Ever since a trip to Napa Valley two years ago, I’ve had an amateur interest in wine. I read books about wine. I make wine. Mostly, I drink a lot of locally produced wine, which there is plenty of: Israel has 35 commercial wineries, approximately 250 boutique wineries and five unique grape-growing regions.
Recently, when a close friend was contemplating getting into the wine business, he asked me to join him on a visit to a prospective investment, a small winery whose owners wanted to increase production. I didn’t ask too many questions; the trip was a nice excuse to get out of Tel Aviv. Only after driving past an IDF checkpoint did I realize that my friend was taking me to the occupied West Bank.
We reached Tura Winery, where, while my business-minded friend was examining machinery, I experienced a viticultural revelation the likes of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus when I tasted Mountain Peak, the winery’s full, dark blend of 56% cabernet sauvignon, 32% merlot, 7% cabernet franc and 5% petit verdot, with flavors of pepper, berries and cacao. It was immediately and remains the most amazing wine I’ve ever drunk; a poignant, artistic taste experience. That day’s cruel twist of fate left me in an epicurean and ethical dilemma, caught between a superb wine and my own conscience.
Tura Winery was established in the settlement of Rechelim, near Nablus, in 2003 by husband and wife team Erez and Vered Ben-Saadon. Its vineyards cover 200 acres of hillside at an elevation of 850 meters and produces 56,000 bottles a year of several varietals, all aged for at least 20 months in new French barrels, and even longer in the bottle. The Tura label has won over 30 Israeli and international medals.
The settlement of Rechelim, home to some 70 Orthodox Jewish families, was established in 1991, when 25 women symbolically camped out overnight on an empty hillside where a fellow female Jewish settler had been killed in a terrorist attack. The night turned into a week, then a month, and then evolved into the spontaneous founding of an illegal outpost. Rechelim continued to exist against Israeli law for over 20 years, until 2012, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spearheaded a ministerial committee’s decision to formally legalize it.
All Israeli settlements in the West Bank, by sheer nature of their existence, and regardless of whether or not they are recognized by the state of Israel, violate international laws and norms (UN Resolution 242, UN Security Council Resolutions 446, 452, 465, 471 and 476, the 4th Geneva Convention, Hague Regulations of 1907, etc.) that forbid the appropriation of land, water and natural resources by an occupying power, as well as the transfer of citizens to occupied territory. The Israeli occupation also violates international human rights laws inasmuch as Israel denies Palestinians citizenship, numerous basic human rights and has created a separate, unequal legal system for Palestinians in the West Bank. For almost 50 years the discriminatory policies of Israel’s military rule in the West Bank have oppressed Palestinian life and promoted Jewish settlement growth.
Since the takeover of the West Bank in 1967, Israeli agriculture has been a vehicle for seizing, consolidating control over and exploiting Palestinian land for profit; the industry claims around 23,000 acres of West Bank land. As part of a long-term and well-funded strategy supported by the government and implemented by settlers, the state of Israel uses two central methods to seize land in the West Bank, effectively “laundering” it for legal Jewish use: military seizure orders and the declaration of “state lands.” Israel’s goal is to establish facts-on-the-ground that increase Israel’s profit from these lands and establish de-facto “ownership” of them, ahead of any future peace negotiations.
As a liberal Jew and Zionist who believes in equal rights, democracy and freedom, and actively advocates against the occupation and racism, there’s a strong argument for not buying my favorite wine and thus supporting a settlement business. Movements like BDS and the European Union initiative to label settlement products have popularized the idea of boycott as a means of condemnation and exerting political and financial pressure on Israel.
But here’s the problem: I’m still not 100% sure that it’s ethically wrong to drink the wine. And even if I do boycott my favorite wine because it’s the right thing to do, would it even matter?
Tura’s Mountain Peak is something that brings me moments of true pleasure. Isn’t that reason enough to buy and enjoy it? The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that whatever brings one pleasure in life is what should be considered “good.” 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “There is no law in a state of nature, so there can be no right or wrong.” Friedrich Nietzsche believed that strength of the will is the highest human virtue; he would probably applaud me for drinking a blood-stained wine and not giving a damn. The neo-Marxist pop philosopher Slavoj Zizek, on the other hand, would definitely condemn the drinking of West Bank wine, a Starbucks coffee or any product of corrupt worldwide capitalist oppression.
