Shabbat Crusade: Why Have the ultra-Orthodox Picked This One Business to Boycott?

Bottle maker Phoenicia is in danger of closing amid a campaign pressuring wineries to stop using its products

Manufacturing bottles at the "Phoenicia" glass factory in Yeroham.
Alpert Nathan (GPO)

An executive at one of Israel’s major wineries recently recalled how someone from the Gur Hassidic sect called him up one day in 2017. “He introduces himself and then asks why we work with Phoenicia, and if we are aware that its glassworks factory desecrates the Sabbath,” he said.

“Letters and faxes start arriving after that call. At the same time, they send us messages that synagogues in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem are throwing out our bottles. And then I hear that they are asking the kashrut authorities, ‘How can you certify wine as kosher in bottles that were manufactured by Phoenicia?”

The Phoenicia bottle-making plant in Yeruham, on May 6, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

The ultra-Orthodox boycott of Phoenicia, whose factory is in the town of Yeruham in the Negev Desert, began in 2017. The factory is in danger of closing in the wake of declining orders from wineries that are afraid of losing their kashrut certification. If they do close, it would cost 240 workers their jobs. The executive and others in the wine industry interviewed for this article would only speak to TheMarker on condition of anonymity, for fear of being boycotted themselves.

The executive said that despite the threats and the cheaper costs of using imported bottles, he chose to continue working with Phoenicia for Zionist reasons, and out of a desire to support Israeli industry. “We did check, of course, during that time, and we saw that price-wise, it was not a problem to buy wine bottles from abroad,” he noted.

“Working with Phoenicia doesn’t make complete business sense,” admitted another winery manager. “On a business level, the closing of the Phoenicia factory would free me, but something terrible is happening here. It’s a factory that provides jobs. Many of the workers aren’t young, and they won’t get hired elsewhere. It’s simply heartbreaking.”

Seeking creative solutions

The Haredi boycott of Phoenicia is unique for several reasons. It targets a factory that the Manufacturers Association of Israel says holds a Labor Ministry permit to allow work on Shabbat. The company makes a container and not a consumer product. And the threats are not only intended for the supplier itself, but also for its customers, to wield indirect pressure. If the Phoenicia boycott succeeds, the worry is that there will be a domino effect punishing other factories that operate on Shabbat – as well as their customers.

“We’re trying to have a dialogue with the Haredim and find creative solutions to the Phoenicia problem, like exporting products made on Shabbat or hiring foreign workers, but regrettably the Haredim have refused,” says Ruby Ginal, the director general of the Manufacturers Association.

“The Haredim claim that the very fact that the chimney produces smoke on Shabbat is an unacceptable desecration of the Sabbath. We’re worried that this is an initial attempt to force the closing of a factory with a Shabbat operating permit. There are dozens of factories that each received a permit after a thorough examination by the Labor Ministry. We’re trying to prevent this precedent from being set.”

Knesset Finance Committee head Moshe Gafni, member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.
תומר אפלבאום

Speculation abounds why the ultra-Orthodox boycott of Phoenicia has come to a head. One theory is that a competing bottle importer has joined forces with Haredi elements. Other speculate that the powerful Gur Hassidic sect wants to bolster an imported wine brand that has been making inroads in Haredi supermarket chains.

However, it seems the real reason for the boycott lies in changes inside the Haredi world, together with global economic trends. There has been a rise of ultra-Orthodox groups with their own demands and agendas that don’t always fall in line with the establishment.

One such group calls itself Shomrei Shabbat (“The Keepers of Shabbat”). In recent years it has fought to eliminate the desecration of Shabbat in Israel, even if it sometimes means a full-frontal assault on the secular public’s interests. They work with the rabbinical Committee for Observing Shabbos, headed by Gerrer Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf, who has waged several campaigns, such as one in Ashdod last year that led to fines for businesses that operate on Saturday.

Goldknopf was also involved in one of the most effective economic boycotts a decade ago against the Shefa Shuk supermarket chain, which catered to the ultra-Orthodox public. The boycott began because Shefa Shuk belonged to the same holding company as AM:PM, a grocery store chain that operates on Saturday. The boycott forced the closure of several Shefa Shuk stores.

>> Phoenicia is just the start | Editorial

This month the feud between the Haredim and Phoenicia reached the hallways of the Knesset. The Knesset Finance Committee held an emergency hearing on the issue on May 13. The committee is headed by Moshe Gafni, who belongs to the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. The Knesset’s most senior representative of the Gur Hassidim sect, Yaakov Litzman, is also a UTJ member. 

Gafni didn’t officially put the risk of Phoenicia’s closure on the agenda, nor did he invite any of its executives. “Litzman and I sat with the prime minister,” Gafni said at the hearing. “The Committee for Observing Shabbos said we cannot use bottles produced on Shabbat. There is a proposal that the Phoenicia factory not work on Shabbat, and if it does, then non-Jewish employees will work there. The state needs, in the end, to be part of the solution. It should provide a small subsidy, and the problem will be solved.”

