Coexistence in a cone

A Galilee gourmet ice cream venture builds bridges between Jews and Arabs.

Founders Adam Ziv (left) and Alaa Sweetat at the Buza shop and production center at Kibbutz Sasa (photo credit: GUY RAIVITZ)
Founders Adam Ziv (left) and Alaa Sweetat at the Buza shop and production center at Kibbutz Sasa
(photo credit: GUY RAIVITZ)
The latest hit in Israeli gourmet ice cream, Buza (Arabic for ice cream), is actually not an entirely new one – the first outlet opened three years ago in remote northern Galilee.
This summer it took a big step forward when Buza’s founders, Alaa Sweetat, 32, and Adam Ziv, 29, opened three more venues – two in the Galilee and one in bustling Tel Aviv.
Ziv and Sweetat opened their first ice cream parlor in Sweetat’s hometown Tarshiha, an Arab town that together with the nearby Jewish town of Ma’alot forms a single Arab-Jewish municipality.
Ziv, a member of Kibbutz Sasa, a 20-minute drive east of Tarshiha, had returned from a year-long trip to Africa and Europe. He ended his travels with a three-month apprenticeship at an ice cream parlor in Vinci, a small Tuscan village near Florence, where the owner initiated him into the art of gelato making.
Coming back to Sasa, it was clear to Ziv that his dream ice cream parlor should be located in one of the neighboring Arab villages.
“I wanted the venue to be in a place that is as similar as possible in lifestyle and openness to a Tuscan village, such as one finds in an Arab village. But it was also about establishing a business based on coexistence – a bridge between Sasa and our Arab neighbors,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Ziv is a third-generation member of the kibbutz, established in 1949 by North American members of the Socialist- Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair on lands of the Arab village Sasa.
The kibbutz has enjoyed great economic prosperity since the early 2000s, when its vehicle-armor manufacturing company Plasan Sasa, the brainchild of Adam Ziv’s father, Dani, won US Army tenders for supplying vehicle protection systems to its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the American withdrawal from Iraq, Plasan’s revenues experienced sharp fluctuations (recently the company won a $6.56 million contract to provide armored 4x4 vehicles for the Polish military police) and Sasa had to find alternative investments to ensure a stable income. One of these enterprises – albeit one the smallest in scale – was Adam Ziv’s Buza.
Ziv and Sweetat first met several years ago when Ziv’s family became a frequent customer at Sweetat’s Tarshiha restaurant, Aluma. Sweetat, son of the vice-principal of a Tarshiha school and an accountant at the Ma’alot-Tarshiha municipality began his career in the restaurant business when, as a high school student, he took an after-school job as a barman in Aluma.
After graduating high school he studied auditing, but never practiced. Instead, he returned to Aluma as a manager, eventually buying the business from its Jewish owners.
Aluma, an upmarket bistro specializing in local Arabic dishes with an overlay of south-of-France cuisine, has attracted mainly tourists and Jewish visitors from all over the north. The town’s residents, Sweetat tells The Report, as other potential Israeli-Arab customers “are not keen on this type of food. So despite an eating- out culture among prosperous Arabs, only about 10 percent of Aluma’s clientele is Arab.” Yet, he notes, with the many TV cooking shows, which introduce a wide range of cooking styles, the tendency to culinary conservatism is weakening “and slowly people here begin to understand and to like my food.”
But when Buza opened three years ago, it addressed a wide circle of potential customers – it even uses kosher ingredients.
And it was enthusiastically received by Jews and Arabs alike – local Galileans, tourists, foodies from around the country and vacationers. Sweetat remarks that they have to recruit extra staff on Muslim and Christian holidays.
THE FIRST parlor’s launching also coincided with the rise of Tarshiha as a culinary hub and nightlife center in the Upper Galilee. “During the early 2000s, the only place to have a night out in Tarshiha was Aluma,” Sweetat says. Tarshiha’s famous market was already an attraction for the area’s residents and for tourists, but in the evenings the town had nothing to offer.
In the past three or four years, however, this has changed, there are now delicatessens, pastry shops, bakeries, cafés and bars – the latter open deep into the night, attracting the mixed population of that part of the Galilee.
From its inception, Buza was based on the ideological notion of Jewish-Arab collaboration.