When I posed the issue of the wine’s morality to my prospective investor friend, he said something interesting, “If you only bought stuff from businesses whose policies and practices you totally agree with, you’d never buy anything.” He’s right, and one can even take that argument a few steps further.
It seems that I and indeed many people, are willing and able to separate between great products, ideas or works of art and the morality of the situations, businesses or people behind them.
Woody Allen, in my opinion, is one of history’s greatest thinkers and filmmakers. He also had a sexual relationship with his teenage stepdaughter, who he later married. But that doesn’t stop me from buying tickets to his films. Dr. Seuss cheated on his wife while she was suffering from cancer. Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer. Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen and BMW all used Jewish forced labor during World War II. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. iPhones are produced under questionable conditions in Chinese factories. Roman Polanski, another world renowned filmmaker, was arrested and jailed for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house in 1977, which doesn’t seem to trouble the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards and countless festivals that have celebrated him with dozens of awards.
If one’s ethical world consists of only black & white, and you try to filter out people or products that are less than immaculate and infallible, who really loses out? What would you be left with? It would be impossible to succeed in such an endeavor. It’s nice to preach, but we live in a practical world. Few and far between are the products that are 100% sustainable, compostable and ethical. There’s even been a pope who was a former Nazi.
Also, where do we draw the geographic line? Every country in the world has some cultural or political blemish. Should we boycott Jamaican products because of the country’s infamous homophobia, Brazilian products because of deforestation, Russian products because of the invasion of Crimea and Egyptian, Somali, Sudanese, Malian, Nigerian, Yemeni and Kenyan products because of female circumcision? Where on earth, literally, does it end?
As intellectual consumers, we should be able to learn from people we disagree with, separate the wheat of an idea from the chaff and maybe even use a product whose origins we don’t endorse. If an Israeli biomedical lab in the West Bank finds the cure for cancer, should we boycott it?
Another problem. Sanctions and boycotts, whether popular or governmental, are designed to punish and to put political pressure on a rogue regime or company to change its problematic policies. But when and where, historically, has that actually worked? American sanctions against Iran, established in 1979 and gradually increased, didn’t stop it from building the nuclear capabilities that eventually became a tool for leverage in toppling those same sanctions. UN sanctions against North Korea have certainly isolated it, but definitely not toppled its hereditary dictatorship. Many activists cite the sanctions instituted in the 1980s against the South African Apartheid regime as an example of successful political isolation, but any serious historian would admit that those sanctions were more of a byproduct of internal popular uprising in South Africa, and not the main instigator of regime change.
On the other hand, there are cases of successful boycotts of commercial enterprises. A famous example is the year-long 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which developed organically after Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested after refusing to forgo her seat in the front of a city bus. The cooperation of the black community and several prominent leaders, including the all-too-human Martin Luther King Jr., caused the commercial bus company serious economic distress and resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that made segregated seating illegal.
When I asked Vered Ben-Saadon of Tura Winery how the efforts of BDS and the EU labeling laws were affecting her business she told me, “Not at all. My winery has no stock left. My customers in the US and South America have no idea what a boycott is.”
So, I’m stuck in a moral quandary. I love the wine, but I hate the occupation. I want to enjoy life, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Whatever I wind up deciding, there’s one thing I know, which my visit to West Bank wine country only confirmed.
At Tura Winery, owner Erez Ben-Saadon offered to give my friend and me a look at its vineyard, a short drive outside the safe confines of the settlement. It was a rainy, cold, windy day. Walking through the vineyard, enveloped in fog, rows of wet grapevines on the rocky hillside were interrupted by a dilapidated, old cement military lookout-tower, where a young Israeli soldier was sitting, alone except for a sniper rifle — probably for hours, freezing and bored out of his mind. What exactly was he protecting, the grapes? Soaking up the bizarre, dismal scene, I was both sympathetic and enraged. Israelis’ (and my) tax money, IDF resources, the personal safety of that soldier and the lives of Palestinians were all being sacrificed for the benefit of a single settler and his expensive grapes. The gloomy, wet vineyard represented the absurdity, evil and pathetic nature of the whole occupation, which has to end.
I can live without the wine.