Kashrut authority revokes winery’s license for reinstating Ethiopian workers

Eda Haredit, which provoked racism storm, says it has frozen kosher certification for certain wines due to doubts over Jewish status of employees

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

A leading Israeli winery at the center of a racism scandal has lost its stamp of approval from a strict kashrut authority, which required it to ban its Ethiopian employees from coming in contact with its wine due to an ostensible doubt over their Jewishness.

Barkan Wineries, which first banned and then reinstated the workers, said Thursday it no longer had certification from the Eda Haredit, a private hardline ultra-Orthodox group, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Gavrial Poppenheim, head of Eda Haredit, told the Kan state broadcaster that Barkan’s license had been suspended in part “until the situation regarding the Ethiopian employees is clarified.” He said the license was revoked for some of Barkan’s wines, but not all.

The suspension of Barkan’s license came a day after the winery returned its Ethiopian workers to their regular jobs after criticism from political and religious figures and widespread calls on social media for a boycott of the kosher wine.

The furious backlash against Barkan erupted Monday after an undercover investigation by Kan revealed the winery had banned Ethiopian factory workers from handling wine in order to obtain an additional, more rigorous kosher certificate from the Eda Haredit. The private authority had required Barkan to distance its Ethiopian employees from the wine, citing a Jewish legal ban on gentiles handling the product.

Even though the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognizes the Ethiopian community as Jewish, some ultra-Orthodox communities do not recognize all of them as Jewish according to religious law.

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

In a recorded phone call obtained by Kan, Barkan CEO Gilles Assouline admitted to an Ethiopian employee that he and several others were being reassigned to other parts of the factory to comply with the new guidelines. Assouline said he was pursuing the additional certification from the Eda Haredit to expand its market to ultra-Orthodox Jews, remarking that “business is business.”

A number of the workers told Kan they were angered and humiliated by the new policies, branding them “racist.” Israel’s chief rabbi swiftly condemned the ban as “pure racism,” the president castigated the winery, and the Knesset speaker called it “racist” and “shameful.”

Official conversions

An Eda Haredit spokesperson explained to the religious Israel National News website this week that the organization required Barkan to transfer the Ethiopians from filling stations since it could not verify their Jewishness.

“In the various immigrations from Ethiopia there were some who were not Jewish,” the spokesperson said. He noted that not all of the Ethiopian immigrants in the last 30 years underwent official conversion when they arrived. He claimed that Eda Haredit had required all of the Ethiopian workers be removed from the filling stations to avoid insulting them by individually inquiring about their conversion status.

Eda Haredit also defended its strict requirements earlier this week, saying in a statement released amid the public outcry that its “commitment to wine lovers” meant it was “even more careful about wine production by those whose Jewishness is in doubt.”

‘Pure racism’

Monday’s investigative report by Kan immediately generated an outcry from both secular and religious Israelis, with calls for a boycott and an investigation into Barkan’s policies.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef vowed to investigate the employment practices at the winery, saying there was “no excuse for issuing such instructions other than pure racism,” while President Reuven Rivlin said the incident was a “terrible injustice” and called for the ban to be reversed.

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

Throughout the week, a growing number of Israelis — including Yesh Atid MK Yael German — took to social media to demand Assouline’s resignation and called for a boycott of Barkan, with many quoting the CEO’s “business is business” remark.

By Wednesday morning, Barkan announced that all of its Ethiopian employees would be returned to their positions, and could work at the factory unrestricted.

The Tempo group, which owns Barkan, said in a statement that it “promotes equal treatment and opposes any manifestations of racism or discrimination,” adding that it wanted to avoid being dragged into “a political [conflict] of one sort or another.”

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.

Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.

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