situation is galling. The secular public doesn’t dream of preventing Bnei Brak residents from celebrating the Sabbath as they see fit. No one is going to look for a restaurant or mini-mart in Bnei Brak on a Saturday. So why don’t the religious people respect the way secular folk spend their weekend? Who says going to the theater, watching a movie, listening to a lecture, shopping or going on a road trip is less ideological than going to the synagogue? After all, democratic logic has it that every city should decide the character of the Sabbath for itself, without the interior minister’s interference. That’s exactly what local government is for.

The time has come for the secular majority to rise up. We’re already living in the Middle Ages, in a state ruled by the clergy and in complete contrast to the will of the majority, which is interested in a modern, progressive state based on values of humanism, pluralism and tolerance.

Enough with the bowing and scraping before the religious establishment. It is time to rebel.