‘Blessings of Israel’: Settlers find new ways to label products after E.U. decision

by Newsstand

PSAGOT, West Bank — Yaakov Berg, Jewish settler and West Bank vintner, thinks the decision by the European Union to insist that he label his cabernet sauvignon as a product of an Israeli settlement will do little to hurt overall sales of his kosher wine.

It might even help, he said.

A few days after the European Union announced its new labeling guidelines, Berg continued to expand his business: installing a new whiskey distillery in his boutique winery located a few miles from the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

He is also preparing to launch an online shop to sell his wares, as well as goods from other nearby Jewish settlements, to Israel’s evangelical supporters in the United States. And he may also get a little help from one of Israel’s biggest fans: former Arkansas governor and evangelical pastor Mike Huckabee, who has led dozens of tours to Israel and never misses a chance to stop by Berg’s winery for a taste.

“I believe the best way to fight the decision is to show that we have people who love Israel, they read the Bible and they know this is our homeland,” said Berg of the e-commerce initiative, called “Blessings of Israel.”

“We are proud of where we are located and if you want us to label our products, we will and we will tell you the story of every product, every factory, where it is located and how it came about and what our connection is to the land of Israel,” he said.

If Berg is sanguine about the prospect of labeling goods from the settlements, the Israeli government is definitely not. The leadership sees the new development as a dangerous path toward a full boycott of Israeli products in Europe.

Even though goods from the settlements make up only 0.1 percent of Israel’s overall export capacity, the announcement drew angry responses from politicians ranging from cries of hypocrisy to comparing the move to the ostracizing of Jewish businesses in Europe during the Holocaust.

One lawmaker even posted a Nazi-era photo of a storefront painted with “Jude,” the German word for Jew, and a Star of David on his Facebook page.

The decision by a German supermarket that recently pulled settlement-made wines from its shelves drew damning headlines in Israel. It was also the focus of a weekly cabinet meeting in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a boycott in every respect.” Within hours, the store apologized and agreed to restore the goods.

The European Union says it is obliged to fully inform consumers about the geographic origin of products so that the buyers can make informed decisions. If goods originate in a Jewish “settlement” located in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, then the public should know. Europe considers Jewish settlements illegal under international law.

Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the E.U. ambassador to Israel, said at a conference in Jerusalem that he was surprised by the accusations of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy.

“Under E.U. consumer law, it is not permissible to write “Made in Israel” on a product from an Israeli settlement. That would be incorrect and misleading information,” he said.

More than 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land that the Palestinians seek for a future state. There are 16 to 20 industrial parks as well as hundreds of farms, vineyards and date groves. Many employ Palestinian laborers.

“The E.U. decision will not hurt Israel’s economy, but it might affect the Palestinian economy, because if businesses in the settlements do not get orders, they will have to fire their Palestinian workers,” said David Simha, president of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, a nongovernmental organization aimed at bringing the two sides together via business.

Some of the Jewish-owned businesses there receive support from abroad specifically because they are in located the West Bank. Berg’s Psagot Winery, for example, has an angel investor in the form of the wealthy Jewish American Falic family, owners of Duty Free Americas and big supporters of Israel.

In Ramallah, the E.U. decision was seen as a decisive step toward fighting the growing Israeli settlement industry and part of the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic war against Israel in general.

“We appreciate this positive move, and it is our hope that the European Union will develop this labeling into a total boycott of all settlements and settlers, including Israeli officials who live in settlements,” said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

Bassam Zakarneh, head of the Palestinian Workers’ Union, said the E.U. decision reflected a willingness “to fight illegal building in the West Bank” and was a sure sign of support for Palestinian rights.

At the Psagot winery, Berg’s Palestinian workers say they are more worried about the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank than decisions in far away Europe to reword labels. But they do understand that if Berg loses revenues, their jobs, which offer higher wages and better conditions than Palestinian employers, could be jeopardized.

“It is good working with Jews, and we have much better employment conditions here than in Ramallah,” said Hamudi Hadalin, a 23-year-old Palestinian who works in the winery’s visitors center and lives in a village nearby. “I really hope there will be peace one day. Then I can continue to work in this place without any problems.”

‘Blessings of Israel’: Settlers find new ways to label products after E.U. decision