TEL AVIV — Every army needs its boots.
In Israel, where the military has always played a central role in society, footwear for the troops has proudly been supplied locally since the country's founding in 1948. But that may be about to change.
Shimon Horowitz, head of the military division for Brill Company, which manufactures army boots in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion, fought in vain during a company finance meeting earlier this week to keep the factory from shutting down.
The operation, which employs 120 people, is closing its doors because the Israeli Defense Ministry has informed the company that, starting in January, it will no longer be ordering boots from Brill. Government officials are citing budget considerations, saying they can order boots from the United States more cheaply.
Horowitz in turn has argued that Israel is violating its previous commitments, and that it doesn’t make sense for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to buy boots from elsewhere.
“Every self-respecting military has a local factory that produces its shoes,” says Horowitz. “Every defense minister, all the CEOs of the Ministry of Defense, have always said that most of the production will be in the country. Everyone promised that.”
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Boots, boots, sandals, boots. (Hoyasmeg)
The factory has existed since 1948, and in 2001 the company added another production line after winning a Defense Ministry contract worth $7 million. “We went into a three-year development period to develop a new shoe,” Horowitz says. “In 2004, we started to produce the new shoes, and to this day we supplied over a million pairs.”
The bootmaker complained that earlier attempts to work with the IDF to improve the quality of the shoe were difficult. When the factory made it clear that a new model would hurt the feet of the soldiers and cause blisters, he says the army responded “It’s OK, they’ll get used to it, they are soldiers.”
Horowitz says that if the military budget is the problem, the factory could accept payment for 2014 the following year. He says he’s communicated that but hasn’t receive a response from the Defense Ministry.
Horowitz wonders what will happen when the Israeli army has emergency requests for boots, which has happened in the past. “We get calls all the time with emergency demands,” he says.
During the second Lebanon war, the company even brought 5,000 pairs of boots directly to the field because there weren’t enough for everyone. He says the factory worked 24/7 to supply the army no questions asked, and now, he says he's “shocked that nobody cares” that his workers will suddenly be unemployed.
“We are supporting tens of thousands of families, including the workers of Brill,” a purchasing department official with the Israeli Defense Ministry says. “We are the first ones to make sure that the production remains local. We are also the first ones to make sure that the factories will remain functional and open. But when there are budget cuts, it is obvious that it means less work for factories.”
Israeli Parliament member Michal Biran accuses Brill of crying wolf, claiming it needs the government contract to keep its doors open. “It’s obvious what is going on here. You are extorting us in order to get additional budget,” he says. “You are holding the workers of Brill hostage.”
In fact, it’s little wonder Horowitz is so determined: Though orders from the government had already begun to fall earlier this year, production of the military shoes remained one of Brill’s most profitable ventures during the first half of 2013.