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The Muslim guardian of Israel's daily bread
("The Independent," April 6, 2009)

Tel Aviv, Israel - When Jaaber Hussein signs an agreement with Israel's Chief Rabbis tomorrow, he will be inking the only Arab-Jewish accord sure to be meticulously observed by both sides. The deal will make him the owner for one week of all bread, pasta and beer in Israel – well a huge amount of it anyway. The contract, signed for the past 12 years by the Muslim hotel food manager, is part of the traditional celebrations ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Jews are forbidden by biblical injunction to possess leavened bread, or chametz, during Passover and ironically an Arab is needed to properly observe the holiday. The agreement with Mr Hussein offers a way of complying with religious edicts without having to wastefully destroy massive quantities of food.

Through legal acrobatics, the forbidden goods belonging to the Israeli state are simply sold to Mr Hussein for the duration of Passover and then revert back to the state once the holiday is over. Like the government's adherence to the Sabbath and to dietary laws, the ceremony sets Israel apart as a Jewish state that upholds religious traditions.

Mr Hussein, a resident of the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, sees nothing odd in the arrangement, believing there are affinities between his Islamic faith and Judaism. He relishes the role the Jewish state has assigned him, one that puts his picture on the front pages of Israeli newspapers year after year.

"I see this as a way to help people with whom I work and live," he said.

Mr Hussein was a natural choice for the ritual because he works in a hotel that stringently observes Jewish dietary laws. He even keeps some of the strictures at home.

"There are many things that are close in the two religions. If not for politics, the religions would get along very well," he explains. One example he cites is the halal slaughtering of meat, which he likens to kosher slaughtering.

Passover, which celebrates the biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt, starts on Wednesday night and lasts for seven days, eight outside Israel.

The reason for the prohibition of leavened bread is, according to the Bible, that the Israelites departed Egypt in such haste that their bread did not have a chance to rise and so they ate the cracker-like unleavened bread known as matza.

Many of their descendants in modern Israel defer to this dictum every spring to the extent that a kind of fermented dough fixation suffuses the country. Housewives become the new slaves, scrubbing and vacuum cleaning to remove every trace of chametz. Religious men scald pots in the streets, making them kosher for the holiday.

For the Orthodox, there can be no half-measures. A single crumb that evades detection could spoil everything for Passover.

Those families who do not want the extra workload simply check in to kosher hotels and escape the ardour. Even secular Israelis stock up on pita bread and put it in their freezers so that they too have enough supplies to survive the week.

Tomorrow, Mr Hussein will put down a cash deposit of $4,800 (some 20,000 shekels or £3,245) for the $150m worth of leavened products he acquires from state companies, the prison service and the national stock of emergency supplies. The deposit will be returned at the end of the holiday, unless he decides to come up with the full value of the products. In that case he could, in theory, keep them all.

At the close of the holiday, the foodstuffs purchased by Mr Hussein revert back to their original owners, who have given the Chief Rabbis the power of attorney over their leavened products. "It's a firm, strong agreement done in the best way," Mr Hussein said.

But Israelis are divided on whether the state should be enforcing Passover. A law introduced by religious parties in 1986 bans the display of bread in public areas, except in those where there is a non-Jewish majority. But a court decision last year said it was legal for restaurants to sell leavened products during Passover on the grounds that they are not public spaces. The move sparked anger among the ultra-Orthodox Jews.

This year, ultra-Orthodox activists in Jerusalem sent warning letters to stores, telling them not to sell bread or pizza because this could bring divine punishment on the city. And the chief rabbinate called for supermarkets to install a computer program that would enable cash registers to detect unleavened products by their bar codes so sales could be stopped. Supermarkets cover over their chametz with papers, but the rabbis are concerned that some customers lift the covers and buy proscribed foods.

Variations of the contract between the Israeli state and Mr Hussein are being signed all over the world between selected non-Jews and rabbis, including those in the UK. The ceremony, like the absence of civil marriages in the country, reflects "some elements of theocracy" in the Israeli state, says Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Israel is a unique state – very modern on the one hand but with very strong religious traditional elements on the other. Every government keeps this ritual."

In one final Passover twist, the restaurants of Mr Hussein's town, Abu Ghosh, are gearing up for what is always their busiest week of the year, catering to secular Jews who want to get away from the holiday's dietary strictures.

"It is also nice that you have people who don't keep Passover, who eat leavened bread," Mr Hussein said. "It is good that we are also able to help the people who are not religious."

Despite his goodwill, the chief rabbinate staffers do not seem overly attached to Israel's Arab of Passover. "It is true he is enabling people to celebrate the holiday, but if he didn't do it, there are plenty of other people who would," said Avi Blumenthal, an aide to Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.


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