The eighth-grade boys make a lot of noise as they arrive at the Drimia Winery in Susya, a Jewish settlement in the southern Israeli-occupied West Bank. Students at a nearby religious boys school, they wear skullcaps on their heads and religious fringes under their shirts.
They’ve been divided into groups of four, and the team that harvests the most Cabernet Sauvignon grapes will get ice cream. They enthusiastically jump into harvesting, laughing and yelling to each other.
“Do you know how many religious commandments you are fulfilling as you do this?” the teacher asked the boys, who seemed more interested in ice cream than religious philosophy. “This is the land of Israel that God Himself gave us to plant and to work.”
One of dozens of wineries throughout the West Bank, Drimia is making some of Israel’s best wines. Susya is also home to an ancient Jewish archaeological site with a synagogue dating back at least 1,200 years.
Close to Susya is the Yatir Winery, which has won international acclaim. While Drimia is in the West Bank, Yatir is inside the “green line,” the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. It’s therefore not classified as a settlement.
The winemaker at Drimia, Elad Movshovitz, worked at Yatir before going out on his own in 2007. Today, he makes 12,000 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, and a blend called Sfar (“the edge of the desert”). He says that opening a winery in the West Bank did not have political significance for him.
“This is where I was born, and this is where I wanted to make my wine,” Movshovitz told me. “I don’t really think about politics much.”
But near the settlement where Movshovitz lives with his wife and four young children is the Palestinian village of Khirbet Susya. There, several hundred Palestinians who had been living at the archaeological site and were forced to leave have pitched tents. Israel has issued demolition orders for the tents but has yet to evacuate it.
The West Bank (the term refers to the West Bank of the Jordan River) is an ancient wine-growing region dotted with wine presses. Wine and olives have been grown here since biblical times, and the terroir of warm days and cold, rainy nights is perfect for grapes. Israel conquered the land in 1967 during the Six-Day War but did not annex it. Until then it was part of Jordan.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan once famously said that he was “waiting for the phone call from (Jordan’s) King Hussein” to withdraw from the West Bank in exchange for peace with Jordan. That phone call never came, and today, about 380,000 Israelis live in 140 Jewish settlements in the West Bank alongside 2.4 million Palestinians, not including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967.
Palestinians say that all of these wineries, like the settlements that spawned them, are illegal under international law, and that the entire West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, must be part of a future Palestinian state. The BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) urges the international community to boycott all Israeli products grown in the West Bank.
That would include the Shiloh Winery in the Jewish settlement of Shiloh. According to the Bible, Shiloh was the site of the ancient tabernacle, and it was the religious capital of the Jewish people until the temple was built in Jerusalem. The winery is in the settlement’s industrial zone, just down the road from the archaeological site of the tabernacle.
Shiloh winemaker Amichai Lourie, whose family moved to Israel from Boston when he was four, says his job connects him to ancient Jewish history. He calls the area Judea and Samaria, using the ancient biblical names.
“There is something special about Shiloh because this is where everything started,” Lourie says as he draws a barrel sample of Petit Verdot. “After 40 years walking in the desert this is where the people of Israel became a nation. You see wine presses that go back thousands of years.” When Lourie works in the vineyard, he says, he feels part of the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
The rabbis said that “if you see that the land starts to flourish again you know it’s a sign that the people of Israel is on its way back and redemption is starting,” Lourie says. “For thousands of years nothing grew here, and even when people tried to work the land, nothing stuck. Now a crazy thing is happening. You throw a seed into the ground and everything is flourishing. All I have to do is try not to ruin it.”
He says almost all of his grapes are from vineyards in “Samaria,” the biblical name for the northern West Bank. The winery has grown quickly from its beginnings in 2005 with 20,000 bottles to an expected 200,000 bottles this year. The wines are well-crafted and carefully blended. The flagship Mosaic wine, a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, was aged in new oak barrels for 20 months and sells for about $55 internationally. He also makes varietals of Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In both the U.S. and Israel, however, wines from West Bank Jewish settlements often have political associations.
“There are some who won’t drink such wine and there are some who say one has to drink such wine,” Jonathan Livny, a wine critic for Israel Wines, a Hebrew-language wine website, told me. “Many of the wines come from settlements that are on the extreme right of the political map. Those people are there for ideological reasons, and it’s a very political issue.”
The growth of the wineries in the settlements shows that BDS does not seem to be having much of an effect. The wineries have also embarked on a campaign to win the hearts and minds of Israelis and American Jewish tourists, offering tours and tastings at West Bank wineries. One of Israel’s up-and-coming wineries, Psagot, shares space with the Binyamin Visitor’s Center, which promotes the settlement movement.
Wine tourism in Israel is growing as more Israelis travel abroad and visit wineries. Israelis are still not big drinkers, consuming only 11 liters per person per year, well below the average in Europe. The most successful tourism region has been the Golan Heights, the rocky plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community.
The Golan Heights have become a tourism center, with Israelis flocking to the area to hike and see the gorgeous views into Syria and Lebanon. They stay at hundreds of local “zimmers,” or bed and breakfasts, and often pop into a winery or two. The tourism boom means that the Golan Heights, which Israel almost agreed to return to Syria in 2000 in exchange for a peace treaty, is seen by most Israelis as an integral part of the country. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are encouraging people to visit the wineries in the area, hoping to follow the Golan Heights model.
Cover photo credit: Yatirwinery.com