As is usually the case in Israeli restaurants these days, the food was outstanding. As usual, we thought that the prices seemed expensive when compared with similar establishments in America. And, as usual, our friends, who are vegans, found plenty of vegan options on the menu. Five percent of Israelis are now vegan, an expanding number that has doubled in the last four years and is said to be the highest per-capita vegan rate in the world.
In actuality, however, it is anything but “business as usual” for Israeli restaurants these days. In the main street near our home, at least half a dozen restaurants have closed their doors over the last few months. The empty premises are unlikely to come back to life anytime soon. In 2015, across Israel, 600 more restaurants and cafes closed than opened.
In Jerusalem, revenue drops of anywhere from 50 percent to 85 percent have been reported by restaurants since the escalation of Palestinian violence in October. While no knife attack, car-ramming or shooting has taken place in a restaurant in Jerusalem during this outbreak, violence tends to keep tourists away and locals in their homes. Even in Tel Aviv, restaurant revenues are down by up to 20 percent in the last three months.
One might think that, in such an environment, restaurants would lower their prices to try to lure customers. But that’s not so simple either. Recent labor relations legislation from the Knesset, which raised both the minimum wage and National Insurance contributions, has substantially increased the cost of doing business. As one Israeli newspaper reported, typical wage costs for Israeli restaurant owners have gone up from 25 percent of revenues a decade ago to close to 40 percent today.
And then there’s kashrut. According to a December Finance Ministry report, kosher expenses in Israel amount to 2.8 billion shekels (over $700 million) per year and account for 3 percent of restaurant costs. The report estimates that this number could be reduced by up to 20 percent if the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut were to be dissolved. While there are signs of rebellion against the monopoly, it is not expected that the Rabbinate will lose control of kashrut in the near future.
Currently, about one-third of Israeli restaurants are certified as kosher, though the percentage is far higher in Jerusalem. In actuality, far more Israeli restaurants would be kosher if the rabbinate approved kosher licenses based solely on the food that the restaurant serves. But the rabbinate insists that the granting of a kashrut license is not just dependent on the food, but also requires that the restaurant be closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Consequently, many restaurants that serve kosher food, or would be happy to do so, are not certified as kosher because they are open seven days a week. For the business owner, it’s a difficult choice: A significant proportion of the population will only eat in restaurants that are certified as kosher, but considerable revenue is lost by not being open on Shabbat.
So the next time you eat in an Israeli restaurant, spare a thought for the owners of the establishment. They have a complex juggling act to perform that involves multiple competing interests at the intersection of a range of important Jewish principles. Not only do we expect them to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment with great food, but we want them to be mindful that tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of animals, needs to be minimized. We stipulate that the Jewish values that call for workers to be treated ethically and compensated with dignity should be upheld. Many also want the food to be kosher and the restaurant to respect the rhythms of Jewish time. All of this needs to be offered within circumstances where Jews are targeted in unpredictable ways – which, from time-to-time, keeps the tables empty. And, of course, we want the prices to be cheap.
It’s not easy. The restaurant owners deserve support. Not just from Israelis, but from Diaspora Jews as well. Why? Because, as the late Rabbi David Hartman z”l once taught, there is no better response to our enemies than Jews living life to the full, eating together, rejoicing together and arguing together in cheerful public meeting places like the restaurants of Israel.
Hartman was right. Jews living life exuberantly by Jewish values within a Jewish state is a tremendously powerful statement. It is a ray of bright light in a region of descending darkness. Even under the threat of attack, we must continue to demonstrate that we will never back down from doing what we are supposed to do: to celebrate life itself while living in accordance with our eternal ideals.
Rabbi Danny Schiff is a Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Community Foundation.