When one thinks of Israel, one doesn’t usually think of pork, the ultimate abomination in food to Jews who keep kosher. But wait. Pigs are bred, slaughtered and processed in Israel, and Israelis by the thousands consume pork products voraciously. This may come as a rude awakening to Jews in the Diaspora, but anyone who’s lived in Tel Aviv or any other city in Israel is aware that pork, euphemistically known as white meat, is widely available in the Jewish state.
Chen Shelach’s droll documentary, Praise the Lard, which will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 5 and May 8, explores this controversial topic at length.
Shelach knows his subject well, having worked in the first Israeli pork factory, which churned out a vast array of delectable deli goods ranging from sausages to bacon. It was built in 1957 on the grounds of Kibbutz Mizra, which was founded in 1923 by secular European Jewish immigrants.
Most Israeli Jews avoid pork like the plague because it blatantly defies Jewish dietary laws. Pigs, too, have been an historic symbol of hostility and hatred toward Jews. Yet there has always been an appetite for pork in Israel, its taboo status notwithstanding. Israeli Christian Arabs consume it, as do a minority of Jews. So a market for pork definitely exists in Israel, notwithstanding the fierce enmity it raises among traditional Jews.
Shelach regards pork in philosophical terms, equating its consumption with the democratic principle of freedom of choice. In other words, does the Israeli government have a right to enforce its culinary preferences on a diverse citizenry?
It’s a question the Israeli government has grappled with since 1961, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pushed through legislation in the Knesset forbidding pig farming in Israel. Under pressure from France, then one of Israel’s closest friends, Israel amended the law and allowed it in Christian areas of the country. But even this amendment was problematic, as Shelach points out. Muslim Arabs, vastly outnumbering Christian Arabs in Christian districts, objected to the compromise.
This solution did not please religious Jews either. Shelach interviews several Israeli Jews who abhor made-in-Israel pork. Among them is Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the ex-leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the former minister of immigrant absorption, who claims his father would have dropped dead of a heart attack had he been told that the production of pork would become commonplace in Israel one day.
Shelach’s film focuses on Kibbutz Mizra, where pig farming, oddly enough, was inextricably associated with the advancement of secularism and the formation of a new Jewish identity in Israel. One of its residents, Sar Eyal, the former chief executive officer of the pork factory, discloses that its expansion was facilitated by an Israeli cabinet minister, Ariel Sharon, whose yen for pork was not exactly a state secret.
In the early 1990s, the Israeli government came under renewed pressure to ban pig farming, imperilling Kibbutz Mizra’s future. The anti-pork campaign floundered with the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War, during which Israeli cities were bombarded by Iraqi Scud missiles. Shelach speculates that the influx of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jewish immigrants around the same time saved the pork industry from possible oblivion. Russian Jews, not having generally observed the rules of kashrut, saw absolutely nothing wrong with eating pork.
Much to the disgust of religious Jews, the Russian view was validated by an Israeli Supreme Court verdict declaring pork to be a legal commodity, thereby officially ending the national debate on pork in Israel.
Yet, as Shelach suggests, the very idea of pork still inflames the passions of many Israelis.