"It's not very hard to take advantage of restaurant staff, if one chooses to do so," Yael David says. It is a quiet weekday afternoon at Mona, the chic Jerusalem restaurant she manages. A small party is sitting in an alcove to one side, enjoying a late lunch.
"I haven't actually worked in a place where staff have been treated badly, but I know that it happens... it happens a lot," she continues. "Most people looking for restaurant work are desperate; they need quick money. They would do almost anything."
So their circumstances make it easy for an unscrupulous manager or proprietor to take advantage of them? "Exactly."
Mona is tucked away at the rear of Jerusalem's iconic Bezalel building. After walking through a small passage and the entrance to the Jerusalem Artists' House gallery, one descends three or four steps and is presented with the restaurant's eclectic, almost otherworldly charm. David tells me that it is very popular with the city's international community: "Journalists, EU and UN staff, visitors from abroad..."
In the eight years since it opened, it has built up a dedicated and loyal clientele, she explains. Maintaining this is important.
Last year, Mona was approached by a charity called Bema'aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice) and invited to join an initiative promoted by the charity called the Tav Chevrati. The Tav is a "socially kosher" certification initiative for the restaurant trade; the foundation issues a seal of approval to restaurants that commit to respecting the legally mandated rights of their workforce, and that are accessible to people with disabilities.
The restaurant was keen to get on board. "It sounded like a positive initiative, one that highlights important issues. We wanted to be a part of this."
David assures me that the restaurant treats its workers fairly; meeting the standard set for the Tav posed no challenge in this respect. But there were other difficulties. David gestures to the entrance. The steps leading into the restaurant are cobbled, picturesque even, but steep and a clear challenge for the physically disabled. Adjustments are necessary before the restaurant can qualify for accreditation. The solution is to install an access ramp; this is not straightforward, but the restaurant has committed to having one fitted in the coming weeks.
"It won't be cheap," David says, "but we think that our customers will appreciate us more for these changes. We have a good customer base, people who appreciate details like this. So, in this sense, having the Tav Chevrati is very important for us."
The primary goal of Bema'aglei Tzedek can perhaps be summed up in one word: empowerment. Its self-declared mission is to encourage the next generation of young Israelis to engage with their Jewish identity, and through this to become agents of social change. "Our goal is to think about how we can empower as many Israelis as possible, to urge people to take concrete action in their day to day lives and to effect change in society as a whole," Dyonna Ginsburg, the foundation's executive director, explains when we meet in her office.
BEMA'AGLEI TZEDEK was founded in 2004 by a group of social activists who hoped to introduce what they considered the missing component from the debate about the values of the modern State of Israel - inspiration from traditional Jewish sources. "Our goal is to contribute to the creation of a just society, one that operates in accordance with the values of justice and ethics in the Jewish tradition," Ginsburg elaborates. "We want to ensure that the socio-ethical voice of Jewish tradition is a part of the social discourse in the State of Israel, to raise awareness of social justice among the Israeli public."
In a relatively short period, Bema'aglei Tzedek has made a significant impact. In 2008, the foundation was awarded the Ernst and Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, given to organizations which demonstrate entrepreneurial creativity, initiative and originality on behalf of Israeli society. The foundation was also featured at an exhibition of the 60 most innovative Israeli companies and NGOs during the 2008 President's Conference in Jerusalem.
Much of the foundation's work is pedagogical, running a network of educational programs in schools, youth movements and the army. These programs incorporate Jewish text study and analysis of contemporary socio-economic issues in Israeli society, and are designed to introduce the participants to practical social activism. It also convenes biannual conferences, tied to specific dates and themes in the Jewish calendar.
These activities clearly provide an important theoretical grounding for social activism, but one might argue that lateral thinking and creativity is necessary to introduce traditional Jewish values - tzedek, for instance, or tikkun olam - to a significantly secular audience. It was out of this understanding that the Tav Chevrati was born.
"There wasn't any particular crisis or scandal that influenced us," Ginsburg observes. "Rather it came out of our efforts to think of the best way to address some of the issues that preoccupied us, and also to engage as many people as possible with what we hoped to do."
The restaurant industry presented as the perfect candidate. "Almost everyone comes into contact with some aspect of the industry at some point in time every day - purchasing cups of coffee, for instance - so it does not demand the need to spend a tremendous amount of time involved in social justice work. This level of commitment is praiseworthy, of course," she continues, "but what we hoped for was something more pragmatic, a tool that everyone could use to effect change, but from within their own routine."
