Analysis

El Al and Barkan Wines: A Tale of Two Boycotts

The two Israeli companies were forced to choose which set of customers they wanted to appease – the ultra-Orthodox or the secular public. It could become an increasingly common business decision

Barkan vineyard and winery
Ilan Assayag

In Israel these days, boycott isn’t a very popular word.

Damage caused by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has given the term – and the tactic – a bad reputation. In recent years, the practice has crossed over from unacceptable to illegal. Legislation passed in the Knesset has attached harsh sanctions on individuals and organizations who support economic or cultural boycotts – whether they be of the entire State of Israel, or part of it when their intention is to protest the occupation of Palestinian land or any other aspect of Israeli government policy.

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But boycotting has been making a comeback in recent days, at least when it comes to matters of religion and state. A secular public frustrated and angered by what it sees as sexism and racism in products it consumes – in acquiescence to the ultra-Orthodox establishment – has this week mobilized the power of the pocketbook.

Outraged calls for a boycott of one of the country’s leading wineries, Barkan Wines, exploded across the political establishment and on social media on Tuesday, following a television news report that charged that the company had systematically discriminated against employees of Ethiopian origin in order to comply with the strictures of a kashrut-certifying organization.

Barkan removed Ethiopian Israelis from its production line at the bidding of Badatz Eda Haredit – an extreme ultra-Orthodox group that certifies the kashrut of Barkan and other products, making it acceptable for even the strictest religious customers to consume.

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According to halakha (religious law), kosher wine production must be performed by Orthodox, Shabbat-observant Jews. The religious authorities at Badatz Eda Haredit have questioned the Jewishness of the Ethiopian community and deemed their members – no matter how religiously observant – unworthy of handling wine that bears its kosher stamp.

File photo, El Al airlines
Amir Cohen/Reuters

On the same day, the longtime tolerance of Israel’s national carrier, El Al, toward ultra-Orthodox passengers who delay flights as a result of their refusal to sit next to women appears to have finally exacted an economic cost.

For years, feminist groups and civil rights organizations have protested the tendency of El Al flight attendants to facilitate seat-switching in order to accommodate such passengers.

In 2014, despite a public outcry and an online petition protesting the practice, El Al refused to specify any official policy for dealing with the issue, and said it had no intention of putting one in place. At the time, a company spokesperson told Haaretz that its “policy in general is to try to accommodate any customer request,” and that it deals with requests on a case-by-case basis.

Two years later, a lawsuit filed by the Israel Religious Action Center on behalf of Renee Rabinowitz – a Holocaust survivor and grandmother who was asked to move to a different seat on a 2015 El Al flight – resulted in a legal ruling against El Al.

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The Israeli court ruling explicitly forbade flight attendants on Israeli airlines from asking women to switch seats to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to sit next to them – and ordered the company to pay 6,500 shekels (about $1,800) damages to Rabinowitz.

Until now, no El Al corporate customer had countered the power of the pocketbook that the traveling ultra-Orthodox public wields with an economic threat of its own.

That changed Monday, when Barak Eilam, CEO of the Israeli high-tech giant Nice, announced that his firm would bar employees from using El Al until female passengers were no longer asked to switch seats in order to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men.

The threat of losing business from an important member of the high-tech community, allied to the fear that others might follow suit, garnered a far swifter response from El Al than the protests of civil rights NGOs or even the court ruling.

On the very same day as Eilam made his announcement, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin reacted. He stated for the first time that “in the interest of resolving any doubt, I have today ordered a refinement of procedure on the matter and, from now on, a passenger who refuses to sit next to another passenger will be immediately removed from the flight.”

So far, Barkan’s management has remained silent in the face of racism charges.

Interestingly, the winery has a history of responding when it comes to boycott threats of the political variety. It was originally located in the Barkan Industrial Zone in the West Bank, near the large settlement city of Ariel. However, between 2004 and 2008, following the acquisition of Barkan by Tempo and a cooperation agreement between Tempo and the Dutch brewer Heineken, Barkan moved all of its operations to Kibbutz Hulda – inside the Green Line, where it still operates today – in the face of boycott pressure from human rights groups.

A statement from the company to its shareholders, and quoted in Palestinian news reports at the time, said: “In the past, the location of the company’s winery at the Barkan area caused a negative image and made difficult the exporting of the Barkan brands. The company is acting to change this image.”

Now that its image is taking a beating as a result of its behavior toward Ethiopian-Israeli employees, Barkan’s owners, like El Al’s, will have to decide which group of customers it wants to appease: The extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community, or those boycotting it who have decided to put their money where their ideals are.