'It's Not Racism, It's Jewish Law'

We asked Israel's Chief Rabbinate about the Jewish law that forbids non-Jews from working in wine production

Wine being poured into a glass.
\ REGIS DUVIGNAU/ REUTERS

Hello. Is this Chief Rabbinate spokesman Kobi Alter? Nir Gontarz here, from Haaretz. How are things?

Fine.

Kobi, tell me: What’s the rabbinate’s position on the story that Uriah Elkayam, from the Kan public broadcasting company, broke about pulling some workers of Ethiopian origin off the production line at the Barkan Winery, as demanded by the kashrut-supervision organization of the “Badatz” [of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit]?

The Rishon Letzion, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, has issued a firm statement about that.

Chief Rabbinate spokesman Kobi Alter.

Saying what? I’m just not on your distribution list.

I’ll send it to you.

Just tell me what it says, even if not exactly. What’s the position?

Definitely that racist actions against members of the Ethiopian community are something that is intolerable.

Is what happened there that this organization demanded removal of the workers of Ethiopian origin from the production line because their Judaism is in doubt, as far as it is concerned?

Yes. Nir, could we get back to this conversation in another few minutes?

When?

Fifteen minutes from now.

Okay. Thanks.

[Fifteen minutes later] Kobi, it’s Gontarz. Are you free now?

Yes.

So you're saying that the Chief Rabbinate, the largest body as well as the only one that is officially authorized by the state to grant kashrut certification, says that the demand to remove Ethiopians whose Judaism is in question away from wine-making, is

But the Judaism of people of Ethiopian origin isn’t in question. Above all, they are Jewish.

I see. So the disagreement here is that the Rabbinate says they are 100 percent Jews and Badatz says that there is doubt as to whether they are Jewish? Have I understood correctly?

That may be Badatz’s suspicion but I am telling you that the Rishon Letzion [Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef] has declared: “I take a very grave view of the directive issued by a body that calls itself a kashrut organization to disqualify religiously observant employees of Ethiopian origin from working in the production of wine.” After all, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s father [Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef] – it was his special ruling that approved bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

I see. So let’s say that the Barkan Winery wanted to employ an Arab in the same position on the production line – would you give them a kashrut certificate?

There is the issue in halakha [traditional Jewish law] of a person who is not Jewish. That there are places where he can work in a winery and there are places where he can’t work in a winery. That’s the halakha.

Okay. So I understand the dispute over Ethiopian Jewry, but as a matter of fact, the Rabbinate, the authorized body, says that a non-Jew, an Arab for the sake of the argument, can’t be at the point where he touches the wine either, because if an Arab touches the wine, it becomes unfit for consumption by a Jew. Right?

The halakha says that there is a definition of nesekh wine, wine used for idolatrous purposes The law says that a Jew, if wine hasn’t been boiled [mevushal], then a Jew has to be present in most places to supervise the wine.

That means that if at some point an Arab touches the wine it becomes

Halakha, halakha, halakha forbids nesekh wine. This story here about the Barkan Winery is about racism. It’s about people who are Jewish in every respect.

So under Jewish law, according to which you conduct yourselves and issue rulings, if an Arab touches wine, then that wine is not fit for a Jew to drink. Right?

That’s what the halakha says. And at the Chief Rabbinate the kashrut is determined by halakha.

So this means that you too operate according to racist codes, which you say are dictated by rabbinical law.

There’s no racism here, there is halakha here.

Interesting. Imagine that a restaurant in New York made it a rule that if a Jew touches the food in the kitchen, then that food becomes unfit for human consumption.

So first of all, there is a distinction between different kinds of wine, but Jewish law forbids the drinking of non-boiled wine that a non-Jew has touched.

Okay. So you don’t see any hypocrisy in the firm stance you have declared about this issue? After all, you too have said that if an Arab were to touch the wine, then a Jew can’t drink it. What’s that if not racism?

Look, it’s not racism.

I understand.

There’s an issue here about members of the Ethiopian community.

I understand that issue. It’s clear. How would you feel if a restaurant in London or New York were to say that if a Jew touches the food, human beings should not eat it?

As long as it’s halakha, and people act according to halakha, that’s how things are.

I understand. Well, sir, there’s a kind of hypocrisy here but thank you very much for answering frankly.

Have a good day.