This tool, the Tav, is founded upon two criteria, employee rights and disabled access. I ask why the organization settled on these two issues as the focal points for the campaign. "Compared to other countries, Israeli labor laws are quite progressive, but there is a tremendous gap between existence and enforcement," Ginsburg says. "Also, there is a general lack of awareness on the part of the public with respect to the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities. In both cases, we saw an opportunity... to tap into the cultural background and trappings of society through an initiative such as the Tav to try to bring about change in society."
The decision to model the Tav upon its religious precursor, kashrut certification for restaurants, was deliberate. "According to Jewish tradition, the act of eating can be imbued with meaning and holiness, and there was a sense that if we started thus, we would be able to create, from the beginning, an important connection with Jewish culture," she says.
There are clear antecedents in the Torah for this: Deuteronomy 24:14, for example, states the principle explicitly: "You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land, in your towns…"
This replication also serves an important practical purpose: It allows the individual to make informed choices about where he or she chooses to eat, choices based on the criteria of the Tav. By doing so, one can wield significant consumer power; one is able to act as a catalyst for social change and can encourage restaurateurs to subscribe to the ethos of the plan.
SHAI COHEN, project manager for the Tav Chevrati, is responsible for recruiting restaurants. I ask whether it is a problem that establishments may subscribe without necessarily embracing the underlying principles. Is he comfortable with this? "First and foremost, we want to create a more just society," he replies, "but we also understand that human nature is often driven by economic considerations. If what is needed... is to tap into these economic motivations, so be it."
Ginsburg cautions, however, against viewing membership as an end in itself. "We are an organization that deals in education and changing norms, and we can't be satisfied if society were changing, but merely for economic considerations. We aspire to more - change because it is something that we all believe in, something that is important to us as individuals and as a member of the wider society. So, are we comfortable with this? Yes we are. But are we satisfied with this? No, we are not."
To secure accreditation, applicant restaurants submit themselves to a comprehensive scrutiny process. The establishment is visited and inspected, and staff are interviewed. "The restaurant has to grant access and service for people with physical disabilities," Cohen says. "They have to be able to get in the door, get to a table and to be served. With respect to labor laws, workers have to be paid at least the minimum wage, get paid on time and to be reimbursed for travel expenses, requisite vacation days and so on. In both cases, what we are talking about is the bare minimum of legally mandated rights."
Why the bare minimum? "Firstly, because it is anchored in Israeli law," Ginsburg explains. "It is something concrete, something we can point to. Secondly, it is measurable - either the employer complies, or does not. Thirdly, it is difficult enough to recruit partners whom stick to the bare minimum. It made sense to start off with that."
The last point scarcely seems credible, but the point came up again and again while researching this article. At Cohen's suggestion, I visited Mezze, a vegetarian restaurant on the edge of Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. Mezze joined the Tav a year and a half ago, and I wanted to appreciate firsthand what differences it made.
"I worked in a restaurant in Jerusalem when I was a student," Efrat Rabinovitz, the manager and co-owner told me. "Backroom staff in particular always got it hard. They were mainly Israeli Arabs; they literally lived in the kitchen, in a rickety loft above the workspace. They worked pretty much all the hours the restaurant was open." And employment rights? "They were taken advantage of, essentially. The owner would say that they should be happy that they have a job at all…"
PROF. GUY Mundlak teaches labor law at Tel Aviv University and directs the Social Welfare Law program run under the auspices of the Law Faculty's clinical education program. Designed to provide a practical counterpart to students' theoretical learning, it also seeks to promote social change in the law.
Mundlak says that the difficulties do not necessarily stem from the paucity of existing legislation. "On paper at least, labor laws in Israel are okay. There are gaps here and there - overtime legislation for instance, which was drafted in the 1950s - but in some areas it is actually quite progressive."
The difficulties come from elsewhere. "Labor law is not the poor man's law," he explains. "While there are significant issues concerning gender discrimination and overtime, the biggest problems are with lower-paid workers like restaurant staff."
Mundlak notes that the consequences extend far beyond those directly affected by the actions of rapacious employers. "Think about it this way. Labor laws affect the entire population, perhaps more so than most other legislation. When these laws are flouted, it impacts upon all of us." In that this sets a dangerous precedent? "Precisely. It establishes bad habits, and undermines the rule of law."
Signing up restaurateurs to the Tav is one thing; enforcement of this commitment is what makes it meaningful. All participating restaurants agree to submit to regular inspections. "We have a team of volunteers whom carry out spot checks, to ensure compliance with the goals and aims of the Tav," Cohen says. "There is a basic understanding that there will be a spot check every month to six weeks, but nothing more specific than this. When we visit, we talk with the waitresses, dishwashers, bartenders. What is important for us is to ensure that the criteria are being observed."
