Barkan, one of Israel’s leading winemakers, recently banned its Ethiopian employees from working in its kosher wine production. After a media uproar in which everyone from Israel’s chief rabbi and political figures like President Reuven Rivlin cried racism, Barkan announced that its Ethiopian staff would be returning to work as usual, almost as if their Jewishness had never been questioned at all.
“The Tempo-Barkan group promotes equal treatment and opposes any manifestations of racism or discrimination,” Barkan, who is owned by Tempo, said in a released 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.”
What inspired Barkan to ban its Ethiopian Jewish employees from handling wine? Barkan was in the process of pursuing a kosher certification from Eda Haredit, a stringent ultra-Orthodox group, one whose certification would allow Barkan to appeal to a whole new subset of ultra-Orthodox clientele.
The history of the Ethiopian Jewish community’s acceptance in Israel is a contentious one. Though the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognizes the community of immigrants as Jewish, some ultra-Orthodox people still do not. Gentiles are forbidden from handling kosher wine, and as the ultra-Orthodox do not consider these people to be sufficiently Jewish, Eda Haredit demanded Barkan’s Ethiopian employees be removed from the wine-making process. Their demand was met.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called the matter “pure racism.”
President Reuven Rivlin agreed.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein’s tweet on the matter is racking up Twitter likes: “I have a hard time imagining a Jew who would refuse to drink wine produced by Jews of Ethiopian descent. Racism is shameful.”
After Israelis started social media campaigns to boycott Barkan products, the Ethiopian staffers have been reinstated.
Shira Feder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org