Arab wineries in Israel tell of the Palestinian struggle in each glass | World news | The Guardian4 Ottobre 2019
Restaurants that want to avoid the drink made on controversial settlements are the main clients
The rolling green hills of Galilee were rife with wine presses back in crusader times. Today, the fertile land is part of a booming Israeli wine industry.
But two wineries serve up a different story with every glass: the Arab-Palestinian tradition of winemaking.
Ashkar winery, located near the border with Lebanon, and Jascala winery, further east in upper Galilee, are the only commercial Palestinian-owned wineries inside Israel.
“We fill a niche,” said Nemi Ashkar during a tour of his winery in Kafir Yassif. His main clients are Arab-owned restaurants in cities such as Nazareth, Haifa and Acre, as well as restaurants in Tel Aviv seeking to avoid wine made on controversial Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. He also sells to the famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
Ashkar is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, also called Israeli Arabs, who comprise close to a fifth of Israel’s citizens. His family is Christian and part of the Arab communities that remained in Israel after its founding in 1948. Another 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled, and their descendants today remain refugees. Israel’s Arab citizens have historically played a marginal role in national politics; but the country’s Arab-majority parties are now a core part of the bloc in Israel’s parliament trying to oust the long-standing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after communities turned out in high numbers in the latest election.
For Ashkar, the most important part of his business is the label inscribing each bottle, designed by his daughter, a graphic designer. It shows Iqrit, his family’s ancestral home, and its church, which is all that remains after Israeli authorities destroyed the village in 1951. “I’m telling the story of Iqrit with this wine,” he said.
Amid the fighting in 1948, the 500 residents of Iqrit voluntarily left with a promise from Israeli forces that they could return soon. It never happened. Instead, after the war, Israel placed Arab communities in the new country under military rule. On Christmas Eve of 1951, Israel razed the village, destroying everything but the Greek Catholic church and adjacent cemetery.
The now 1,700-strong Iqrit community, mostly living in northern Israel, has been fighting in court to reclaim their land, so far to no avail. “We will return, I am sure, despite the 70 years of evacuation,” said Ashkar.
An unmarked and unpaved track leads up to Iqrit’s church, where the community gathers once a month for services, as well as for funerals. What remains of the village feels as if it’s on top of the world, isolated from the passage of time by gentle breezes and engulfed by waves of green hills all around.
Winemaking had long been a favourite pastime in Iqrit. While alcohol is forbidden in Islam, wine was popular among Arab Christians, although its presence in the Middle East has severely diminished over the last century.
“It was a hobby,” Ashkar said. “My family and my grandparents were winemakers just for family use.” Back then, they used uncultivated, native grapes for a sweeter taste than today’s wines from commercial varieties.
The Ashkar family’s love of winemaking did not diminish with their move to Kafir Yassif, 30 km away. But it wasn’t until 2005 when Ashkar, working in Israel’s tech industry, took a work trip to Silicon Valley and felt inspired by the winegrowers of northern California. He started making wine again and in 2010 founded the winery.
The first vineyard Ashkar bought grapes from is run by a Jewish-Israeli man, on land he said used to be part of Iqrit. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel’s lands authority confiscated Iqrit’s land, as it did for other depopulated Arab-Palestinian villages, and now through various bodies loans some of this land out. In practice, it’s extremely difficult for a non-Jewish citizen to lease state land.
Ashkar said he had good business relations and was now friends with the owner of the vineyard. As he moved into the commercial market in 2009, he started to buy grapes from two other nearby vineyards without an Iqrit connection and, a decade later, is looking to expand again.
Jascala winery, in the village of Jish, has a similarly deeply rooted story. Winemaking was a long-standing tradition for the Kharish family, also Christian, and in 2003 they decided to start something more formal.
Brothers Nasser and Richard are now the heart of the operation: Nasser, 40, cultivates the grapes, and Richard, 44, is the winemaker.
Nasser had just finished a degree in political science when he returned home to help his ageing father with the farming, then being done by workers from Thailand. He decided to stay.
“I feel really connected to the land,” he said of life on the vineyard. “It’s different from anything I’ve done in my life. It’s so satisfying … All of the time you’re dealing with something that grows with you.”
Jascala now makes 30,000 bottles a year and sells it mainly in Ramallah and Jerusalem, as well as Haifa, Nazareth and Tel Aviv.
There is, however, a limited market within Israel for non-kosher wine: both Ashkar and Jascala are not kosher according to the Jewish dietary restrictions that dominate Israel’s food market. Kosher wine can only be produced by Sabbath-observing Jews in regulated conditions or alternatively boiled, which lessens the quality.
An Israeli citizen, Nasser Kharish, said he also identified as Palestinian, which “is difficult for Jewish Israelis to hear that. But it’s true. I’m Palestinian. I’m part of the people.”
He added: “I don’t really feel that the Jewish-Israeli producers look at me differently as Palestinian or as Arab, [like] that they don’t want me or don’t like me,” he said. “They treat me as a winemaker.”