Restaurants rebel against kosher laws

Israel/ rabbis under fire; Conflict over Jewish dietary rules raises the question of how far Israel is a secular state
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"THEY make me hate them, though I am still religious," says Simmo Dahan about the rabbinical authorities who tried to close his Jerusalem restaurant and withdraw its kosher certificate. He is one of a growing number of Israelis angered by what they see as the rabbinate's capricious - and costly - implementation of Jewish dietary rules on the sale and import of food.

Simmo Dahan's troubles started during the last Passover. An inspector came to the Enachta, his restaurant in Yoel Salomon street, and discovered a soup spoon which had not been properly purified for the Feast. He demanded that Dahan throw away all the dishes it might have contaminated. Then, says Dahan, the inspector "told me he had a decision from a rabbi that we should close for 48 hours".

Dahan refused on the grounds that he could not afford to close, so the rabbinate revoked his licence proving that the Enachta is a kosher restaurant. A month later, he is still angry. He says: "I come from a religious home, but they look on us restaurant owners as cows to milk. I am happy to give money to poor people [as a fine] but not to close." He may regain his kosher certification by going to a private commercial company in Tel Aviv.

Kosher rules forbid the mixing of meat and dairy products. It is stated in Exodus 23:19 that "you shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk". American-style fast food chains have failed in the past in Israel because they cannot put cheese on top of hamburgers. But in Shamai Street in the heart of Jerusalem a large non-kosher McDonald's has just opened and is always crowded. The company says their meat is kosher and anybody is free not to eat cheese with the burger.

For smaller restaurants loss of a kosher certificate may mean closure. Making sure he keeps it makes the life of an Israeli restaurateur extremely complicated. Six months ago Boaz Tsari opened the Sakura, a kosher Japanese sushi restaurant in Jaffa Street. He keeps it open on the Sabbath but avoids shellfish and fish without scales, which are forbidden. An Israeli married to a Japanese, he says: "You cannot serve eel or shark, which is a pity, but the sea bream, grouper and drum fish from the Mediterranean and Red Sea are of good quality." Japanese tourists have no complaint but, like Simmo Dahan, Tsari is resentful of the rabbinical inspector who spoke of taking away his kosher status last year because he put a Christmas tree outside his restaurant. "It had no religious significance," he says. "I just like Christmas trees."

Tsari now employs a specialist to determine if any product he might sell is non-kosher. This is not as straightforward as one might suppose. Tsari says: "Because of modern food processing you cannot tell immediately if food contains gelatine from pigs or something like that."

The conflict over the supervision of kashrut (Jewish dietary rules) is not confined to restaurants. It raises the question of how far Israel is a secular state, whose citizens have inherent rights, and the degree to which these rights are limited by Jewish religious rules. Governments have long tried to fudge the difference between the two, knowing that most Israelis are secular. But Israeli prime ministers defy the orthodox parties in the Knesset at their peril.

In 1976 a Labour government fell after a religious party objected to an official reception for the first three F-15 fighter planes from the US taking place on the Sabbath. In 1990 an ultra-orthodox rabbi kept Labour out of office because he said he suspected Labour-backed kibbutzim of eating rabbit, a non-kosher animal.

Only last month the religious parties successfully fought off an attempt by the Minister of Religious Affairs, Shimon Shetreet, to end the rabbinate's control of a blacklist of 4,150 Israelis who cannot marry Jews. Those blacklisted are the children of a mother who committed adultery or are descended from a member of a priestly family who married a divorcee. The list is secret and Shetreet says people often have their names added to it on the basis of rumour and gossip. Even so an explosive reaction on the part of the religious establishment - and a quick flexing of its political muscles - forced him to back off from proposed reforms.

But the biggest battle in Israel between the religious and the secular is over a ban on the import of non-kosher meat into Israel which is now being reconsidered by the Supreme Court. If the ban is lifted, Jewish fundamentalists will have suffered their most serious defeat in decades.

Their main opponent is a Tel Aviv company called Meatreal which in 1993 won a legal case ending the state monopoly over the import of meat. The decision was important because the government had always imported only kosher meat products - maintaining a ban on non-kosher animals like pigs and meat not slaughtered in a way approved by the Rabbinate.

In April the meat companies and a secular pressure group petitioned the Supreme Court to end the ban on constitutional grounds. They argue that it conflicts with the Basic Law of Israel, which guarantees freedom of religion and the rights of property. The religious parties say that Israel does not need such a constitutional law when it has Mosaic law.

This does not, unfortunately, resolve all problems for the Israeli restaurateur. The book of Leviticus, for instance, says that there are no less than eight species of clean locusts which can be eaten, but since these cannot be certainly identified, and distinguished from unclean locusts, the eating of all locusts by the orthodox is forbidden.