Rabbis go to war as all Israeli crops ruled non-Kosher

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Once a week three ultra-orthodox rabbis weave a path through the motorways and shopping malls of central Israel and arrive at Arik Cohen's nursery for a good long butcher's at his vegetables.

Once a week three ultra-orthodox rabbis weave a path through the motorways and shopping malls of central Israel and arrive at Arik Cohen's nursery for a good long butcher's at his vegetables.

The aim of these bearded men in black is always the same: to make sure no roots from his hundreds of thousands of plants come into contact with a single grain of Israel's soil. "They are very strict," said Mr Cohen as he walked through a greenhouse of lettuce and coriander, sealed in pots of artificial soil and separated from the ground by thick sheets of plastic.

This year Mr Cohen, manager of a nursery 15 miles north of Tel Aviv, began growing vegetables this way for the first time and is poised to cash in from a conflict that has set rabbis battling against one another and outraged Israeli agriculture officials.

It stems from a law which states that every seventh year the fields of the Land of Israel must lie fallow. "Six years thou shalt sow thy field," says Leviticus (25:3-4) ... but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land ..." The sabbatical year, or shmita, begins with the dawning of the new year in a fortnight.

The diktat may have made sense when farmers were struggling to coax life out of the desert at the time of David and Goliath but not in today's Israel; not in - by the Hebrew calendar - the year 5761. Agriculture officials say modern farming methods mean there is no need to rest the land and that it could be damaging, causing the soil to turn saline.

With its $3bn(£2.1bn)-a-year industry, Israel is self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Importing a year's supply would mean dumping food worth millions of dollars, endangering thousands of jobs.

Since the first stirrings of Zionism in the 19th century, religious scholars have tried to reconcile shmita with the exigencies of building and feeding a new modern state. Farmers avoided obeying the letter of the law by using a rabbinical ruling that said it was enough for Jews nominally to sell their fields to gentiles for the seventh year, with a symbolic transaction to make the land nonJewish, and carry on growing crops.

This artful Scripture twisting, the work of a Zionist chief rabbi eager to protect fledgling kibbutzim as Jews moved into the Holy Land, has now been challenged. The result is a nasty conflict between different branches of Orthodox Judaism and a national debate that strikes at the heart of Israel's biggest internal dilemma - the divide between its secular and religious identities.

The furore began when a leading ultra-Orthodox sage, Yosef Eliashiv, ruled that the shmita land-sale trick was not kosher. Many haredi (ultraOrthodox) rabbis never recognised the notional land sales and told followers to buy their produce every seven years from areas outside their definition of the biblical land of Israel, such as Jordan, and parts of the Gaza Strip. But generally they looked askance at the practice.

This month Rabbi Eliashiv said that one of Israel's two chief rabbis, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who represents the Sephardi community (Jews from the Middle East), should be ostracised for acquiescing in the transactions. The chief rabbi apologised, promising he would be eating only fruit and veg grown outside biblical Israel, and the row died down.

But it did not end. Crucially, the Jerusalem religious council also backed Rabbi Eliashiv, ruling that Israeli fruit and vegetables would not be kosher during the shmita year. The city's hotels, restaurants and grocers have a large religious clientele and would struggle to survive without kosher certificates. The council issued a draconian order saying these would be denied to any establishment that defied its orders.

The agriculture ministry, angered by the threat to the country's 30,000 farmers, says it will allow stall owners to sell Israeli fruit and veg on the doorsteps of those Jerusalem supermarkets now being forced by the rabbis to sell imported produce. A spokesman said: "Why should people pay 15 shekels [£2.60] for a cucumber from Spain when they can buy one from Israel for half a shekel?"

The dispute has come at a sensitive time. Israel's secular majority is tired of being told how to live by autocratic rabbis and is watching with alarm the growth of the numbers and influence of the ultra-Orthodox and in particular the Shas party.

The Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who is desperate to shore up his crumbling government by bolstering popular support, is promising civil reforms.

He has begun talking about allowing more public transport - including El Al, the national airline - to operate on the Sabbath. He is closing the religious affairs ministry (folding it into the justice ministry) and wants to allow civil marriages.

All of which is fighting talk in this part of the world. The ultra-Orthodox are livid and Israel has plunged into a bout of soul-searching over whether it is, first and foremost, a Jewish state, underpinned by a strong current of Judaism, or a pluralist secular democracy.