Selective boycotts

Thirty years ago, Haredim also had issues with Phoenicia producing wine bottles on Shabbat. But the two sides reached a compromise: the bottles used by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities for Kiddush and other ceremonies would be produced only on weekdays. Now, it turns out that solution was only temporary. The current economy allows for easy import of bottles and wine, which enables Haredi activists to exert more pressure on a company like Phoenicia.

“You don’t understand how the system works,” said one wine executive. “A day after they make such a declaration, 10 factories in Eastern Europe, which are waiting in line, will receive a mehadrin [most stringent] kashrut certificate. We will buy kosher wine from factories in Moldova that appreciate the size of the Haredi market and are just waiting to get certified.”

The Haredi community does not threaten the Israel Electric Corporation or the Mekorot Water Co. with boycotts. Even the radicals among them understand that companies that have desecrated the Shabbat for decades allow for water stream through their pipes and keep their hotplate going.

They also aren’t pushing a boycott on dairy products from the major producers, even though they don’t abandon their cowsheds on Saturday.

An official in one of the ultra-Orthodox groups fighting against the desecration of Shabbat admits that they have adopted a strategy of selective boycotts.

“The story here is one of a consumer protest that has two criteria: Pressuring only where an alternative exists, and against whatever arises as a trigger. These two things apply to Phoenicia, so the protest was expanded,” he explains. “There is freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and certainly freedom of ownership. We believe in Shabbat as a source of blessing, and we know that Shabbat desecrators are a real danger to the people living in Zion. Does anyone think otherwise? It’s his right to say so.”

In real trouble

Phoenicia was founded in Haifa in 1934 and moved to Yeruham in the 1960s. It is owned by American businessman Morton Mandel, who is known for his philanthropy in education. The plant produces glass bottles and jars 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just like glass factories worldwide.

The reason for operating on Shabbat is the enormous, 300-ton furnace at the heart of the manufacturing operation. It takes a full day and tremendous amounts of energy each time it’s restarted, so it’s kept running all the time. Shutting down the furnace every Friday would cost 70 million shekels ($19.4 million) a year, an amount that would make the entire factory financial unviable.

Phoenicia controls half of the Israeli bottle and jar market, which is estimated at about 500 million bottles annually. The rest is imports. The bottles that Phoenicia supplies to the major wineries are designated mainly for bottling grape juice used for Kiddush; others are used for inexpensive Kiddush wines. The fact that these bottles are not produced on Shabbat has not stopped the Haredim from calling for a boycott over the Kiddush wine issue.

Apart from kiddush wine bottles, Phoenicia’s bottles and jars are used by Israeli biggest food companies such as Strauss Group and Osem. It also makes bottles for beer and soft drinks, among them those used by Coca Cola Israel (Central Bottling Co.).

>> Read more: Shabbat costs Israel tens of billions of shekels every year | Analysis 

But those companies’ products don’t appear in the leaflets distributed to synagogues calling for a Phoenicia boycott. Industry sources say that if the campaign is ever expanded, Phoenicia will be in deep trouble – Central Bottling is it biggest customer.

The calls for boycotting Phoenicia has captured the attention of Israel’s big wineries. It’s not that ultra-Orthodox purchasing power is so enormous, but they are afraid that the campaign could jeopardize their kashrut certificates.

“About 90% of the wine market in Israel is kosher wine. It’s sold institutionally – hotels and other establishments – for which kosher wine is a sine qua non,” says Tzachi Dotan, director of the Wine and Grape Board. “A winery that produces more than 20,000 or 30,000 bottles a year needs to work with the hotels, caterers, restaurants and unions and is selling to Jews in the Diaspora. It has no choice but to get a kashrut certificate. In any case, 50% of all the wine in Israel is sold through retail chains and almost all of them sell kosher products exclusively.”

Michael Schwartz, Phoenicia’s CEO, insists that 90% of the ultra-Orthodox public is not interested in the boycott. In the two years since the Committee for Observing Shabbos met with Phoenicia managers and the various kashrut certifications organizations, only one has withdrawn its certificates. Wine in Phoenicia bottles continues to be sold in Haredi supermarket chains, like Osher Ad, whose owners are Gur Hassidim.

“The issue for me is simple,” explained the owner of one Haredi supermarket chain, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Whoever has a kashrut certificate can come into the supermarket. I don’t deal with issues beyond that.”

But the damage is being done anyhow, says Schwartz. “For now, the boycott has expressed itself by coming to our customers and telling them, ‘If you’re selling wine with Phoenicia bottles to us, we won’t buy your products and will work to make sure you don’t get kashrut certification. This is why our sales have been falling,” he explains.

One ultra-Orthodox marketing consultant, also speaking anonymously, says secular business owners are taking the boycott threat too seriously: “The only ones who are interested in the boycott are Gur Hassidim. While they are a powerful and aggressive force that makes a lot of noise, they number only 60,000-70,000 people and they don’t represent the whole Haredi community.”

“Secular people don’t understand whom they are working against. Small groups of Haredim know how to exploit their ignorance,” he says. “For there to be a real danger of a boycott, there would have to be a letter from 200 or 300 leading rabbis from all circles. Such a letter hasn’t come out – and that’s no accident. After all, kashrut is a business and a living for many. They are not going to remove certification so quickly.”