Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef
Rabbi Yitzhak YosefEliran Aharon

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, excoriated one of the largest haredi organizations in Israel Tuesday, calling a recent ruling for the organization’s Kashrut supervision department “pure racism”.

According to a recent report by Kan, the Edah Haharedit, a haredi organization which maintains one of the largest and most widely used Kashrut supervision authorities in Israel, bars employees of Ethiopian descent at the “Barkan” winery from becoming directly involved in the production of wine.

The requirement imposed by the Edah Haharedit on Barkan as a condition for the winery’s continued use of its Kashrut supervision services – which are key to maintaining Barkan’s large share of the haredi market – stems from a rabbinic prohibition against the consumption of uncooked wine handled by non-Jews. Originally a ban on drinking wine which may have been used for pagan rituals, the prohibition was later expanded to all uncooked wine handled by non-Jews, with the aim of curbing assimilation.

In the case of the Barkan winery, the prohibition raises long-standing issues concerning the Jewishness of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

In the 1970s, both of Israel’s chief rabbis – Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren – ruled that the “Beta Israel”, a community of Ethiopians claiming to be part of a lost tribe of Israel, were in fact a genuine Jewish community with a tradition of ties to the Jewish people.

Disputes with other rabbinic authorities, however, prompted the requirement that Ethiopian immigrants coming to Israel undergo conversion ceremonies administered by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, to remove any remaining doubt regarding their status as Jews.

Despite their conversions, the Edah Haharedit - which does not recognize the State of Israel and has long been critical of state-administered conversions – has maintained a policy of barring Ethiopian Jews from directly handling wine at wineries which employ the Edah Haharedit Kashrut certification service.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi and son of Ovadiah Yosef, who was the first major Israeli rabbi to recognize Ethiopian Jewry, castigated the Edah Haharedit over its policy, calling it “pure racism”.

“There is absolutely no explanation for this kind of requirement [to ban Ethiopian Jews], except for pure racism. Ethiopian immigrants are unquestionably Jewish. The real question is whether we can rely on a Kashrut authority which likes to think of itself as being strict, but engages in ‘whitewashing’ and [behavior that amounts to] shedding the blood of other Jews, just because of their skin color.”