The last factory in Israel to make army boots, active since the founding of the state in 1948, has been informed by the Defense Ministry that it will not be ordering new boots in 2014, likely forcing the closure of the factory within weeks.
“We’re at war again,” boot production director Shimon Horovitz told The Times of Israel on Monday. “But this time the gloves are off.”
Brill Shoe Industries Ltd, located in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion and the employer of 120 people, has been engaged in a long struggle with the military, revolving around the cost, comfort and durability of its shoes.
Price is a perennial issue. The Defense Ministry can purchase US-made boots from manufacturers in Michigan or Illinois for roughly $70 a pair, using a small fraction of the annual US aid dollars, which must be spent in the US. Brill’s boots are paid for with Israeli tax money and cost roughly $110. Horovitz said, however, that the US price does not include shipping, storage or Israeli tax. Additionally, he said he told the Defense Ministry that Brill would match any US price and that he had received assurances, on several occasions, that despite recent cuts to the defense budget, the matter was “solvable.”
Comfort is an issue that soldiers have raised and Horovitz has acknowledged. In 2001, he said, the IDF’s Technology and Logistics Directorate sent its new boot specifications to Brill. Horovitz, who studied boot construction in Italy and England and is the son and grandson of a cobbler, said he told the army the boot was poorly designed, with a flat sole and an overly snug fit. “The officer in charge is a textile man, not a shoemaker,” he explained, during a visit to the factory last year.
Nonetheless, the Defense Ministry expressed satisfaction with the boot, awarding the IDF a prize for design and writing explicitly in a January 2012 memo to Finance Ministry officials: “There has been satisfaction with the boots they have provided, with their adherence to timetables, and with the prices agreed upon with the company.”
Today, Brill has a far more comfortable boot that is being field tested by the military. It’s shaped to the Israeli foot, Horovitz said, meaning that the last is wider, the sizes are smaller and the cuff is designed with the understanding that the distance between the knee and the ankle is shorter.
But it may never be worn by the majority of IDF soldiers. On Thursday, the Defense Ministry sent Brill a letter notifying the company that it would not order Israeli boots for 2014 but rather from US manufacturers. The ministry said that streamlining within the army and cuts to the defense budget necessitated the shift: “In light of the new budgetary reality the Defense Ministry will not be ordering new apparel from the company,” a ministry statement read.
Horovitz railed against the move, calling the ministry’s different explanations a tale “from Arabian Nights,” and said he would seek politcal and legal recourse.
Structurally, he said, the US boot has a polyurethane sole, which means that it has a very short shelf life and is likely to crumble underfoot when a reservist takes it out of the closet once a year. [The Brill boot sole is made of direct injection dual-density rubber, which affords the boot a long shelf life and was one of the IDF's initial boot requirements.]
Moreover, Horovitz asserted, the cancellation of the 2014 order would endanger Israeli society in times of war and peace.
During the Second Lebanon War, the factory stayed open 24 hours a day, churning out hundreds of pairs of boots, a production managed told The Times of Israel. And in between wars, the factory provides jobs to immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and a group of Bedouin men from the Negev, among others. “[US] congressmen take care of their own state’s factories,” Horovitz said. “Even the cows are American.”
Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich, a supporter of workers’ rights and of unionized labor, vented her frustration during a 2012 Knesset meeting. “Is there any logic to [the fact] that my son who serves in the army will walk around with American boots at the expense of workers’ jobs in the factory?” she asked. “Is there any sort of national logic to that?”