The Jerusalem Post
End to kashrut monopoly?
Earlier this year, a kashrut inspector from the Jerusalem Rabbinate turned up at the renowned café and patisserie Kadosh, shouted at the establishment’s staff and, on the spot, removed the restaurant’s kashrut certificate hanging in the window and departed.
Kadosh’s sin? It had declined to accede to the rabbinate’s demand for it to put a label on each and every one of its patisseries and baked goods declaring them to be dairy, despite the café being a dairy establishment.
Last year, Kalo Cafe in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood also had its kashrut license removed on the spot by an inspector who objected to the use of an induction stove by a non-Jewish cook, shouting at the restaurant owner in front of customers, including making disrespectful comments about the cook.
The owners of Kalo and Kadosh had little recourse to address their treatment at the hands of the Jerusalem Rabbinate inspectors, and would have had to simply comply with its demands and accept its poor behavior if they would have wanted to regain their rabbinate kashrut license.
Thanks to a 2017 High Court of Justice ruling, however, they had another option: They switched to the kashrut supervision of Tzohar, a mainstream religious-Zionist rabbinical association that operates its service currently through legal loopholes opened by the court.
One major obstacle for Tzohar and other independent kashrut authorities is that businesses under their supervision cannot declare themselves to be kosher in writing, on the shop sign or on a supervision certificate, since the law still grants the Chief Rabbinate and local rabbinates a monopoly over that word.
But the reforms announced by Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana on Tuesday would abolish that monopoly and allow the establishment of independent kashrut authorities headed by a rabbi with Chief Rabbinate qualifications to provide kashrut supervision to any businesses willing to take them on.
WHY IS breaking up the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision so important?
As has been known for many years, Israel’s centralized kashrut supervision has suffered from severe deficiencies.
The monopoly enjoyed by the Chief Rabbinate and its local rabbinate branches has allowed those involved in their kashrut services to feel all-powerful and untouchable.
Since restaurants, butchers, food shops and any other food business have no other alternative, the quality of supervision service provided and the manner in which it is delivered does not matter at all.
So supervisors can not turn up to work at all, or they can turn up to get a free meal when they collect their monthly paycheck, or they can scream and shout at a business owner – in front of his or her patrons – who does not bow to every stringency demanded of them.
At the same time, corruption can run rampant within such a system. So heads of kashrut departments in local rabbinates give their friends and relatives jobs, and allocate supervision gigs in a nepotistic manner.
A state comptroller report on the kashrut system from 2017 noted that a significant number of kashrut supervisors were reporting working 20-24 hours a day, and one even reported working 27 hours a day – a truly remarkable and industrious feat.
Another phenomenon that has taken root is when kashrut supervisors also serve as kashrut inspectors, who are supposed to oversee the work of the supervisors, meaning they essentially inspect their own work.
Municipal chief rabbis also get in on the act, with some demanding that shops or restaurants only use and sell produce from particular suppliers on the basis of the personal interest and connections of that rabbi.
In short, the current system has for a long time enabled a poor level of service to take root, with no competition to challenge it, and at the same time allowed corruption and abuse to run rampant.
Additionally, it has also given huge power of patronage to the ultra-Orthodox political parties that control many local rabbinates and their kashrut departments.
The ability to provide jobs within the sprawling kashrut supervision business and bureaucracy is a significant political boon, making many people dependent on the good graces of politicos within these parties.
And at the same time, the independent ultra-Orthodox kashrut authorities enjoy a situation in which they operate without conforming to regulatory and commercial standards.
In some cases, such authorities even use the same supervisor used by a local rabbinate and charge the business owner an extra fee to get its kashrut license through the work of that supervisor.
THE MAJOR innovation of Kahana’s reforms is to introduce competition to the entire kashrut supervision market.
The rationale is that by giving businesses a choice between which kashrut authority they will use, the abuses and corruption that have become the hallmark of the current system would become nonviable on a commercial level, since a business owner would be able to simply dump any authority engaging in such practices for a more honest provider.
Kashrut standards would be unified on a nationwide basis, and regulatory standards for compliance and inspection established, putting the entire market on an even and transparent level.
So the howls of denunciation heard from the ultra-Orthodox parties – that Kahana and the government are destroying kashrut in the Jewish state – should be taken for what they are: merely the painful throes of a monopolistic system, which is economically and politically convenient for those who control it, coming to an end.
Kashrut supervision in the Jewish state has for a long time served not the public which actually utilizes it, but the ultra-Orthodox parties and politicos who control it.
Reform is sorely needed – and seems to be coming – to reverse this situation.