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Israeli winemaker under fire over racism against Ethiopian employees

Barkan Winery faced calls for a customer boycott. [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 June, 2018

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Ethiopian Jews have long been known to have suffered extensive discrimination inside Israel.

A major Israeli winery faced calls for a customer boycott Tuesday after its chief executive admitted to discriminating against employees of Ethiopian origin to accommodate demands from Jewish hardliners. 

An investigative report on public television Kan included a recording of Barkan Winery CEO Gilles Assouline saying he would have to relocate three workers of Ethiopian origin to tasks not including direct contact with the wine.

Assouline was heard explaining this was due to the demands of the Eda Haredit, an ultra-Orthodox group that had been providing kosher supervision for the winery over the past year.

According to Jewish law, gentiles are prohibited from handling wine.

The Eda Haredit told Kan there could be doubts whether all of the employees of Ethiopian origin were indeed Jewish, and therefore requested all three be relocated within the organisation.

Decades ago, Israel's then chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled that the Ethiopian Jews were indeed Jews, according to the ultra-Orthodox standards of Israel's chief rabbinate.

The Eda Haredit does not accept the chief rabbinate's authority on many issues, including dietary laws and marriage, and the group has parallel systems of supervising these issues.

Current chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son of Ovadia Yosef, slammed the Eda Haredit's directive to Barkan, saying "there could be no explanation to such an order other than pure racism".

"Ethiopian Jews are Jews for all purposes," Yosef said in a statement.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin backed Yosef's remarks, adding on Tuesday that Ethiopian Jews for hundreds of years were willing to give their lives for their religion.

"We should remember that to prevent the recurrence of such events and to amend severe errors such as what happened at Barkan winery." 

Assouline was heard in the Kan report saying that while he personally had no problem with his Ethiopian-Israeli employees, "business is business".

Israeli politicians, journalists and wine drinkers took to social media to express their disdain from Barkan's conduct.

"I won't buy from those who humiliate Jews of Ethiopian origin and call on police to act against anyone violating the law that prohibits racial discrimination," Labour head Avi Gabbay said on Twitter.

Imaye Taga, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, posted a video of himself kicking a football and smashing a Barkan bottle hanging from a goal crossbar.

"Until the CEO of Barkan winery isn't fired for his racist remarks against the Ethiopian community, please refrain from buying their wines," tweeted Lior Chorev, an Israeli consultant.

Barkan itself had no immediate comment.

Ethiopian Jews have long been known to have suffered extensive discrimination inside Israel.

Racist policies such as forcing Ethiopian women to be injected with contraceptives, destroying blood donated by Ethiopians, and brutal police practices used against the community, have been made public over recent years.

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