Kosher wars: how a right-wing billionaire is challenging a secular Israel

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The Independent Online

With robust insouciance for the sensitivities of all three great monotheistic religions, Hermina Schlinger eyed with satisfaction her large purchase of pork frankfurters at the checkout counter of Rishon Letzion's Tiv Taam supermarket yesterday and declared: "There it is: the Last Supper."

What Mrs Schlinger, 60, was referring to was the weekend announcement by the Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaidamak that not only has he bought the entire Tiv Taam supermarket company but that he proposes to make its famous food counters kosher from now on. No more highly convenient, if defiantly non-religious, opening on Shabbat, till 8pm on Fridays and 10pm on Saturdays. No more ham, salami, shellfish, pork sausages and all the other treif - or non-kosher food - that has brought Mrs Schlinger and tens of thousands of other Israelis to the 24-store chain over the past 15 years.

The shockwaves sent through Israel by Mr Gaidamak's purchase and plans are underlined by the urban myths it has already generated in the past 48 hours. Mrs Schlinger, whose origins are Romanian Jewish, is from Tel Aviv but she is doing a sculpture course in Rishon Letzion. She confesses to being "very angry" about the impending transformation of her favourite supermarket chain. She says darkly that she has heard a "rumour" that the tycoon enjoyed a plate of distinctly unkosher "fruits de mer" on the day he signed the deal. Like most of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Mr Gaidamak is not an Orthodox religious Jew but his aides are quick to say he has never eaten pork in his life. "This was a place where you get everything," Mrs Schlinger lamented. "It's like in Europe. You could choose kosher or non-kosher depending on your taste. There was no one pointing a gun at your head telling you what to eat."

Her friend Mary Dagon, also 60, locates the development in Israeli social history, saying proudly that in 1957 her father was the first to open a pork butchery in the town of Kyriat Gat, a town formed largely of traditionalist immigrant Jews from north Africa. "It was a very brave thing to do in those days," she says with justice. Convinced that there is no contradiction between eating pork and being a good Israeli, she says that such food is permitted in Kabbalist practice.

Victor Sergio, 75, a retired computer expert, asked a fellow shopper at the lavishly stocked delicatessen counter: "Where are you going to buy your ham now?" He added: "All this will have to go and all the [non-kosher] wines. A lot of the people who come to these stores are Russians who like to buy the food they know. And it's a Russian who's doing it to them."

Mr Gaidamak was not at Rishon Letzion yesterday to hear these complaints. But in any case he had flatly given his answer to Army Radio on Sunday. "I believe that in a Jewish state," he declared, "in which there is a large Muslim minority, selling pork is a provocation."

To understand the potential upheaval, you have to understand Tiv Taam's role as a bastion of secular consumerism. The disappointed carnivores will almost certainly be able to find "white meat" at a minority of small local butchers - certainly in Tel Aviv and even here and there in ever-increasingly religious West Jerusalem (where not surprisingly there is no Tiv Taam).

But what was revolutionary about Tiv Taam, at least after its rapid growth as a supermarket chain after 1993, was that it was the first to serve the long latent mass market for non-kosher food. On Shabbat, when almost every big supermarket is closed, when the Israeli national airline El Al does not fly, when the country's main bus services are grounded, it remained open to shoppers at what proved to be one of its most popular periods. Its huge stores -with free parking in lots echoing to the sound of pop music through loudspeakers - areoften supplied with instore restaurants ranging from sushi bars to barbecue counters and stocked not only with non-kosher delicacies but also with food and drink of all kinds marketed for immigrants to Israel with palates still nostalgic for their countries of origin. If an Israeli from Argentina wants to eat the baked dough and meat empanadas he devoured as a child, Tiv Taam is where he goes to buy them.

Tiv Taam even took a 75 per cent share in the Maadaney Mizra meat processing plant, founded half a century ago at Kibbutz Mizra in the Jezreel Valley and one of the country's main producers of non-kosher meat.

As long ago as 1990, Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government attempted to pass a law making the sale of pork illegal. At Mizra they still remember a television debate between an Orthodox religious Knesset member and a member of the kibbutz. As tempers flared, the Knesset member memorably said that the kibbutznik was not only selling pig, but acting like one. Today as the workers at the plant await their fates with some apprehension, given the potential loss of the biggest customer for non-kosher food, Mr Gaidamak has said they will not be fired but that there may be compensation agreements for some to take voluntary redundancy instead.

