A Beer for Palestine
By ROGER COHEN
Published: May 17, 2010
NEW YORK - Few people vacation on the West Bank, but if they did they might
head for Taybeh, a hilltop village clustered around a church whose charm trumps
the Israeli checkpoints that have to be negotiated to get there. The air is
good, the stones smooth, the light brilliant - and the beer excellent.
I was there last month visiting David Khoury, who, in 1995, mortgaged a house
and sold property in Brookline, Massachusetts, in order to found the first
microbrewery in nascent Palestine. That was a time of Oslo-induced optimism.
But of course Palestine, to the world's frustration and cost, is still waiting,
15 years later, to be born.
The Khoury family had done all right in Brookline running a liquor store called
Foley's in an Irish-American neighborhood. The store had been there for
decades. They saw no reason to change its name. Who in the United States cares
if a store with an Irish name is in fact run by Palestinian Christians from a
state-in-waiting somewhere in the Middle East?
It's not easy to trade that sort of buck-is-a-buck agnosticism for the
ferocious identity politics of the Holy Land, where blood trumps money. But
that's what David and his master-brewer brother Nadim Khoury did to help a
Palestinian state get on its feet. When brains and cash move in rather than
out, they figured, good things start happening.
That was theory. Practice proved near disastrous. After a strong start - with
their Taybeh beer selling well in Israel, ingredients coming in smoothly from
Israel, sales growing in Gaza and a franchise established in Germany - their
company almost fell victim to yet another sterile spasm of Israeli-Palestinian
The second intifada of 2000 cut Taybeh staff from 15 to zero by 2002. Hops,
yeast and barley no longer reached them from the port of Ashdod. Sales in
Israel collapsed. Jordan, to the east, became inaccessible. Soon the Israeli
wall-fence started going up, cutting off Jerusalem to the west. Hamas in Gaza
meant an end to sales of alcohol there.
Not the sort of stuff that happens in Brookline.
"Fortunately, we didn't owe much to banks because they never thought investing
in a beer company in a mainly Muslim environment made sense," David Khoury told
me. "We would not have survived."
Now the Taybeh beer company is coming back. There are things to celebrate again
- weddings, homecomings, nonviolence. Some 70 percent of sales are made in the
West Bank - nearly that much used to be in Israel - and profit has returned.
The company is not a bad barometer of the fast-growing West Bank economy and
how, quietly, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is building the elements and
institutions of statehood. Khoury knows that. As he put it, "We could wake up
one day and all this will be under siege again," but he's placing his faith in
Fayyad's "wise leadership."
I asked Khoury what he would say to an Israeli general if he had the chance. "I
would tell him that Israel is a reality and the Palestinian people are ready to
live in peace," he said. "We are not terrorists but we have the right to resist
occupation. I would say that you are greedy. You have to give up the West Bank
and go back to the 1967 borders, for the sake of Israeli women and children and
Palestinian women and children. Enough is enough."
There are Israeli settlements on either side of his village. Khoury sees one
from his window. Gesturing toward it, he said of the 22 percent of British
Mandate for Palestine that is the West Bank, "You see, we want this land, not
half of it."
That is also Fayyad's position. Development is his means to get there. "A road,
a health care facility, a school - people are beginning to buy into it," Fayyad
said. "There is a sense of self-empowerment."
But for now, Palestinian development has to happen in whatever small space is
accorded by Israel. If 6 percent economic growth is to continue, the West Bank
must wean itself off massive international aid and become self-sustaining. But
logistics remain a nightmare.
Because of checkpoints, it takes Khoury a day to get his beer into Israel, when
Jerusalem is 20 minutes away. All the beer in kegs has to transit a single
checkpoint near Hebron, nearly three hours away. Bottled beer takes a more
direct route, but closures are frequent. "The other day it was raining and the
Israelis said their dogs couldn't sniff and everything shut down," Khoury said.
"If you complain," he continued, "there's just one word - security."
Peace is risk, no way around that. But Israel won't do better than Fayyad. He's
a man worth taking risks for. And if you think the Holy Land could ever be a
place where a Jew from Odessa drinks Arab beer in Tel Aviv made by Palestinian
entrepreneurs with a joint called Foley's in Brookline and a factory in a West
Bank village with a church - and thinks nothing of it - then you should get
behind Taybeh by paying it a visit.
It's the right thing to do.
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