After furor, Barkan winery says Ethiopian workers to work as usual

Leading winemaker had banned employees of African descent from coming into contact with wine to comply with strict new kosher license, prompting cries of racism

Wine barrels piled up at the Barkan winery. August 2, 2012. (Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)
Wine barrels piled up at the Barkan winery. August 2, 2012. (Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)

After an outcry by political figures and Israel’s chief rabbi, and calls on social media for a boycott, a leading Israeli winery announced Tuesday evening that its Ethiopian workers would return to work as usual and not be prevented from coming in contact with its wine due to alleged doubts about their Jewishness.

The employees will return to the their jobs at Barkan Wineries on Wednesday morning, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The Tempo group, which owns Barkan, said in a statement that equality is a mainstay of its employment policies, and rejected any blame. The group said decisions on the identity of employees at certain so-called sensitive points in the wine-making process were regularly made by outside kosher supervisors.

“The Tempo-Barkan group promotes equal treatment and opposes any manifestations of racism or discrimination,” the company said in a statement. “Since we found ourselves in a situation which was not of our making, and understood that we were being dragged into a political [conflict] of one sort or another — and since all our employers are equally dear to us — the director of the company has immediately instructed to not remove any workers from their positions.

“It should be stressed that in any case, even if any workers had been moved from their positions, it would not have impacted their livelihood.”

Employees of the Barkan Winery who were transferred from their jobs over questions of their Jewishness. (screen capture: Kan)

Barkan had faced a furious backlash after an undercover investigation by Kan showed that the company had banned Ethiopian employees from handling wines at certain sections of the production line, in order to satisfy an ultra-Orthodox kosher certification. Israel’s chief rabbi condemned the ban as “pure racism,” the president castigated the winery, and the Knesset speaker called it shameful.

Last year, Barkan’s management decided to pursue an additional, more rigorous kosher certification from the Eda Haredit, a private hardline ultra-Orthodox group, according to a Monday investigative report by Kan (Hebrew link).

The winery had already been certified kosher under a local rabbinical authority, but sought the additional certification to expand its market to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

In order to obtain Eda Haredit certification, the report said, Barkan was required by the group to ban its Ethiopian workers from coming in contact with the wine at certain points in the process. Supervisors allegedly cited a halachic ban on gentiles handling wine, even though the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognizes the Ethiopian community as Jewish.

Some ultra-Orthodox communities do not recognize Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel in the last 30 years as Jewish according to religious law.

Barkan agreed to comply with the Eda Haredit demand, and in recent months began transferring its Ethiopian workers to other positions in the factory.

In a recording of a phone call between an Ethiopian worker and CEO Gilles Assouline, the latter said that the employees were being moved due to religious considerations.

The Eda Haredit kashrut supervisor seen working at the Barkan Winery. (screen capture: Kan)

When asked about the new policies at the Barkan factory, the Eda Haredit cited Jewish religious law that forbids gentiles from coming into contact with wine.

“Due to our commitment to wine lovers who also keep kosher, [Eda Haredit] is even more careful about wine production by those whose Jewishness is in doubt,” the group said in a statement.

The Eda Haredit inspector supervising Barkan confirmed to Kan that he does not allow most of the Ethiopian employees to touch the wine, explaining that the private organization “is not willing to accept Ethiopians.”

‘Pure racism’

The Kan report on Monday immediately generated an outcry from both secular and religious Israelis, with calls for a boycott and an investigation into the company’s policies.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef vowed to investigate the employment practices at Barkan, which he described as racist.

Yosef vowed to “act on the matter under the full extent of the law.”

President Reuven Rivlin also weighed in on the report, praising Yosef for his “clear and resolute statement against this terrible injustice at Barkan wineries.” The president called on the company to rectify its “serious error.”

The outside view of the Barkan winery in Hulda, central Israel. (screen capture: YouTube)

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein tweeted: “I have a hard time imagining a Jew who would refuse to drink wine produced by Jews of Ethiopian descent. Racism is shameful.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of Israelis took to social media to express outrage at Barkan, demanding Assouline resign and calling for boycott of the company, with many quoting the CEO’s “business is business” remark.

Assimilation in Israel

In the 1980s and 90s, Israel clandestinely airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the ancient community to the Jewish state and help its members integrate. About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of nearly 9 million. But their assimilation hasn’t been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and did not need to undergo conversion upon arriving in Israel, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community, which converted from Judaism to Christianity in the 19th century, are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.

Illustrative: Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against violence and racism directed at Israelis of Ethiopian descent, May 18, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Though Ethiopian immigrants have made strides in certain fields and have reached the halls of Israel’s parliament, many complain of systemic racism, lack of opportunity, discrimination by religious authorities, endemic poverty and routine police harassment.

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