Vino and values

At the new Binyamin Visitors’ Center, you’re in Bible country – part of the local residents’ and leadership’s attempt to put a new face on the settlements.

binyamin visitors center 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
binyamin visitors center 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Most tourists who visit Israel spend a few hours in Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv – but few have visited the place it was named after. The original Nahalat Binyamin, the area granted to the tribe of Benjamin in biblical times, is located north of Jerusalem, in the area occupied today by the Binyamin Regional Council.
In August, the council, together with the Psagot winery and with the aid of hefty donations from abroad, opened a regional visitors’ center, combined with a brand new winery to showcase the region and its products.
Getting to the visitors’ center is easy. New signs point the way from the moment you reach the Hizme crossing, on the outskirts of Ramallah.
The center is located two-thirds of the way up a hill, underneath the settlement of Migron, overlooking the valley below.
“If you look to the south, you can see the wadi that King Saul and his son Jonathan used to sneak up on the Philistines,” said Yaela Briner, the center’s manager.
“That’s part of what’s so special about this place. You’re in Old Testament country here.”
The new visitors’ center is part of the local residents’ and leadership’s attempt to put a new face on the settlements.
Aside from producing income, tourism is seen by them as an opportunity to explain and advocate for their positions and enlist ambassadors for their causes.
“It’s important for us to show people that we don’t have horns, that we are normal people. We show them that we also have style and appreciate the same things they do, like wine and good food,” said Briner.
THE WINERY/VISITORS’ center complex has a substantial set of marketing tools at its disposal. Upwards of NIS 12 million was invested into making it an engaging experience.
The visit started at the winery’s state-of-the-art “floating” display room, situated above the winery work floor with two large windows on either side.
The room is controlled by a wall-mounted touch-screen panel. With a touch, the large curtains are pulled aside, giving visitors a view of the winery. On one side you can see the machinery and the large fermentation silos; on the other, the oak barrels containing the aging wine.
Psagot was one of the first boutique wineries to open in the West Bank, producing its first wines in 2003. From an initial batch of 4,000 bottles, Psagot has constantly increased its sales every year and now produces 100,000 bottles. All the grapes are grown locally, in the Binyamin regional council.
With another touch on the panel, the lights in the room dim and a video begins playing, projected on the opposite wall above the stacked wine barrels.
It tells the story of the Jewish history of the region, from the days of the patriarchs to the present, highlighting the long history of wine-making in the area.
The film celebrates Jewish return to the region, presenting the inhabitants as pioneering redeemers of the land.
“Every stone has a story to tell,” says the narrator, with dramatic overtones.
The video runs for about 15 minutes and is available in Hebrew, English and Spanish, with plans to produce a Russian version in the works.
Briner said that the content is adjusted according to the type of people in the group and their interests.
“For some people, we stress the wine heritage more, and for others we stress the biblical connection,” said Briner. “We hope to draw people who are passionate about either.”
THE SECOND stop on the tour is in a glassencased room next to the visitors’ center lobby.
The room offers a vista to the surrounding hills, with Jerusalem’s northern neighborhoods and the entrance to the Judean Desert in the foreground.
At the push of a button, a large platform lowers from the ceiling, taking up half of the room.
When it reaches the floor you can see that the platform is a stage, surrounded by a dozen glass panels that look like the teleprompters politicians use to read speeches from.
The stage itself is a large movie screen on which videos are projected from above. It looks like the studio of a television game show. The glass panels are personal monitors, onto which additional images are projected.
In this section of the tour, the visitors get to learn about the modern-day relevance of the Binyamin region. They can choose to receive a presentation on a range of topics, from the region’s importance to Israel’s strategic defense, to the importance of protecting Israel’s water resources by having Jewish presence on the land.
The content tends to be heavily pro-settlements.
No mention is made of the Palestinian inhabitants of the region, aside from presenting them as a security threat.
At the end of the presentations, the visitors can participate in a quiz based on the material they viewed.
When not used by groups, the stage is raised and the room is used to host receptions for public and private events.
The third stop on the tour is a feature film screened in the center’s auditorium. The film, Et Batzir (“A time to harvest”) is a professionally made, 30-minute-long feature movie.
The movie tells the story of a young Israeli about to capitalize on the experience of a lifetime and relocate to London for a high-level job. His father is injured, and he is asked to stay a few days and help out with the grape harvest.
Reluctantly, he returns to his family and friends at the settlement to help out. Over the course of his stay, he is subjected to a series of lifelike hallucinations, in which he is taken back in time to those same places as they were in biblical times.
The young man meets pilgrims on their way to make sacrifices in Shiloh, and sees the patriarch Jacob as he sets his head down and dreams his dream of the angels.
During his stay, he also finds romance in the arms of his old girlfriend from the settlement.
In the end, of course, the young man decides to stay and takes over the family business, never making it to London, but selling wine to English clients.
As the lights go back on, the real-life character from the movie introduces himself: Ya’akov Berg, the owner of Psagot winery.
”The movie doesn’t tell my story exactly, but it does put a spotlight on the decision that I and others have made,” said Berg.
”It’s important that people get some understanding of what it’s all about for us,” he says.
“For many people, it is not clear. We want to show that it’s not all about business, that there are values involved and that the winery touches people’s lives,” Berg said.
According to Briner, more than 4,000 people have passed through the complex since it opened, with the numbers constantly growing.
They range from wine-tour groups, to heritage tourists, to religious groups and schools. Briner said that a substantial number of visitors have been evangelical Christians choosing to visit the region on a day trip, while staying in Jerusalem.
Recently, the center received a high-profile visit, when Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came by with 170 Christian tourists.
”Evangelical Christians, for whom the Old Testament is a deeply meaningful text, are very moved when they come here,” Berg said. “This region played a major part in the earliest Bible stories, even from the days before the founding of Jerusalem.”
According to Berg and Briner, most of the funding for the center came from the regional council and from donations from an undisclosed American source. Additional money came from the ministries of agriculture and tourism.
The center also offers tours of the region and its historic, natural and commercial attractions. A new tour being offered is the “Binyamin Wine Route,” which takes visitors to four boutique wineries in the area.