Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Controversy You Should Understand: The Calls to Boycott Barkan Wine

An interesting controversy has hit the media this week that might be confusing to you, if you're new to the orthodox community. The Israeli wine maker Barkan was outed as moving their Ethiopian-Jewish workers out of the parts of the wine process where they might touch the wine. It turned out this was a requirement of the kashrut agency they recently switched to, in order to appeal to a more chareidi (ultra-orthodox) customer base. And it turned into the latest battleground of the on-going saga of "Who Is Really a Jew?"

If you're new to these parts, there's a whole lot to unpack here.

Being a little glib, I can't help but think of the great name of a Facebook group: There's A Lot To Unpack Here, But We Should Burn The Whole Suitcase Instead. (That group is not for the faint of heart.)


Let's start with the most basic part: kashrut agencies oversee and can investigate everything a company does in order to make sure the product the business makes is kosher, from the ingredients to mechanical processes to financial records. They are a private organization that the wine company hires and must submit to if they want to have the certification. It's take it or leave it.

Since two Jews equals three opinions, there are many holdings on kashrut that can differ from organization to organization. People "hold by" some certifications and call others "unreliable," for any number of reasons. They won't eat or drink most or all of the products certified with an "unreliable" hechsher. (For example, some people might eat pareve items from a particular hechsher but not their meat or dairy items.)

Different communities call different hechsherim "unreliable." There is no central list that you as an individual should adopt. You should ask your local rabbi what is acceptable in your community and follow that. And even that isn't perfect. Some hechshers are perfectly acceptable by the same person in one location and not in another. I know of people who will hold by a certification within the country of origin on vacation but would not hold by it if bought from American shelves. If you want to dig deep into kashrut politics, there are many crazy stories about who will hold by what and where.

Sidenote: To be fair, part of the crazy of kashrut agencies is because their customers can also be a little nutty sometimes. For example, personally, I don't like other people in my house during Pesach because I have heard so many people explain why they don't ever eat out during Pesach...they feel no one will ever meet their standards and sometimes freely offer up examples of homes they felt weren't kosher enough. Whether it's right or wrong, I am very self-conscious of people judging my home during Pesach and prefer to sidestep the issue altogether because I value my mental health and don't need the drama. All this is to say that kashrut as a whole is kind of crazy sometimes and agencies must take customer crazy into account; the problem isn't just the agencies, though the agencies have had some very serious issues both halachically and legally. This policy did not develop in a vacuum. Customer perceptions of Ethiopian Jews (or the agency's assumptions about customer perceptions) were very likely a big factor here. This is almost certainly not a problem with one or two rogue rabbis within the organization.


In order to be "reliable," the customers must trust that the certifying agency can make the company conform to a certain set of halachic standards. Shockingly, this is open to abuse. Many people in the orthodox community are cynical about the kashrut industry and the power it can hold over companies and communities. Extortion, corruption, bribery, internal politics, actual political deals, failing to follow their halachic rulings and allowing treif products into the market, revenge...many accusations start flying when someone brings up an issue with a kashrut agency (*all* kashrut agencies get accused, in my experience). The power dynamics are skewed heavily in favor of the kashrut agency as a general rule. I don't doubt that there are many good people working within kashrut agencies and doing their best, but as a whole, it's hard to deny that kashrut has historically been a "dirty business," as I've heard many describe it.


Now for overseeing wine specifically. Wine is subject to some of the strictest halachic standards in Judaism, and probably the strictest in kashrut. At issue here, non-Jews cannot touch wine, generally interpreted as open wine (I've seen some apply this to closed wine, but that seems uncommon). Once a non-halachic-Jew has touched the wine, it is trief; no good, prohibited, banned. On paper, this also applies to a Jew who doesn't keep Shabbat, but I've seen very few people mention this, much less hold it as the standard for a bottle on a table.

One Barkan employee described his experience allegedly "treifing" up some wine:
“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.

In fact, we created mevushal (cooked) wine precisely to guard against these issues, outside a winery of course. (The most confused I've ever been on Shabbat was at a Chabad shul kiddush where all the wine was non-mevushal. There were 3 conversion candidates present besides myself, plus most of the congregation was not shomer Shabbat. Only allowing mevushal wine seems like it should be par for the course at a Chabad shul, which specializes in reaching out to people who are not currently shomer Shabbat. I was shocked and perplexed, and the wine was treif within two minutes but no one seemed to know or care.) If you're in the process of converting, you need to understand mevushal and non-mevushal wine. If the wine is not mevushal, this is one time you will need to reveal your conversion candidate status somehow so that you don't accidentally treif up the wine. It gets really complicated really fast. Oh btw, this all applies to grape juice too. And is an issue you need to be aware of at every meal and shul kiddush you go to. Super fun, amirite? 


via GIPHY


Now to the Ethiopian employees of Barkan. Ethiopian Jews, called Beta Israel, have a fascinating history, and I can only give a very short introduction here. I highly suggest learning more about their history and current circumstances in Israel. This group had been cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for a very long time, until the Israeli government did secret air lifts to save them from religious persecution by the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments and bring them to Israel in the 80s and early 90s. This is an embarrassingly superficial description, since that's not our point here.