The fact that media attention on Buza has often focused on the Arab- Jewish partnership indicates how rare this is. The Ministry of Economy claims in a response to The Report that it has no figures on the scope of Jewish-Arab businesses or on their contribution to the Israeli economy.
A study published by the Israel Democracy Institute has revealed the gap in the job market rate of hiring Jews and Arab.
The latter, the study found, are far less likely to be hired for jobs that suit their skills and education, ending up often in jobs for which they are overqualified.
Yet, for Sweetat and Ziv, the idea of cooperation goes far beyond Arab-Jewish inclusion. “Cooperation is the essence of our activity,” Ziv asserts. “Not merely Jewish-Arab cooperation, but all sorts of cooperation. Not every ice cream parlor cooperates with the neighboring arak distillery, or with local farmers.” Buza bases many of its flavors on locally grown fruit; it works with local chefs in producing special flavors. It hires and trains the local workforce in the production and sales of the products.
This notion of cooperation within the community is being implemented in the new venues. The production center in Sasa, for instance, offers courses, recipes and ingredients for making ice cream at home.
“The reason that the Tarshiha parlor is packed is not its Jewish-Arab co-ownership, but rather the quality of the product,” Ziv stresses as we meet at the cleanly designed shop at Sasa – the specious venue was originally the cowshed.
Buza concentrates on the distinct Italian style of gelato that is relatively low-fat, “although we’re open to all sorts of styles, for instance our rich American-style chocolate flavor,” Ziv notes. They’re also experimenting with traditional Arab ice cream flavors – like rosewater. However, although the name Buza is associated for many with mastic – the gummy textured Arabic ice cream, Sweetat says that there are no plans to manufacture this type.
However, “we make sure to keep up to date with Milan and Paris,” Ziv points out, “whether it’s about the choice of ingredients, design, the music we play, or our locations. For instance, the big window to the kitchen in each of our venues is a method adopted by many manufacturers in France and Italy. At the same time, we insist on maintaining local features. There’s no point in transplanting a Milan-style parlor into the heart of Tarshiha’s market or Sasa’s former cowshed”.
The décor at the Tarshiha venue, located in an old Arabic house, is based on painted tiles imported from Morocco. The Sasa venue kept the original cowshed’s ceiling, maintaining a barnlike open space set on a concrete floor. Over the ice cream counter are the same painted Moroccan tiles, which are also used at the other two shops in Tel Aviv and in the Hula valley.
The background music emphasizes Mediterranean music, and Arabic and Hebrew are both used, not just in the Galilee branches, but also in Tel Aviv, reminding the visitor that like Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Tel Aviv-Jaffa too is a shared municipality.
THE FLAVORS also seek to combine the local with the international, as well as the trendy with the classic. “For instance, the cashewpe’a (a play on words referencing the Cassiopeia constellation in Hebrew) – is a flavor based on the cashew nut that the Israeli palate is so familiar with together with salty toffee, which today is a very popular ingredient in the culinary world,” says Ziv.
The Upper Galilee is a cooler part of the country, where winters can become stormy and snow closes roads for a day most years. Sweetat says Buza was intended to be an all-year venue with the expectation that winter would be a slower season. So they did not anticipate what eventually happened when stormy weather arrived. “One Saturday,” Sweetat recalls, “the rain came down so hard that I released most of the staff for the day. It was a huge mistake. In no time the parlor was packed.”
The political storms proved more tricky.
The war in Gaza in 2014 took its toll on businesses in the north. Both Ziv and Sweetat, however, reject the notion that the surge of racism that swept the country that summer influenced the customers or hurt their business. “The relationships between Arabs and Jews here [in the upper Galilee] are genuinely good, regardless of their voting patterns.” Ziv notes.
An interesting feature in the cooperation theme is the co-ownership of Buza between Sweetat and Sasa. Buza is an independent business, but as Sasa is still a cooperative kibbutz, Ziv’s share is owned by the kibbutz. And in a reply to The Report’s question, Ziv stresses that Buza’s framework of coexistence is by no means a deliberate counterpoint to Plasan’s military products. In any case, “Plasan’s sales are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, while Buza is merely a four ice cream parlor business,” he points out.
Nonetheless, Ziv doesn’t conceal his intention to make Buza an international success story. One of his aims, he says, is to bring Buza onto the list of the top 10 best ice cream parlors in the world.