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Ethiopian Workers to Return to Barkan Wineries Following Public Outcry Over Status

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Wine barrels piled up at the Barkan winery. Aug. 2, 2012. Photo: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90. – Barkan Wineries announced on Tuesday that its Ethiopian workers would return to work on kosher wines, following an outcry over a decision by winery ownership to fire them due to doubts as to their status as Jews.

Last year, Barkan’s management decided to upgrade to the most stringent Israeli kosher certification, issued by the Eda Haredit ultra-Orthodox kosher certifier. According to Barkan, the certifiers required the company to prevent Ethiopian workers from touching the wine at certain points in the wine-making process because Jewish law forbids the consumption of wine handled by non-Jews.

An exposé by Israel’s Kan news station revealing Barkan’s ban on Ethiopian employees handling the wines sparked national outrage over the implication that Ethiopian Jews were not in fact Jewish and raised condemnation of the company for discriminatory practices. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate recognizes the Ethiopian community as Jewish, and Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called the ban “pure racism,” vowing to “act on the matter under the full extent of the law.”

“The Tempo-Barkan group promotes equal treatment and opposes any manifestations of racism or discrimination,” the company responded in a statement. “Since we found ourselves in a situation which was not of our making and understood that we were being dragged into a political [battle] of one sort or another—and since all our employers are equally dear to us—the director of the company has immediately instructed to not remove any workers from their positions.”

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The winery had already been certified kosher under a local rabbinical authority, but sought the additional certification to expand its market to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Israel spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clandestinely airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to the Jewish state. The current population stands at around 140,000.

The Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish community was recognized as fully Jewish upon arrival. Members of the Falash Mura community, which had converted to Christianity in the 1800s, were required to undergo Orthodox conversions after making aliyah.

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