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The Politics of Pig

How swine may have swayed Israel's elections.

Just a week before the Israeli election, polls predicted a comfortable victory for Netanyahu and his secular rightist party, Likud. The conventional wisdom was that, following the Gaza war, the nation would be primarily concerned about security issues, benefiting the hard-line Netanyahu; civic and religious issues, most predicted, would take a backseat.

Enter the pig. Since the dawn of the Jewish state, pork has been at the forefront of tensions between secular and religious. During severe food shortages in the 1950s, secular kibbutzim (farming communes) began raising pigs in secret to survive. Since pigs are highly efficient animals that can rapidly convert food scraps into fat, many kibbutzim purchased them from their Arab neighbors. Although it began out of necessity, the pork habit stuck, creating tension within an Israeli society that was still forming its Jewish identity. Broadly supported laws passed in 1956 and 1962 banning pig-breeding outside of specified Christian Arab regions and restricting the sale of pork.

As religious and secular Israelis diverged, support for the anti-pork legislation waned. A clandestine market developed that relied on legal loopholes and deception; during his tenure in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman likened pork to cocaine. But as religious parties began to leverage their participation in government coalitions to impose conservative social restrictions, swine legislation came to epitomize these repressive, anti-democratic politics. Likud helped bring religious parties back into power, which they used to propose a law fully banning pork in 1990. Thereafter, pork barbecues--often on Yom Kippur itself--became a form of political protest for diehard secularists. By 1992, selling pork was finally de-facto legalized with the Knesset’s enactment of Israel’s Basic Law, causing anti-pork activists to take their battles from the national stage to smaller municipalities.

In the final stretch of this month’s election, while Likud, centrist Kadima, and leftist Labor fought over security issues, pork again took center stage as two smaller (yet powerful) parties sparred over social issues. It began when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party charged Avigdor Lieberman of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, as well as the Russian immigrants that make up a large part of his constituency, with denigrating Israeli society by “selling pork and praying at churches.” In an interview with Israel’s leading daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, Yosef further attacked Lieberman supporters: “These are people who do not have Torah, people who want civil marriages, shops that sell pork, and the army enlistment of yeshiva students. … Whoever does so commits an intolerable sin. Whoever does so supports Satan and the evil inclination.”

Shas continued pressing the pork issue, no doubt trying to ensure its religious constituents that the party will work to close the sausage plants and corner Russian delis once and for all. When Lieberman visited the Western Wall, the Israeli equivalent to kissing babies, sources in Shas told the Jerusalem Post, “We suggest the note Lieberman stuffs in between the Western Wall's stones include a supplication to be forgiven for his sin of intending to open stores that sell pork meat and institutionalize civil marriage.”

Yosef’s incendiary comments were an opportunity for Lieberman to consolidate his hold on Russian and Eastern European immigrants--who make up nearly a sixth of the Israeli population, and whose absorption into Israel has been extremely strained. A substantial portion of those immigrants who poured into Israel en masse in the 1990s are not legally Jewish, which means they are not allowed certain privileges, such as a Jewish wedding or burial. Many have been housed in what are effectively immigrant ghettos, where former doctors and lawyers must humiliatingly compete with unskilled laborers for work. Add to these problems the fact that Russians are consistently mocked in Israeli popular culture, such as the hapless Russian character in the popular satirical Israeli television show Eretz Nehederet, and it is easy to understand the tensions within Israel’s Russian community.

The ultra-Orthodox community reserves a special animosity towards Russians, who they see as secularizing Israeli society and flouting Jewish tradition--illustrated most strikingly by their bolstering the pork trade. The influx of immigrants from a nation where pig meat was a staple of life and culture has been a boon to the quasi-legal industry, with many new grocery stores and delis opening in the past 15 years to serve their needs. The ultra-Orthodox see it as a direct insult--as if pig heads are tauntingly sticking their tongues out of shop windows, as Tel Aviv chef Jeffrey Lewis described it to me.

Escalating tensions have led to clashes between Russian immigrants and their religious neighbors in a number of cities across the country. In August 2007, for example, a Russian-owned deli was attacked in the northern beach town of Netanya--an occurrence that had become so commonplace that is was a theme canonized in the 2005 Israeli film, The Schwartz Dynasty. A month later, a similar non-kosher shop in Tzfat was attacked, just 24 hours after the Jewish Day of Atonement. The owner of a pork processing factory in Haifa, Dadi Marom, complained to me that every Friday afternoon his weekly sausage and beer tasting is interrupted by ultra-Orthodox protests.

Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist of Russian Moldovan origin, is well aware of the unease of Russians in Israel, and has always purported to represent their interests. In fact, the very name of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu (which means “Israel Our Home”), appeals to that insecurity. Lieberman’s “no loyalty, no citizenship” rallying cry--meant to force Arab citizens to declare loyalty oaths to the Jewish state--has resounded in the Russian community, generating a feeling of belonging by alienating the Arab population.

In lambasting the sausages and pork chops of Russian culture right before the election, Yosef aroused widespread fear among the Russian population of what Shas would do if it won enough votes to enter a governing coalition. “I wasn't going to vote this year but now my husband says we have to vote for [Lieberman], otherwise [Shas] will shut us down,” Haaretz quoted one Russian shop-owner as saying. “It's true we don't sell pork here, but I'm from Russia and that might be enough [to close us.]” Lieberman himself credited Yosef for his bump in support, saying that of all the forces working in his favor, “No doubt, the rabbi deserves first prize.”

Netanyahu was also damaged by the rising Russian tide against Shas. His Likud party had turned to religious parties such as Shas and Agudat Israel to build coalitions in the past, which has facilitated their attempts to ban pork, make selling leavened bread on Passover illegal, and perpetuate many policies that singularly serve the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community. Therefore, while many Russian voters cared about Netanyahu’s security position, Lieberman’s core platform promised both the security of their borders as well as their culture--meats, cheeses, and all. It is not surprising, then, that Lieberman’s gains in support coincided in a drop in support for Likud--which, according to the last published poll before the election (released the day before Yosef's speech), was slated to win a slim lead over the Kadima party.

To be sure, many Russian immigrants were also attracted by Lieberman’s ultra-nationalism; but the secular-religious rift embodied by the pig controversy seems to have been enough of a factor to siphon sufficient votes from Likud to prevent Netanyahu’s predicted victory. Russian fear of an ascendant Shas helped mobilize Lieberman’s base and consequently win enough votes to make his party a major player in the current coalition negotiations.

In an ironic twist, the likeliest governing coalition to emerge from the inconclusive election results is a right-wing alliance of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Shas. But as illustrated by the pork posturing during the campaign season, the deep animosity between Yisrael Beitunu and Shas will make for a tenuous alliance that even security concerns may not be able to hold together for very long.

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is a writer in New York. He researched Israel’s pork industry as a 2007-8 Arnold Fellow.

By Jeffrey Yoskowitz