The foundation actively supports restaurants in maintaining the certified status. Advice and information are readily available; a tip sheet is distributed with suggestions about how the establishment can make itself more accessible for people with disabilities. It also assists in the preparation of a braille menu, for the use of the visually impaired.
SUCCESS FOR the Tav depends largely upon public awareness; without this, it loses its clout. "Given that the Tav Chevrati is part of a larger organization that invests a lot in public education, we have at our disposal a large infrastructure that we use to get the word out," Ginsburg tells me. "Aside from the certificates, we also distribute a wide variety of promotional material. The most effective tool is a small card that says 'I support the Tav.' Patrons can leave it when they settle the bill or leave a tip. It is an effective way for the patron to show that he cares about the issues promoted by the certificate."
The initiative also utilizes a range of advertising tools, both traditional and through social media outlets like Facebook. It also promotes informational sessions and awareness-generating events, all geared toward spreading the word.
I assume that with all this support, the need to withdraw certification never arises, and say as much. Turns out I'm wrong.
"It happens more frequently than people would expect," Cohen grimaces. "Restaurants sign on willingly and understand the criteria from the word go, but even so problems occasionally arise."
The certificate will not be withdrawn immediately after a breach is reported, however. "We take this very seriously, and we actually invest a lot of time in supporting restaurants in this position. It is only after giving the proprietor support and the opportunity to change the situation, and when it is clear that nothing is forthcoming, that we revoke the Tav." Seven have been withdrawn in the last year.
Ginsburg lays particular emphasis on the integrity of the infrastructure behind the Tav and the transparency of the process. No fee is charged either for certification or the inspection process. "For the certification to mean anything at all, it is critically important for all parties concerned - consumers, restaurateurs, volunteers - to know that it can be trusted. This is the key."
To date, more than 380 certificates have been issued to restaurants across the country; one estimate suggests that a third of all establishments in Jerusalem subscribe. Numbers are important because the existence of suitable alternatives for the ethical-minded consumer is what makes the initiative effective. Ginsburg appreciates this personally. "When I first became involved with Bema'aglei Tzedek three and a half years ago, as a volunteer, I made a decision that I would only eat in restaurants with the Tav. There were only five certified restaurants at the time, and it was clear that the scheme needed to offer reasonable alternatives. People need a breadth of options in order to exercise their right to choose; we don't want to limit the number of Israelis who think about this issue when they buy their cup of coffee."
BEYOND ITS impact upon the restaurant industry, the Tav has inspired similar schemes abroad. There are at least three in the United States closely modeled on it. "What is interesting is that the Tav is something operating within a uniquely Israeli landscape, but with just a bit of tweaking has shown itself adaptable in other communities," she says.
Some of this interest has come from not-so-obvious sources. Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news network, recently approached Ginsburg, for example. It was interested in how the Tav had benefited workers in the restaurant industry, and wanted to run a feature about it. "The journalist was particularly interested in exploring whether similar ideas might be possible in the Muslim community, tied to the injunctions concerning halal meat," Ginsburg says. "It's interesting to think about our initiative in terms of the possibilities it offers to transcend boundaries between communities."
Ginsburg notes that a significant aspect of the initiative's success comes from the enthusiastic participation of the Anglo community. "The concept of consumer power and campaigns that focus on civil rights resonate with this community, particularly those who grew up in the United States, those who recall the civil rights campaigns, the Montgomery bus boycott, for example. Among restaurant proprietors, there is the perception - correct or not - that the Anglo community eats out more, spends more per head than the Israeli population. Certainly, they do tend to have more guests from abroad, family and friends, and they are more inclined toward eating out."
This perception supplies invaluable leverage. "If one says, even in broken Hebrew, 'I support the Tav,' the words have a greater impact than if said in flawless Hebrew. It is an important message to get across, that Anglos, even those with a limited grasp of Hebrew, have the potential to effect real change, and possibly to a greater degree to their Israeli peers. This is very empowering."
Still, it is not for the consumer alone to embody the ambitions of the foundation, to work toward creating a just society, one where "people can work full days and bring home money and support their families with dignity," as Ginsburg puts it.
Back at Mezze, I asked Rabinovitz about the impact of the Tav in general. She thinks for a moment. "When employees are treated well, they attend to their work with diligence. They respect the workplace, the employers and the patrons. Of course, we benefit from this, from treating our employees well and from publicly committing to this. I guess you could call it a circle effect."