No one in religious (or Israeli political) leadership was sure how to confirm whether these people had an unbroken halachically Jewish line, since halachic status is very important in many areas of Jewish law. Many people argued that they should be converted, either because they believed the Ethiopians were not really Jewish at all or that their status was too difficult to determine with certainty (I think the distinction in intent here matters, but some people don't). In the 1970s, the Israeli government, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren decided that the Beta Yisrael qualify as Jewish and thus could get Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which does not itself require halachic Jewish status. While the two Chief Rabbis ruled that the Ethiopian Jews were halachically Jewish, the Israeli government (which I presume means the Rabbinate?) required many (most?) people to get geirut l'chumrah, a conversion in case of doubt. Aka, just in case. You can read more about geirus l'chumra here. (Spoiler alert: I'm generally not a fan of geirus l'chumrah.)

But lots of Israelis still get all uppity about the Jewishness of Israeli Ethiopians, whether they converted or not. There was and continues to be intense racism against Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and much of it is cloaked under "they're not really Jews anyway, they don't deserve to be in Israel in the first place." Even those who converted

Apparently Eda Haredit, Barkan's new certifying agency, agrees:
“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.”

They do not hold by the Chief Rabbis' rulings and have decided these people's status is uncertain whether or not they converted.

And that is why this story is particularly important for conversion candidates to understand. Whether or not someone thinks of Ethiopian Jews as a whole or individual Ethiopian Jews as converts, this situation shows conversion denial on top of the racism involved (racism and conversion denial often go hand in hand, btw). It's important that so many people are willing to ignore or deny conversions they don't like. The normalization of the idea that some conversions are valid and some aren't even when performed by the same agency, the Rabbinate, is unacceptable on multiple levels. You must understand that no conversion is ever "safe" from questioning by people with bad motives (or simply bad middos). Stop looking for the bulletproof conversion because it doesn't exist, and it never will so long as we accept conversion denial as valid discourse. No one should ever pick and choose conversions to accept. If you want to deny all conversions from a particular beit din, that's a different discussion.


Back to the story. Edah told Barkan that Ethiopian Jews cannot be allowed to touch wine, or else it will become treif. And can you imagine how many ways you might accidentally touch wine or a vessel holding it in a winery?? Barkan began transferring Ethiopian employees to other parts of the business. Some early reports said they were fired, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Barkan went out of its way later to say that the transfers did not harm the employees' livelihood, which was nice of them I guess. 

In the initial story, the CEO of Barkan was recorded discussing this new requirement: 
“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.
As you can imagine, people are pretty angry about these comments.


The current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef decried this requirement by Edah as "pure racism." In fact, he sounds pretty woke:
“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.”
(He's not actually woke... he referred to African-Americans as "monkeys" in a sermon back in March and said he was just using a Talmudic term. Maybe he views American non-Jews differently from Israeli Jews?)

I haven't seen a statement by the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi or the Rabbinate.


My hot take: why the outrage against Barkan? Where's the outrage against Edah HaHaredit? That's the boycott you should be having if you want to boycott something. I may not like what Barkan's CEO said, but he's not wrong: if he wants to stay in business (and keep these employees employed), he feels he needs this certification, and he has to do what the certifying agency tells him even if he disagrees and even if he thinks the request is in violation of halacha. And this is the argument that everyone makes against kashrut agencies when they get all worked up at Shabbat lunch: agencies using their power over companies to make them do things that are questionable morally or ethically or even legally.

Boycotting Barkan doesn't solve the problem. It deflects from the problem and punishes one of the victims of a broken system. (As always, some victims are less sympathetic than others, but I do not doubt that this CEO was pushed against the wall on this issue; if nothing else, it's incredibly inconvenient and costly for him to move the Ethiopian workers and train replacements for them - I think he would have done this long ago if he honestly believed in this ruling. I believe it was only done because of Edah.)

Quickly, Barkan announced that workers would be returned to their jobs. I didn't find anything about whether they would continue to be certified by Eda HaHaredit or whether Eda would change their own policies. So as far I can tell, the problem continues, and we should not be lulled into complacency by such a temporary victory against one business when the agency itself continues to hold businesses to such a policy that is racist and against halacha. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I stumbled across your blog. Good luck on your Journey!

    Regarding this controversy, major world class rabbis including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein declared them as non Jews unless they convert. Most senior Ashkenazic rabbis in Israel concurred.

    Rabbi Yosef was in the minority.

    Thank you this very informative blog,

    Have a great week!

    ReplyDelete