Wine (illustration)
Wine (illustration)iStock

Jacques Bar, CEO of the Tempo company which owns the Barkan winery, announced on Tuesday evening that Ethiopian workers who were transferred to another job following the instruction of the Edah Haharedit will be returned to their original jobs starting on Wednesday.

"The Tempo Group promotes equal employment and opposes any manifestations of racism or discrimination," he said. "It should be stressed that in any case, even if one of the workers had been moved from his position, his livelihood would not have been impaired."

The statement came a day after Kan news reported that Edah Haharedit, a haredi organization which maintains one of the largest and most widely used Kashrut supervision authorities in Israel, had been barring employees of Ethiopian descent at the Barkan winery from becoming directly involved in the production of wine.

The requirement imposed by 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.

The directive led to harsh criticism of the winery. President Reuven Rivlin said that "Ethiopian Jews are those who for centuries were willing to sacrifice their lives because of their Jewishness. We should remember this so that such cases do not occur again that grave mistakes such as the one that took place at the Barkan winery be rectified.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein described the directive as shameful racism and tweeted, "I find it difficult to believe that there is one Jew who will refuse to drink wine produced by Ethiopian Jews.”

The prohibition raises long-standing issues concerning the Jewishness of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

In the 1970s, both of Israel’s chief rabbis – Rabbi Ovadia 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.