A cook who was fired after a kashrut supervisor questioned his Jewishness filed a discrimination lawsuit Sunday against the Israeli supermarket chain where he worked, charging racial discrimination against the Ukrainian immigrant and saying the chain “abused and humiliated” him.
The supermarket chain, Yochananof, “failed in its duty to provide the plaintiff with a work environment that preserves his dignity as a person and as an employee, and instead harassed and abused him, treated him in bad faith, and fired him unlawfully,” charges the lawsuit filed by 44-year-old Yuri Logvinenko.
Accusing the supermarket of violating the law requiring equal employment opportunity, the lawsuit asks the court to compensate Logvinenko for 350,000 shekels ($107,000) for the “damage and humiliation that the plaintiff experienced as an employee and as a person” at the workplace and his subsequent termination.
“We expect it to be a groundbreaking case, as courts haven't gotten an inside look into racism by kashrut supervisors in the past,” said Uri Keidar of Israel Hofsheet, a group that advocates for religious pluralism and civil rights and has taken up and publicized Logvinenko’s cause. The case, he said, highlights the way in which some employers choose to cooperate with discrimination and abuse perpetrated by the Chief Rabbinate – the institution in charge of kashrut supervision in Israel – instead of standing up for the rights of their employees.
A spokesman for the supermarket chain, contacted for a response by Haaretz, called the lawsuit “utterly baseless.”
The incidents leading to the lawsuit, which garnered considerable publicity earlier this year, began in January when Logvinenko, who had just begun working at the Yochananof branch in Rehovot, was asked by a kashrut supervisor whether he was Jewish. Logvinenko, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1998, responded that he was, in fact, halakhically Jewish.
After the supervisor asked to see documentation to prove his assertion, Logninenko, 44, responded that although he had none on hand, he would bring the papers the next day. According to Logvinenko, the supervisor accused him of “just pretending” to be Jewish and told the staff: “This Russian isn’t going to work here any longer.”
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Logvinenko indeed possessed a document proving he was halakhically Jewish – his mother’s birth certificate. He had never encountered such problems before, previously working as a cook in various yeshiva cafeterias, and had been employed as a cook at the Jerusalem branch of Yochananof before being transferred, at his request, to Rehovot.
Logvinenko was instructed by management to sit in his car until the issue could be “clarified.” He waited there for several hours before receiving permission to go home, where he was told to stay put until further notice.
Later, Logvinenko sent the kashrut supervisor a copy of his mother’s birth certificate proving he was born to a Jewish mother – but was still not permitted back to work. It was only after intervention by Israel Hofsheet that he was allowed to reenter his workplace. Once he returned, he was told by his employers that he would not be allowed to cook food or light the oven until a final ruling was issued on his Jewishness. Until then, Logvinenko was told, he would not be permitted to cook, since, according to the laws of kashrut, non-Jews are forbidden from heating food. He was demoted to the role of vegetable cutter, and waited for months to return to cooking duties.
His lawsuit states that it was a “lie” when he was told to await the results of an investigation into his status, as no evidence was found of any inquiries made at any of the relevant government institutions.
No attempt was made to change what appeared to be the kashrut supervisor’s belief that Logvinenko was a member of the 430,000 Israeli citizens who fall into the demographic category known as “other” or “no religion,” as defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Population Registry. Nearly all members of this group are immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Although they are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, either because they are married to a Jew or had a Jewish grandparent, they are not accepted as Jewish by the country’s religious authorities, and therefore denied certain rights – including the right to cook food certified as being kosher.
While he was waiting for official verification of his Jewish status, Logvinenko eventually began operating the oven again. One day in late March, when he turned on the oven, the supervisor, and then his managers at the store, began shouting at him. He was subsequently fired.
In the spring, the chain filed a 572,000-shekel ($175,000) libel suit against Israel Hofsheet and its chief executive, Uri Keidar, accusing them of setting out to damage its reputation as an equal opportunity employer. That case is still pending and is currently in mediation.
Logvinenko has been represented pro bono by S. Horowitz, one of Israel’s top law firms. Ran Feldman, Logvinenko’s attorney, said that he would pursue the case until his client “receives the justice he deserves. As described in his lawsuit, he was subject repeatedly to abuse and harm at his workplace – simply because of his ethnic background. My partners and I are fully committed to bringing justice to light and not to allow such abuse to go unanswered.”
The spokesman for Yochananof characterized the lawsuit as “an attempt to silence, used as a counterweight against the justified defamation lawsuit filed by this company against the Israel Hofsheet movement. We regret that Israel Hofsheet continues to slander the company and is doing so in such a cynical way, using former employees of the company, without any proof or justification. We trust that the judicial system will condemn this behavior.