The Volokh Conspiracy

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Religion and the Law

Should Israel-Boycotting Businesses Lose Kosher Certification?

Doesn't seem right to me, but I'd love to hear what people who know more about Jewish religious law think about it.


The Forward (Lauren Markoe) reports:

Ben & Jerry's decision this summer to stop selling its products in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has created a difficult and novel conundrum for its kosher certification agency: should it renew its contract with the ice cream company?

The Ben & Jerry's boycott doesn't apply to all of Israel, but the same issue would of course arise with other businesses that are involved in BDS or related movements.

Here's my quick thought, which would apply to many fields: We need institutions that we can trust to answer well-defined questions, without bringing in their or their customers' moral views about other questions.

We need testing companies that can evaluate whether someone knows math, without focusing on whether the person is likely to use math to promote the companies' vision of social justice. If an entity wants to hire or admit only left-wing mathematicians or right-wing mathematicians, it may do so (depending on whether it's bound by some law banning ideological discrimination). But the process of evaluating mathematical skill shouldn't be influenced by such judgment about ideology. Indeed, it's important for people to maintain a mental distinction between "knowledgeable" and "morally sound," and for institutions to support that distinction.

We need doctors to give us diet advice that it's on our interest, without being influenced by their view about what eating practices are better for the environment or are more humane. We could then of course independently adjust our decisions to include factors other than health, but we need someone who can give us a medical judgment that's separate from the other judgments.

We need kosher certification agencies that decide what food is consistent with Jewish dietary law (recognizing that different groups of Jews may have subtly different views on such matters) without considering whether the food distributors' other actions are good for Jews (or for others).

Now of course there are many kosher certification agencies, and if an agency wants to drop Ben & Jerry's, no law stops it from doing so. Indeed, I doubt that under the First Amendment, the government could stop kosher certification agencies from defining their evaluation criteria as they liked. And if someone wants to expressly and clearly promote its mark as not just "this is kosher" but "this is kosher and pro-Israel," they can do so. (Likewise, for instance, there's nothing wrong with someone certifying food as "kosher vegan.")

But it seems to me that the traditional, well-understood job of a kosher certification agency is simply to render an honest judgment about whether a particular food does or does not comply with Jewish law. Having the agencies consider other political or moral factors, without expressly and clearly recasting their mission (as in the "kosher vegan" example), would dilute the importance of the Jewish law rules—which I take it observant Jews believe they must follow as a matter of God's command—by mixing them with mere political judgments (however strongly they may be felt by many Jews). And that is especially troublesome in an environment where people's success in pressuring one agency to impose such ideological standards may easily lead to more such pressure on other agencies as well.

On the other hand, I admit that my knowledge of Jewish religious law and how it fits in Jewish life is limited, so I'd love to hear what observant Jews think about it. Please post your thoughts in the comments!