A Recent Controversy over Ethiopian Workers at a Kosher Winery Shows the Health of the Jewish Public

July 17 2018

In Israel, an institution known as the Badats (from an acronym meaning “court of justice”) provides kosher certification that even the most scrupulously observant respect. The Badats recently made a stir outside of ultra-Orthodox circles when it demanded that the Barkan winery, in order to maintain its certification, not allow Ethiopian Jewish workers to come into contact with the wine. The rationale? An ancient rabbinic decree prohibits wine produced by non-Jews, and some ḥaredi authorities do not accept the Jewishness of the Ethiopian community. Elli Fischer comments on the episode:

[T]he response was fast and furious. Thousands of Israelis called for a boycott of Barkan until the policy changed. The Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzḥak Yosef—whose father, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, issued the ruling that paved the way for the acceptance of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community into Israel as Jews—condemned the Badats for having racist policies. Politicians and commentators of virtually every stripe expressed their outrage. It worked. Within a day, Jacques Beer, the CEO of Tempo Foods (which owns Barkan), himself an observant Jew, . . . announced that the [Ethiopian] employees would be returned to their original assignments. The Badats, in turn, dropped its certification of the wines in question.

[S]ome observers took away from this episode that there must be a “holy rebellion” against certain manifestations of Jewish law, and some politicians promised to introduce legislation that would make it illegal to doubt the Jewishness of Ethiopians.

It seems to me, however, that we should come away with the opposite message. This was not a case of Jewish law versus morality, as one commentator put it, but part of an internal dynamic process. . . . The controversy demonstrated that the collective immune system of the Jewish people continues to function, that there is no need to legislate the acceptance of Ethiopian Jews, and that while some may lose their moral clarity in the minutiae of Jewish law, the mainstream can be counted on to correct the course, without engaging in any “holy rebellion.”

There is a deeper takeaway as well, which gets to the bedrock of the complicated relationship between religion and state in Israel. Consider the economics of kosher-certification. Its allows small groups with particular demands to punch well above their weight. . . . Under normal circumstances, highly demanding communities that constitute but a tiny fraction of the food market around the world are able to get thousands of products certified kosher. However, when the cost of certification—the financial costs and, as we saw in the Barkan case, moral costs—is higher than what the typical consumer is willing to pay, the market will inform the food producer, which will then either forgo its certification or lower its standard. The system is guaranteed by the religious and moral sense of the community of kosher-keepers—and there is in fact no better trustee than those who have been living with this complex of moral, ritual, and financial demands from time immemorial.

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More about: Ethiopian Jews, Israel & Zionism, Kashrut, Religion & Holidays

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations