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Middle East

Oct 19, 2012

‘Making beer is a form of resistance’: brewing West Bank tensions

Beer brewers in Palestine lost many of their customers when the Israeli walls went up. But one defiant ale maker says it's all part of a resistance fight for freedom.

The most famous section of the Israeli-West Bank separation barrier is also the shortest: the eight-foot-tall concrete slabs festooned with anti-Zionist graffiti, the vast majority of it written, somewhat tellingly, in languages other than Arabic, make up only 6% of the structure’s total length.

But this nevertheless remains the stretch of wall that most people are likely to encounter on their travels, as they cross from Jerusalem to Ramallah or Bethlehem, and its impact is not to be understated. As Bus 18 to the former of those cities proceeds along the Israeli side of the wall towards the eventual bottleneck that connects it to the Palestinian one, the unadorned grey of the slabs rushing by not a foot from the reflection of my face in the vehicle’s dirty windows, a feeling of physical sickness comes over me. Whatever you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever you think the solution might be, you cannot help but feel, as you cross this particular rubicon, that you are entering a prison.

“Tall, isn’t it?” the young man sitting across from me asks. “Very,” I say.

“I jumped it,” he says. “You what?” “On Friday morning.” He smiles broadly. “I wanted to visit the Dome of the Rock for Ramadan.”

The Israeli government made a point this year of allowing a greater number of West Bank Palestinians to visit Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, together constituting the third holiest site in Islam, ostensibly as a show of goodwill following a period of relative calm, the result of a security arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but more likely to help release some of the tension that has built up as a result of that very arrangement.

But Shehada, as the young man introduces himself, was not one of those allowed to make the crossing. Only those over 40, like his parents, were granted automatic access, while those between 35 and 30 were allowed to apply for it. Shehada’s siblings, who are all under 15, were also allowed to cross. Shehada, who trained as a violin-maker in Britain before returning to Palestine last year, is the only member of his family who falls within the Israelis’ feared demographic of angry young men. Not that he was going to let that stop him.

“A friend and I decided to go anyway,” he says. “We made a grappling hook and jumped the wall in A-Ram [a Palestinian town northeast of Jerusalem].”

“Didn’t it hurt? That thing’s eight feet tall.” Shehada nods and holds up his hands for me to see them. His palms have been cut to ribbons. “Things were worse for my friend, though,” he says. “The Israelis caught him. We don’t know where he is.”

But as he leads me from Ramallah’s central bus station to the Al-Wehdeh Hotel, where I have booked the cheapest room in town, Shehada says he doesn’t regret going over at all.

“I was there for Ramadan, the best month of the year. Oh, man, it’s so good. You wake up and you’re just excited to be alive.”

“I hadn’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years before Friday,” he says. “The last time I was there, my grandfather took me, and he’s been dead for years. And I was there for Ramadan, the best month of the year. Oh, man, it’s so good. You wake up and you’re just excited to be alive.” He invites me to share iftar, the fast-breaking meal, with his family the following evening.

I meet Ala Jaradat, a researcher at the Ramallah-based Institute for Palestine Studies, at the upscale Beit Anisa later that night. Thin-lipped, bald by choice, and with Russian-accented English picked up while studying in what was at the time still the Soviet Union, Jaradat, who is drinking alone, joins me at me table entirely by chance in an attempt to avoid having to listen to the the group of American NGO workers sitting a few seats behind him. “Well-meaning people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” he explains.

Over rather too many glasses of Palestine’s own Taybeh beer, the activist, former political prisoner and scholar explains why he thinks the Friday passes are a ruse. “The Arab-Israeli conflict is at its lowest ebb in quite some time,” Jaradat tells me, echoing the sentiments of a number of Israelis on the other side of the separation barrier. “But there is tension building on another front, another conflict brewing, and that is here at home. The Israelis are aware of this and are trying to ease that tension.”

Where is the tension coming from? “From the fact that we live in a police state,” he says. You mean the occupation? He shakes his head.

“We are living in a Palestinian-controlled police state. Mahmoud Abbas is the head of that police state. Critics are abducted from their homes, escorted out of their lectures at university and jailed, disappeared. Whether the Palestinian Authority is doing this at the beck and call of Israel or on its own initiative, so that its members can keep lining their pockets, is beside the point. I would not rule out either possibility, but it’s beside the point. The point is that we are living in a police state, period, and we must rise up to dismantle it. The third intifada,” Jaradat tells me, “must be a struggle against ourselves.”

He laughs. “Actually, places like this are likely to be the first targets in that struggle. When your enemy is economic inequality and a culture of graft, this is precisely the kind of up-market place you’d want to firebomb.” He points at Beit Anisa’s high wooden wall, which blocks the street entirely from view. “There’s a reason they’ve designed this place as a fortress, you know.”

For all of his criticisms of Palestine’s past and present leadership — Arafat was a “terrible” leader, he says, “a one-man barrier to peace” — Jaradat is hardly uncritical of Israel. To the contrary, he is a staunch supporter of a one-state solution. “I support the establishment of secular state called Palestine,” he clarifies, “not a nominally Jewish state called Israel in which Palestinian Arabs are citizens.” He dismisses out of hand the concerns of those like The Jerusalem Post‘s Jonathan Spyer, who told me that the end of Israel’s Jewish majority would mean the end of the Jews in Palestine, period.“This idea of pushing the Jews into the sea …” Jaradat says and dismisses the idea with a wave of his hand. “Muslims, Christians, Jews. We have been living together for thousands of years and, where we haven’t been living together, we’ve at least been living alongside one another. This is not primarily a confrontation between Judaism and Islam. There are Israeli Muslims, there are Palestinian Christians, and so on. This is about land. If it has become a religious confrontation, it is only because Zionist ideology has become increasingly bound up with the messianic Judaism of the settlers.”

But surely there must be some validity in the concern, I say, when both Hamas and Hezbollah have previously called for the destruction of Israel? “The destruction of Israel,” Jaradat says, “is not the same as the destruction of the Jews. This is a Zionist confidence trick, this idea that the destruction of Israel as a Zionist enterprise would be comparable to a second Holocaust. It gets its power from the guilt that Western liberals feel for that tragedy. Israelis themselves shunned Holocaust survivors for a long time. The Zionist pioneer of the twentieth century was the Jew to look up to, not the Eastern European victim of the gas chambers. It was only once the West Bank was occupied that the Holocaust was embraced. It became a useful excuse.”

This may be partly true — Thomas Friedman, writing in From Beirut to Jerusalem, discusses Israel’s turn towards Holocaust-justified self-pity at length — but does it preclude the possibility that these organisations’ official platforms might nevertheless be anti-Semitic? Jaradat demurs. “This is not a chicken-and-egg situation,” he insists. “The occupation came first. The anti-Semitism followed.”

The next morning, somewhat hungover from the Taybeh beer, I head to the town that gives the beverage its name to indulge in some hair-of-the-dog. Taybeh is Palestine’s last 100% Christian village and its eponymous ales and stouts are the only such products brewed on this side of the separation barrier. Nadim Khoury founded the microbrewey following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, predating Israel’s first microbrewery by about 10 years, and while residents in the surrounding Muslim villages were initially unimpressed with the godless enterprise, Arafat immediately saw the benefits of encouraging Palestinian entrepreneurship and gave the family of brewers his blessing. As the sherut drives towards Ramallah’s city limits, we pass one of the company’s ubiquitous billboards: “Drink Palestinian. Taste the Revolution.”

On the outskirts of town, signs point out various international aid projects: a German-funded road here, a Swedish-bankrolled government building there. A girl’s school, overlooking a rocky valley, is being reconstructed with funds from the US government. Shehada will later insist, to the point that I give up and let him, that the phrase “a gift from the American people” literally means a gift from individual Americans, rather than from the federal government. “The American government would never send us money,” he says.

“The second intifada made things difficult, but the construction of the wall made them nearly impossible. Israel used to account for nearly 70% of our sales. Today it accounts for less than 30.”

The sherut also passes a number of Israeli settlements, the blue Star of David fluttering serenely above the razorwire that encloses and protects them. The whole thing strikes me as surreal. On this side, detritus. On that, a couple dressed in clothing from The Gap, walking what appears to be a purebred collie. Pete Seeger’s “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” come to mind, with a few pillboxes made out of it, too, for good measure.

The dog-walkers do not appear, from the window of the bus, at least, to be the messianic ultra-Orthodox settlers who believe that every inch of ancient Israel must be settled as a necessary precondition for the Messiah’s arrival. (To Maimonides’ wry observation that the Messiah “may tarry,” such zealots coldly reply, guns cocked, “Not if we can help it.”) They appear to be ordinary, even boring suburbanites: perhaps those who have taken to the West Bank, not for religious or ideological reasons, but for economic ones.

In August, Al Jazeera reported that lower rents and higher education subsidies were increasingly drawing non-religious Israelis into the territories, especially recently-arrived migrants. Why else would such non-messianic types want to live out in here in a heavily-fortified chicken coop? It’s like Texans from El Paso willingly going to live in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the one-time murder capital of the world: either you believe you’re on a mission from God or else you constantly and consciously lie to yourself, insisting that your little slice of heaven isn’t smack-bang in the middle of hell, where people resent you at best and want to kill you at worst.

Palestine’s first and only female brewer, Madees Khoury, is putting the finishing touches on a batch of ale when I arrive at the Taybeh microbrewery. As I wait for her, beer in hand, I peruse the walls: Khoury’s father and uncle, in near-identical pictures, smiling and shaking hands with Arafat; a flyer advertising this year’s Taybeh Oktoberfest, the village’s annual festival of beer and music; her father smiling wildly in the pages of a New York Times from a couple of years back. Khoury herself has spent most of her life in the United States — she speaks English with an American accent, which is more common of Israelis than it is of Palestinians, and wears a Boston Red Sox cap that breaks my Yankee-supporting heart — but decided to return to Palestine and try her hand at the family business five years ago.

We work our way through the formal part of the tour — this machine does this, that machine does that — before I ask about the map on the wall. It shows the West Bank, that familiar half-butterfly, and the commercial crossing points between it and Israel. Khoury is adamant: the construction of the separation barrier has been terrible, almost cataclysmic, for business.

“The second intifada made things difficult,” she says, “but the construction of the wall made them nearly impossible. Israel used to account for nearly 70% of our sales. Today it accounts for less than 30.”

Were it not for exports to countries like Japan, and the licensing of Taybeh’s brand and methods to a German brewing company, the operation may well have gone under, Khoury says. Many other, smaller companies have.

“We’re here,” she says, pointing at Taybeh on the map. “Most of our Israeli-side customers are in Jerusalem. But,” she wiggles her finger around over the contested capital, “there’s no commercial crossing in Jerusalem. We have to drive all the way down here, to the Tarqumia crossing, await inspection, cross over, and then drive all the way back up on the other side. The crossing inspections can take hours. Sometimes we’re asked to open every crate in the truck. You should see the crossing guards when we’re moving kegs. You’d think we were smuggling bombs or something.”

The result is that a beer run that once took several hours can now eat up a whole day or more, drastically limiting the numbers of runs that can be made to Israeli suppliers each week. Even as we speak, Khoury says, Taybeh’s latest business venture is being held up at an Israeli port: after producing a stellar little homemade vintage last year, the brewers are now looking to branch out into winemaking, but the state-of-the-art equipment they have imported from Europe is raising Israeli eyebrows. “It’s the same thing every time we import a new beer vat.” She rolls her eyes. “They act like we’re importing a nuclear reactor.”

Khoury has no doubt that the inconveniences experienced by Palestinian businesses are a product of Israeli design. “It’s better for them if we’re dependent,” she says. “We can’t even keep a small business on track and we’re asking to run our own country? That’s why it’s important to we keep doing what we’re doing.”

“Making beer is a form of resistance.”

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29 comments

29 thoughts on “‘Making beer is a form of resistance’: brewing West Bank tensions

  1. SoAnyway

    No ant-semitism at all to worry about? “The occupation came first, the anti-semitism followed”???

    What about the the second class status of Mizrachi Jews in Arab lands over the past 500 years, the rabid Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the convenient scapegoating of the “Zionist Entity” by generations of the corrupt Arab ruling class who find anti-Jewish racism very handy for deflecting the anger of the masses.

    And no reason whatsoever for Israelis to be a teensy bit edgy about imported kegs?

    A bit of stretch surely? Nevertheless it is heartening to hear that mainstream Palestinians are taking positive steps towards their future, despite the cynical provocations and warmongering of their leadership.

  2. Tom Greenwell

    Fascinating article – thanks.

  3. Kevin Herbert

    SoAnyway:

    In my view,there’s no such thing as ‘anti-semitism, which is a Zionist (Thomas Herzl) late 19th century confection to curry pity for the Zionist cause.

    There’s only racism..it the same for all peoples..why should a small group of Jews i.e. the Zionists, have the right to create a loaded term for racism against them.

    Isn’t racism in itself exactly the same evil against any minority?

    Careful in your answer…you’re on the shaky ground of a race supremacist i.e. someone who sees their suffering as automatically more important than the suffering of other minorities.

  4. SoAnyway

    Anti-semitism is the name for the most ancient and vicious form of European racism. Racism is itself a misnomer, being based on last century eugenicist misunderstandings of genetics. Nowadays most Australians are proud of our culture’s Judaeo-Christian heritage, although the virus of classical anti-semitism still occasionally finds a refuge in people with conspiracist leanings and an unhealthy, obsessive preoccupation with Jews and Israel. This is particularly odd coming from Anglo Australians who have no ancestral connection, mythology, language or culture to justify their colonialist appropriation of Aboriginal land.

  5. Kevin Herbert

    SOAnyway:

    If you’re relying on Daniel Goldhagen’s widely debunked premise that the most ancient & vicious form of European racism is ‘anti-semitism’ (aka ‘racism’), then you’re at loggerhreads with the great majority of Jewish scholars, including Raoul Hilleberg the accepted leading global expert on the genocide against European minorities by the Nazis, as well as the widely respected Dr Norman Finkelstein et al. Both these reknowned Jewish scholars commented that Goldhagen’s attempt to contruct a centuries old narrrative of entrenched European racism against Jews only, reflected very poorly on the scholastic standards of the Harvard history department who’d approved his thesis, as well as on Goldhagen himself. In short, Goldhagen’s work is considered by the majority of Jewish scholars to be racist tosh.

    As a general comment, your absence of any supporting data for your views, is emblematic of a bigot’s response.

    Your fatuous use of moral relativism in regard the current Australian population’s lack of an ancestral connection to this land,is most revealing.

    Either quote your sources for your view, or apologise for your bigotry.

  6. Mike R

    The articles by Matthew Clayfield and Jack Davies are fascinating in that they illustrate the complexity of the Israel/Palestine situation by relating on the ground discussions with protagonists from both sides. It makes a refreshing change from the mono-dimensional opinion pieces that we use to be regularly subjected to by commentators safely ensconced on the other side of the world from the conflict.

    Kevin, you are at it again.

    Your opening salvo “If you’re relying on Daniel Goldschlager’s..” is an obvious attempt to verbal SoAnyway . Who knows what SoAnyway’s opinion of Goldshlager’s book or whether has read of or even heard of the book?
    As you point out Daniel Goldschlager’s book regarding the complicity of the everyday German people in the holocaust has been rightly condemned for its biases and inaccuracies and poor scholarship by Holocaust historians of all persuasions whose views on Israel are highly divergent.
    Its relevance to the existence or non-existence of anti-Semitism is limited.

    Kevin, your red-herring-manship ,as distinct from your scholarship, is much to be admired.

    As for your view regarding the non-existence of anti-Semitism.

    Anti-Semitism describes a particular form of racism which involves an irrational hatred of Jews. It has other connotations due to its historical prevalence and geographical diversity and the etymology of this form of racism also includes words like pogrom and ghetto that originated from the Jewish experience in Europe over many centuries.

    Kevin, are your objections to the term based on your belief that that the hatred of Jews is not irrational (i.e. the Jews deserve every misfortune and every calamity that has befallen them) or that the hatred of Jews does not or has not ever existed? This is not a rhetorical question and I would be interested in Kevin further elucidating his views regarding the non-existence of anti-Semitism.

    As I have discussed with Kevin in several of our previous interminable exchanges on Crikey,the term anti-Semitism originated by Wilhelm Marr almost two decades prior to Herzl’s rise to prominence, so your claim that it was manufactured by Herzl is bizarre.

    Interestingly you have again, as you have done several times in the past, referred to Theodor Herzl as Thomas Herzl. The only Thomas Herzl I can find using a Google search is a Tom Herzl on Facebook who resides in Austria. I will warn him that you are gunning for him for coining the term anti-Semitism and provoking the current turmoil in the Mid-East.

    As for the chicken and egg argument advanced by Jaradat in the above article itself. The implication that the state of Israel is the cause of anti-Semitism suggests that If Israel was eradicated then the level of anti-Semitism would revert back to the days prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 ( or back to the levels seen in Europe pre Herzl -see pogroms). These indeed were the good old days for the Jews.

  7. Kevin Herbert

    Mike R: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  8. Mike R

    Kevin, I was puzzled by your response to my question as to your reasons for the objecting to the term anti-Semitism. I originally thought the use of a series of ‘z’s was simply meant to convey a degree of boredom. This seemed reasonable as it took you several days to formulate your monosyllabic response at a rate of less than one character per hour. Did you agonize over the number of ‘z’s and continually edit and re-edit your response worrying whether it was too verbose or conversely too brief?

    However maybe your response was more profound than I first thought. Subjecting your response to sub-textual analysis to search for a hidden meaning I realize that your use of the letter ‘z’ being the final character in the alphabet was actually indicative of your struggle to find a final solution to the Jewish question as to whether the Jews brought their well-documented misfortunes upon themselves.

    But using the principle of Occam’s razor, I could be over-interpreting and you were just falling asleep at the keyboard. Sweet dreams Kevin and send my regards to Tommy Herzl.

  9. SoAnyway

    Love your response Mike R!

  10. Kevin Herbert

    Mike R: you’re suffocating under the weight of your irrelevant attempts at wit.

    You’ve conveyed nothing in your posts save for the fact that you have nothing of substance to offer.

    Maybe you can enlighten us as to what SoAnyway was basing his claims upon? It’s noteworthy that apart from repeating his/her facile,discredited Israeli Government talking points,we’ve heard nothing from him,/her since.

    Why don’t you explain what SoAnyway is trying to convey to Crikey readers….with supporting documentation.