Unkosher system needs an overhaul

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A handful of secular Knesset members were justifiably up in arms about this month's kashrut scandal in the Knesset — and religious Knesset members should have been as well. But while they got the outrage right, these legislators completely missed the obvious and logical solution to the problem.

The incident began when a kashrut inspector discovered that a soup pot used for cooking meat had accidentally been sent to the dairy kitchen. He concluded that the food coming out of the kitchen was probably not kosher and ordered it all destroyed.

According to press reports, he explicitly rejected the suggestion that the food instead be sent to soup kitchens for needy non-Jews — of whom, unfortunately, there is no lack in Jerusalem.

In response, 13 Knesset members promptly sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg demanding the establishment of a non-kosher cafeteria in the Knesset.

Burg correctly rejected this demand, saying it would be inappropriate for Israel's national legislature not to observe the dietary principles of the Jewish faith.

What he did not point out, but should have, was that opening a non-kosher cafeteria would also do nothing to solve the problem of arrogant, irrational and boorish kashrut inspectors. Nor would it reduce their exorbitant fees or solve any of the other problems created by the rabbinate's kashrut monopoly.

There is only one way these problems can be solved: by privatizing the kashrut certification industry and opening it to competition.

One need look no further than the United States, where there are numerous private kashrut groups, to see that it is possible to have a privatized kashrut industry without hurting either the inspectors' profits or kashrut standards.

Obviously, not all American organizations adhere to the same standard of kashrut, and many Jews will only eat food certified by a certain group. But de facto, that is already the case in Israel.

The rabbinate itself has two standards of certification — regular and mehadrin (ultra-strict). Some religious Jews will only eat the mehadrin label. Various fervently religious sects distrust even the rabbinate's mehadrin label and have therefore set up kashrut organizations of their own.

Thus, at the high end of the kashrut spectrum, competition already exists.

The niche on which the rabbinate maintains a legal monopoly is the lower end, the level occupied by its non-mehadrin certification.

The religious community has long opposed permitting competition in this arena for fear that private organizations would provide certification for a price even if minimal kashrut standards were not observed.

But among those who would actually care whether or not the food is really kosher, word would soon get around as to whose certificates can be trusted and whose cannot, as it has in America.

And ordinary fraud law is enough to ensure that one organization's kashrut certificates do not misleadingly resemble those of another with higher standards, just as American copyright law keeps manufacturers from falsely putting any organization's kashrut seal on its packages.

It is true that some restaurants, manufacturers and consumers might choose to be satisfied with a lower standard of certification than the rabbinate currently provides. But from a religious perspective, a lower standard of kashrut is better than outright traif, which is the choice more and more Israeli businesses and consumers are making in response to the rabbinate's high prices and appalling service.

Privatization is no panacea. Even in the United States, where competition abounds, kashrut certification is expensive. Though prices would almost certainly go down if the rabbinate's monopoly ended in Israel, the rates might still not be cheap.

But one thing competition would almost certainly do is end a situation in which kashrut inspectors feel free to be as irrational as any medieval despot. A private organization whose inspectors behaved in this fashion would soon find itself losing business to more user-friendly competitors.

That does not mean inspectors will be forced to relax kashrut standards. Any business that wants to attract religious customers will need a credible kashrut label, and an organization whose standards are not trusted by the religious community will be unable to supply this commodity.

But what it does mean is that inspectors will have to try to be pleasant rather than rude, to explain their requirements in advance rather than merely meting out punishment after the fact, to make allowances for lapses in cases where this is halachically permissible, and in general to behave like decent human beings.

But even on a religious level, the arbitrary acts too often perpetrated by the rabbinate's kashrut inspectors — such as the destruction of a whole cafeteria's worth of food in the Knesset this month — constitute hillul Hashem (desecration of God's name).

Preventing hillul Hashem is as important a religious goal as maintaining kashrut standards. And privatizing the kashrut industry offers the best chance of advancing both goals at once.