Pompeo and a settler vintner’s battle for ‘Made in Israel’ wine

The location of Yaakov Berg’s winery, in the Shaar Binyamin Industrial Park, a short distance from Jerusalem and Ramallah is not accidental.

A new line of wines in the Psagot winery was named after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A new line of wines in the Psagot winery was named after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Settler vintner Yaakov Berg’s battle to gain recognition for his wine as a product “Made in Israel” reached fantastical heights Thursday when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s helicopter landed on a dirt field outside his West Bank winery.
It was an almost unimaginable scenario for an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who came of age in the hilltops of Judea and Samaria and began producing wine as a hobby that in the last two decades has become an award-winning brand.
“I still feel that I am dreaming,” the starry-eyed CEO and founder of Psagot Winery told the reporters who spoke to him as soon as Pompeo departed.
Pompeo’s brief sojourn in the winery, which included a tour of the facility and a lunch of lamb and salmon, marked the first time that a US secretary of state or any such high-ranking official had visited an Israeli entity in the West Bank.
It was the latest in a number of steps the Trump administration, especially Pompeo, has taken to legitimize West Bank settlements.
On the surface, there is little that binds Pompeo, a Christian American politician from Kansas, to Berg, an Israeli Jewish winemaker.
The two men had never met until Thursday. But their paths had already crossed, in a manner of speaking, due to their love of the Bible, the Land of Israel and their battle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The location of Berg’s winery, in the Sha’ar Binyamin Industrial Park, a short distance from Jerusalem and Ramallah, is not accidental.
For Berg, whose rustic stone visitor center has a commanding view of the West Bank, wine is the best expression of history, ownership and geography.
The Palestinians view wineries such as Berg’s as a foreign enterprise led by Israeli settlers who have occupied and stolen land that belongs to their future state. They view his winery, as they view all the settlements, as entities that perpetuate the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The international community maintains the same view, as have past US administrations.
Berg, whose family fled antisemitism in Russia, arrived in Israel in 1979 when he was three years old. He views himself as a direct descendant of the biblical Jews who once toiled the same land.
“Wine is an industry most identified with its geography,” Berg said.
For this reason, he used a print of an actual ancient coin he discovered in a cave near the Psagot settlement where he lives as a symbol that he stamps on all his winery’s bottles. The coin, which dates back to the Bar Kochva revolt, has the words “Freedom of Zion” written on it.
He has battled for this freedom on the international stage over the issue of product labeling. He wants the words “Made in Israel,” which he prints on the labels his winery produces, to be a recognized international fact.
Berg is among those who believe the land waited for the Jewish people to return and prosper in a special way just for them.
“I believe that this miracle, the return of the people to their land after 2,000 years,” he said, is part of a second miracle in which the land itself is redeemed.
It was actually his father, a mathematician, who began to grow grapes as a hobby when the family moved to Psagot when Berg was 12. He wanted a piece of land to grow something. “I worked with him all the time,” he recalled.
Berg served in the army, traveled to Australia, married and settled in Psagot and decided to begin a small boutique winery producing 13,000 bottles a year.
The winery grew slowly. Tour groups would stop. Some, who were wealthy and inspired by the quality of the wine, offered to become donors. He turned down a significant business opportunity when he discovered its precondition was that he relocate to sovereign Israel.
The Falic family of Miami, who are also donors to the Republican Party, made a similar offer, but with the exact opposite terms: that he remain in Judea and Samaria. Berg said this was a partnership he accepted.
His ideology entered the global stage when, in 2015, the European Union published guidelines for its member states on how to use consumer labels to inform consumers that the EU did not consider Jewish Israeli products produced beyond the pre-1967 lines to be made in Israel.
The guidelines were advisory and were not mandatory. But when the French economic minister in 2016 mandated the use of product labeling in his country, Berg petitioned a court in France. It ruled in his favor in 2018, saying the labeling should not be mandatory.
Over a year later, the European Court overturned the French court’s ruling and ordered that all 27 European Union countries must label products produced over the Green Line could not be labeled as made in Israel.
That 2019 ruling prompted Pompeo to change US policy from one that viewed the settlements as illegal, or illegitimate, to one that spoke of them as not inconsistent with international law. He made his announcement just one week after the ruling.
But Pompeo went further than that simple statement by declaring the Jews had a historic and religious right to the land, something that no past US administration has ever recognized.
His statements about the settlements, as well as his choice in referring to the area by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria, have been called the Pompeo doctrine.
In respect to the significance of the policy change, Berg created a special vintage called Pompeo, which was on display Thursday.
Berg said he believed Pompeo’s strong stand regarding the settlements comes from the fact he is a man of faith who knows he is making history.
“He was the right man in the right place,” he said.
Decades from now, few will remember Pompeo in the US. But the Jewish people will always remember him as a close friend who made pathbreaking decisions that impacted their destiny in the holy land, Berg said.
“I have no doubt that the meaning of the visit” helps cement a policy that says that Judea and Samaria is part of Israel, he said.
Before Pompeo left, Berg gave him an ancient coin. He also gave him copies of important declarations in Jewish history – the declaration of King Cyrus, the Balfour Declaration and Pompeo’s own declaration on Judea and Samaria.
Berg said he himself did not know that Pompeo had gone yet one step further and declared that settlement products could be stamped “Made in Israel” until the dignitary had left.
In the winery guest book Pompeo wrote, “May I not be the last Secretary of State to visit this beautiful land.”