October 25, 2007
Good employment practices a sign for Israeli tourists
Yet, as a result of the efforts of Bema'aglei Tzedek, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization, consumers are now on the lookout for a second type of certificate indicating that the restaurant conforms to a completely separate set of kosher guidelines -- good employment practices and accessibility for the disabled.
Called the Social Seal or tav chevrati in Hebrew, the certificate is now being prominently displayed in more than 300 Israeli eateries from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and in various other locales. It was introduced by Bema'aglei Tzedek to combat what the organization's director, Asaf Banner, calls "an all too often ignored, yet deeply troubling, aspect of Israeli society."
Banner, who was among the organization's founders in 2004 said, "The way that tens of thousands of workers all over Israel are being treated without regard to their most basic human rights was a situation that demanded to be addressed. We saw that the Social Seal was a great way of bringing attention to this issue."
While the campaign began locally in Jerusalem with organization representatives using the seal as a means to promote the good labor practices of shop owners, it has quickly gained steam and spread across the country.
Roey Zisman, who manages the popular Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, believes that the seal is something many of his customers greatly value, as well as acting as a motivating factor for employers to improve worker conditions.
"The Social Seal is very important in our relationship with our workers," Zisman said. "I hear many people coming in and asking about it, and we feel that there is a large clientele that comes to eat with us because of it."
Since its founding, Bema'aglei Tzedek has been active within the Israeli school system and in the country's numerous youth movements. According to Marla Haruni, a New York native and Jerusalem resident, it was her children who taught her about the seal, and since that time, the family will only visit eateries that have received the organization's approval.
"My children have really come to view the Social Seal with the same level of importance as the kosher dietary certification," the mother of four said. "I think it's crucial that people recognize that a restaurant being truly kosher requires that they act in accordance with all Jewish values beyond just ensuring that the food is prepared properly."
In order for an eatery to receive the seal, representatives of the organization visit the restaurant and observe overall conditions, as well as speak with the workers. According to Banner, several seals have been revoked after it was reported that workers' rights were being repeatedly violated. Violations include cases where workers are being denied breaks or being paid below the legal minimum wage or where the restaurant is lacking appropriate access for the handicapped.
The seal has also gained the attention of many members across the political spectrum in the Israeli Knesset.
Amir Peretz, who until recently served as Israel's defense minister and was the longtime head of the Histadrut national union, said the seal is establishing a new standard of ethical practice in Israeli society, and that "highlighting the issue of workers' rights will create a better future for the people of Israel."
Zevulun Orlev, a member of the Mafdal Party, noted that the effort brings to the forefront an issue that is of critical nature to the national and Zionist cause. "In order for us to be a fair and just society," he said, "it is necessary that workers have the assurance that they will receive the proper treatment and compensation they deserve."
As one of the numerous events throughout the year advancing the cause, Bema'aglei Tzedek held a conference, Fighting the Exploitation of Custodial Workers, in July at Jerusalem's Rose Garden, across from the Knesset. The conference attracted 1,500 people, according to police estimates.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efratm, who addressed the conference, said that despite often being pushed to the side of the social agenda, workers' rights is something that is deeply entrenched in Jewish values.
"The Torah teaches again and again that our ability to stay on this holy soil of Israel depends on our being a holy people, specifically in the realm of human relations - including those between employer and employee," he said.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, attended the conference. He said the lessons being conveyed by the organization were important ones for a younger generation that often could feel alienated by Jewish traditions.
"This effort serves to show the operationalization of Judaism by displaying how values are not just in the mind but need to be acted upon," he said.
Banner believes that the Social Seal truly has the potential to change how an Israeli society, often ambivalent about these types of issues, views the question of how its workers are being treated.
"For every additional restaurant or cafe that joins the ranks of those bearing the Social Seal, we feel that we're making that much more of a difference," he said. "As more and more consumers become familiar with this seal, we know business owners across the country will begin to take notice, and at that point, anything is possible."
Jeremy Wimpfheimer is a freelance journalist based in Beit Shemesh, Israel.