Racism or Halakha? An Analysis of the Barkan Controversy
by Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman
The recent treatment of Ethiopian Jewish workers at the Barkan winery has sparked a powerful backlash in Israel and abroad. To review briefly: in order to boost sales in the Hareidi community, Barkan wished to acquire the kosher certification of Badatz Ha-Eidah Ha-Hareidit. Run by some of the most right-wing anti-Zionist rabbis in Jerusalem, the “Eidah” (or just “Badatz”) is probably the most widely accepted kosher certifier in the world. It is known for a stringent approach to almost every issue in Jewish dietary law and uncompromising enforcement of its standards in the products it certifies.
At a certain point in Barkan’s transition to implementing the requirements of the new supervision, the Badatz requested that three workers of Ethiopian extraction be removed from areas of the winery with access to unsealed wine. The Eidah was apparently concerned about the Jewish status of at least one of these workers. Jewish law states that (uncooked) wine handled by a non-Jew becomes non-kosher, and the Badatz could not tolerate questionably Jewish employees potentially coming into contact with wine under their supervision.
Not wanting to lose the Eidah’s approval, Barkan complied with the request and transferred these employees to a different area of the factory (contrary to some false preliminary reports, they were not fired and received no reduction in salary). When the public became aware of this, there was a powerful outcry against this perceived act of discrimination against dark-skinned employees. There were many calls on the internet for people to boycott Barkan wines as well as products certified by the Eidah. Under pressure of these economic threats as well as the negative PR, Barkan restored all the employees to their original posts. In a predictable response, the Badatz removed its certification from the affected wines.
It is easy to understand why so many people became swept up in the move to shame and pressure Barkan into defying the “racist” demand of the Eidah. Who can stomach the idea of casting aspersions on the Jewish status of kippah-sporting individuals just because of the color of their skin? American Jews are perhaps even more sensitive to anything that smacks of racism due to our consciousness of evil acts of discrimination that have taken place in this country purely due to skin color.
Although the desire to protest racism is admirable, it also has the potential to lead us in the wrong direction. In this case, there is one fact that was conspicuously and shockingly absent from the online firestorm: it is far from clear that the Ethiopians who identify as Jewish (Beta Israel) are actually Jews according to halakha. The general consensus is that we are responsible for ensuring the well-being of Beta Israel since they clung with conviction to their Jewish identity through centuries of travails in Ethiopia; however, they must undergo a proper conversion in order to be welcomed as a full-fledged halakhic Jews. In the absence of a conversion, an Ethiopian Jew has no place working in halakhically sensitive portions of a kosher winery, regardless of which agency supervises its kosher status.
Even assuming that all the Ethiopian workers at Barkan had some type of conversion, a stringent supervisor such as the Eidah Ha-Hareidit might be particular about the caliber of conversion it is willing to accept. The consumers who rely on the Badatz expect products bearing its insignia to adhere to certain standards. It is therefore not unreasonable of the Eidah to request that some or all Ethiopian workers be transferred until their Jewish credentials can be verified as being in accordance with these standards. One may legitimately disagree with the Eidah’s requirements; however, engagement of its kosher supervisory services is purely voluntary. A company such as Barkan that chooses to do so must follow its policies.
Like it or not, the fact that these employees are Ethiopian is immediately visible. This tipped off the Eidah right away that their Jewish status could not be taken for granted. The Eidah would have requested the same of any employee, regardless of skin color, whose Jewish status required further investigation in the view of its rabbis. Conversely, if an Ethiopian converted with the rabbinical court of the Eidah Ha-Hareidit, the Badatz would have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever about his or her handling wine.
There is no question that this affair could have been handled much more quietly and sensitively. However, the mad rush to accuse Barkan and the Eidah of racism stemmed largely from ignorance of the fact that the Jewish status of Beta Israel is actually a serious halakhic issue.
This ignorance is even more dangerous in the hands of those with political power. Citing the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 8 E.H. 11) that Ethiopian Jews are fully Jewish even without a conversion, MK Shuli Mualem Refaeli condemned the demand of the Eidah as being contrary to Jewish law. On this basis, she announced a plan to introduce a bill in the Knesset forbidding kosher supervising agencies from requesting the transfer of employees.
This proposal is quite problematic. The suggestion that the state can interfere with private supervisory organizations imposing their standards on the products they certify is misplaced and dangerous. Furthermore, the claim that the Eidah was acting against halakha is ludicrous. The Eidah has its own rabbinic leaders who are perfectly entitled to issue their own rulings dissenting from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or any other great rabbinic scholars.
On this issue, the Eidah’s position in fact reflects the consensus of contemporary authorities and it is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who is in the minority. Rabbis who insist that Ethiopians must convert include such luminaries as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe Y.D. 4:41), Elazar Shach, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Eliezer Y. Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 17:48). Thus, no Orthodox Jew (perhaps besides those who follow Rabbi Ovadia Yosef exclusively) should accept wines manufactured by non-converted Ethiopians. Although most would not be as strict as the Eidah regarding the type of conversion required, we can at least understand the underpinnings of the Badatz’s position.
We should also note that scholarly research strongly supports the contention that Ethiopian Jews are not halakhically Jewish. While the acceptability of academic findings in halakhic jurisprudence is a matter of debate, it is important to be aware that it is not only right-wing rabbis who cast doubt on the Jewish status of Beta Israel.
The way the episode of the Ethiopians at Barkan played out was unfortunate and caused hurt to the employees affected. Our goal here is only to point out that a more nuanced public reaction is in order, given the real and serious questions about the status of Ethiopian Jewry. We may dislike the politics and policies of the Eidah Ha-Hareidit, but ultimately we must be a bit more sympathetic to an organization insisting that a product under its supervision adhere to the standards of those who have given it their trust.