Rise of the ultra-orthodox in Israel

By Donald Macintyre

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 in Rishon Letzion just south of Tel Aviv this week and declared, "There it is: the Last Supper".

What Schlinger, 60, was referring to was the weekend announcement by the Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaidamak that he has bought the entire Tiv Taam supermarket company and he proposes to make its famous food counters kosher from now on.

No more highly convenient - if defiantly non-religious - opening on Shabbat. No more ham, salami, shellfish, pork sausages and all the other non-kosher food - that has brought Schlinger and tens of thousands of her Israeli fellow shoppers to the 24-store chain over the past 15 years.

The shock waves sent through Israel by Gaidamak's purchase and plans are underlined by the urban myths it has already generated. Schlinger, whose origins are Romanian Jewish, is from Tel Aviv and 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 - like most of his fellow one million immigrants from the Soviet Union is not an orthodox religious Jew but one whose aides have been quick to say has never eaten pork in his life - enjoyed a plate of distinctly unkosher "fruits de mer" on the day he signed the deal.

"This was a place where you get everything," she 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."

Victor Sergio, 75 a retired computer expert and another Tiv Taam customer, asked a fellow shopper at the lavishly stocked delicatessen counter: "Where are you going to buy your ham now?" before declaring: "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."

Gaidamak was not at Rishon Letzion to hear these complaints. But he flatly gave his answer, in an interview 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 caused by Gaidamak, you must understand the chain's role as a bastion of secular consumerism throughout Israel.

What was revolutionary about Tiv Taam 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 are bastions of secular consumerism, stocked with non-kosher delicacies and food and drink of all kinds marketed for immigrants to Israel 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 will be 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.

In 1990, Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government tried to pass a law making the sale of pork illegal. At Mizra they still remember a TV 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.

It is also necessary to understand something of the Moscow-born Gaidamak, a colourful figure who has not hesitated to use his seemingly limitless money to buy a degree of political influence.

Gaidamak 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 last summer Gaidamak paid about £7 million ($18 million) to house northerners seeking refuge from the Katyusha rockets in two "tent cities" on the Mediterranean coast.

Then, in November, he funded a week-long trip to the Red Sea resort of Eilat for residents of Sderot, the Israeli town easily the worst affected by rockets from Gaza.

Whether or not his repeated offers of help to Sderot - including financing shelters - was calculated to embarrass a government under local fire for not doing to more to aid its citizens, it had that effect, infuriating both Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister and his Defence Minister Amir Peretz, a Sderot native.

In December, Gaidamak threw a lavish Hannukah Party in Tel Aviv for which he flew in Enrique Iglesias to entertain his A-list guests, the star of whom was the leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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

And while he has sought to capitalise on the widespread Israeli view that too much of politics is corrupt, 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.

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 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 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 birthrate 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 the ultra orthodox and secular Israel are indeed nothing new. They are what gave rise 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 - illegal in international law - settlements in Arab East Jerusalem, not because as a community they especially want to live in occupied areas but because they desperately need housing.

And highly publicised rows have broken out - 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 is certainly growing. A Globes business news service report last year put it at around 630,000, and an Israeli demographer has estimated it as doubling every 17 years.

But it is unlikely that Gaidamak has announced his move merely for business reasons. Instead, there may be two other factors. One is a possibility floated in Rishon Letzion by a reflective 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.

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 a 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. "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 Gaidamak will be able to kosherise his acquisition - and keep it afloat - remains to be seen. For secular demand is high and while in some stores there is a strong nearby ultra-orthodox community to make up the numbers, in Rishon Letzion it may prove more difficult.

And the Russians are wary of the move. Leaving the store with his pork, Pavel Rubstein, who came from the former Soviet Union as a 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."

But a loss of business may be a price the ambitious 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.

- Independent

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