Dander Up In Israel Over Proposed Fur Ban

In Israel, the fur is flying - over fur. International animal rights activists are campaigning to make Israel the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur. But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community sees the measure as an affront to its religious identity.

A rancorous debate is rising in Israel, not over the building of Jewish settlements or the on-again, off-again peace process.

The fur is flying — over fur.

International animal-rights activists are campaigning for Israel to become the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur.

A bill to make Israel fur-free is being debated in the Knesset, pitting animal-rights campaigners against the lobbyists for the global fur industry and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which says the fur ban is an affront to its religious identity.

Joshua Rotbart, legal adviser for the Israeli animal-rights group Let the Animals Live, says Israel is well positioned to pave the way in banning fur. He says for one thing, the Israeli market isn't all that big. He says Israelis spend no more than $1.5 million a year on fur, unlike other countries that spend billions.

"We are not talking about Canada or the U.S. or China. It's a small industry and it's pretty easy to ban a small industry," said Rotbart, a lawyer.

Besides, he says, "It's hot here. You don't really need to wear fur."

Jewish law strictly forbids cruelty to or unnecessary suffering of animals. Rotbart says as his group worked on the legislative ban, it consulted with the rabbinic leadership.

"The message we want to spread to the world is enough is enough. It's all about the economy and the huge amount of money the manufacturers are making, but it's no longer an excuse to murder animals," he says.

Celebrities including Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney back the proposed ban, which recent polls show an overwhelming majority of Israelis support.

But the country's growing and politically powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish community opposes the ban.

The signature headdress of many Haredi Jewish men is called the shtreimel. Meant to resemble a crown, it's a large circular piece of velvet surrounded by sable. Worn on the Sabbath and holidays, generally by married men, it's a form of sanctification that grew from centuries-old religious traditions of Hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe.

On a recent day at a hat store in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Kriandy Gutzman accompanied a friend buying a new hat.

Gutzman says the shtreimel was worn in the Jewish ghettos of Poland, where it was known as a spodik. "It signifies beauty and royalty rather than a plain hat or no hat," she said.

Gutzman says it is part of their heritage and she wants nothing to do with the ban.

"No, we are going to wear our shtreimel. We have to wear our shtreimel," she said.

The proposed ban provides a religious exemption to those who wear the shtreimel.

But ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset such Chaim Amsellem still oppose the measure. He says 90 percent of the fur that comes into Israel is for religious purposes. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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