But it is also necessary to understand something of the Moscow-born Mr Gaidamak himself, a colourful figure who has not hesitated to use his seemingly limitless money to buy a degree of political influence which remains hard to assess. Mr Gaydamak, who has in the past described himself as the Israeli answer to Ross Perot, has yet to carry out his promise - or threat - to form a political party of his own in a naked effort to capitalise on the well of disillusionment with mainstream politics which reached its height after last summer's Lebanon war. But he has done several things calculated to position himself as a political player when the moment comes.

During the Lebanon war Mr Gaydamak paid about £7m to house northerners seeking refuge from the Katyusha rockets in two "tent cities" on the Mediterranean coast. Then in November, in the first sign of a highly publicised interest in the sufferings of Sderot, the Israeli town easily the worst affected by Qassam rockets from Gaza, he funded a week-long trip to the Red Sea resort of Eilat for its residents. Whether or not his repeated offers of help to Sderot - including the financing of shelters - was calculated to embarrass and irritate a government under considerable local fire for not doing more to aid its citizens itself, it certainly had that effect, infuriating both Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, and his Defence Minister Amir Peretz, himself a Sderot native.

And in December Mr Gaidamak threw a lavish Hannukah party in Tel Aviv - for which he flew in Enrique Iglesias to entertain his A-list guests, the star guest being the leader of the right-wing Likud opposition Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Gaidamak's politics are hard to pin down. He seems to want to align with Mr Netanyahu but also appears keener on talks with the Palestinians than the former prime minister.

And while he has sought to capitalise on the widespread Israeli view that too much of politics is corrupt, Mr Gaidamak, who built a fortune on oil deals and the Russian stock market after emigrating from the Soviet Union, is not immune from criticisms of a chequered past himself. He has rejected as a "complete lie" a claim in 2002 by the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity that he "epitomised the business of war in the post-Cold War era - an entrepreneur with global ties to arms smuggling, resource exploitation and private military companies. And the tycoon, who has not visited France since the issue of a warrant against him over suspected arms deals involving Angola, told Newsweek earlier this year: "I was never involved in any arms sales, deals - nothing." He has more than once taken out newspaper advertising to rebut such allegations against him as baseless.

Little of which explains why he should announce such a decisive step against the sale of non-kosher food. One of several keys may lie in the rapid growth of Israel's ultra-Orthodox population - which has a notably higher birth rate than other sectors of the Jewish population and is particularly dynamic in Jerusalem, the city in which thanks to his ownership of Betar Jerusalem, its biggest football club, he is particularly well known. Tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israel are indeed nothing new. They are what led to the rapid rise (followed by an equally rapid decline after it failed to fulfil its objective of bringing secular marriage ceremonies to Israel) of the militant secular Shinui party. The growth of the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem is what lies behind plans to build a raft of new - in international law, illegal - settlements in Arab East Jerusalem, not because as a community they especially want to live in occupied areas but because they desperately need new housing. And there have been highly publicised rows - in which interestingly religious Orthodox women have been among the community's critics - over the segregation of buses on some routes between men and women.

The ultra-Orthodox population - and therefore market - is certainly growing. A 2006 Globes business news service report put it at around 630,000 and an Israeli demographer has estimated it as doubling every 17 years. But it is unlikely that Mr Gaidamak has announced his move merely for business reasons. Instead there may be two other factors. One is a possibility floated in Rishon Letzion yesterday by a reflective Mrs Schlinger: "I think he wants to be Mayor of Jerusalem where there are many religious people." You don't have to be ultra-Orthodox to be Mayor of Jerusalem, though the present one, Uri Lupiolanski is, but you do have to take the religious vote very much into account. And the other, more subtle reason may be that if he is to have any kind of political future, he needs to shake off the idea that he is somehow confined to the secular, Russian-speaking immigrant periphery, however big. "Arkady Gaidamak, who makes a supermarket chain kosher, also renders himself kosher," wrote Lili Gallili, an astute observer of the Russian factor in Israeli politics in Haaretz yesterday. "From now on he is not just a somewhat eccentric and controversial Russian businessman. From the moment he strengthened his connections to Judaism, he is also more Israeli."

How far Mr Gaidamak will be able to kosherise his new acquisition - and keep it afloat - remains to be seen. For secular demand remains very high and while in some stores like the one only a month old in Modiin there is a strong nearby ultra- Orthodox community to make up the numbers, in Rishon Letzion it may be more difficult. Certainly the Russians are wary of the move. Leaving the Modiin store with his pork, Pavel Rubstein, who came from the former Soviet Union as a small child, said: "I feel Israeli but I also want to feel free in my own country to buy what I want. I think he is doing this for political reasons but if I am going to vote for him I want to see real policies." A loss of business may be a price that the ambitious Mr Gaidamak is prepared to pay to be Mayor of Jerusalem. It was after all the post that Ehud Olmert held until he returned to national politics and, in time, the premiership.