Barkan Wineries is facing a furious backlash after an undercover investigation revealed that the company banned Ethiopian employees from coming in contact with its wine due to an ostensible doubt about their Jewishness. Israel’s chief rabbi condemned the ban as “pure racism,” the president castigated the winery, the Knesset speaker called it shameful, while an MK backed a growing public boycott of one of Israel’s leading winemakers.
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 public broadcaster 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, Barkan was required by the group to ban all its Ethiopian workers from coming in contact with the wine, citing 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 from the production to other positions in the factory.
In a recording of a phone call between an Ethiopian worker and a senior manager, Barkan said that the employees were being moved due to religious considerations.
“I am in a very uncomfortable situation regarding the kashrut,” Barkan CEO Gilles Assouline can be heard explaining to the Ethiopian worker in the recorded phone call obtained by Kan.
“Because of the kashrut, I need to transfer Yair (another Ethiopian worker) to a different work station… so that he won’t be next to the doors touching the filling [containers],” he said.
“Everyone has their values, and I have mine, and you are a Jew, he’s a Jew and I’m a Jew. But, at the end of the day it’s business, and business is business,” Assouline told the worker.
“We can’t leave this market for [rival winery] Teperberg. They are taking over this market and we are going to be in trouble because of it,” he added.
A number of the workers who spoke to Kan said they were angered and humiliated by the new policies.
“Once I touched the wine, and the [kashrut] supervisor ran over to me and smashed the bottles right in front of me,” one Ethiopian Barkan employee told Kan.
“Every other Jew who comes to work there comes in contact with wine, but we are not allowed to. Why, because I’m different?” another said. “I feel humiliated. This is racism.”
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.”
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.
“I view the directive issued by the so-called ‘Kashrut Corps’ to ban religiously observant Ethiopian Jews from making wine with the utmost severity,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “There is no excuse for issuing such instructions other than pure racism.”
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.”
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.
MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) joined boycott calls, slamming Barkan’s “shocking and disgusting behavior.” In a statement, she urged “anyone who cares about racism to boycott this wine until they apologize.”
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.
Although many of them are practicing Jews, the rabbinate in Israel doesn’t consider them Jewish, meaning they are not automatically eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return or marry in certain cities where local religious authorities are skeptical of their Jewishness.
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.
Those frustrations boiled over into violent protests three years ago after footage emerged of a uniformed Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by police. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews and their supporters blocked main highways and clashed with police in a bid to draw attention to their plight, including what they say is unchecked police brutality against their community members.