Inside the mind of an Israeli settler

Listening to Jewish settler-colonists, it’s hard not to conclude that the “Two-State Solution” is anything other than stone-cold dead, that an independent Palestine will never come to be, and that the “Land of Israel” truly is a single settler-colonial state from the River to the Sea.

I have spoken with over a dozen Jewish settler-colonists, from the south Hebron hills and Jordan Valley, up to Shiloh, in the northern West Bank. I’ve listened to their arcane biblical claims and fanatical rants, discomfiting wave of cognitive dissonance washing over me. They sound crazy, but they’ve had their way.

On October 23, I had the chance to listen again as Montreal-based lawyer/activist Dimitri Lascaris (my good friend and attorney) questioned one of the West Bank’s most notorious colonial profiteers, by Zoom link. Yaakov Berg is the founder-CEO of Psagot Winery Ltd., based in Psagot settlement, on the eastern edge of Ramallah. No penny ante boutique operation, Psagot produced almost a million bottles of wine between 2016 and 2018, largely derived from grapes grown on or watered from lands stolen from several dozen Palestinian landowners, Al-Bireh’s Quran family among them.

The uber-Zionist Falic Family of Florida, owners of the Duty Free America chain of airport shops, are reportedly majority shareholders and directors in Psagot Winery.

Yaakov Berg gabs a lot to the media. This seems to be the first time he has been questioned under oath by an expert lawyer. Dimitri Lascaris’ exchange with Berg was a legal cross-examination, drilling down into the affidavit Berg affirmed in support of a motion filed late September with the Canadian Court of Federal Appeal, seeking party status in the Trudeau government’s appeal of my July 29 settlement wine labeling victory at the lower Federal Court.

Read more about Kattenburg v. The Attorney General of Canada here and here and here.

If Psagot wins its bid for either party or lesser intervenor status in my litigation, he will join forces with B’nai B’rith Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (Canada’s AIPAC) in defending Psagot’s right to conceal the criminal origin of its wines from Canadian consumers. The Trudeau government concurs with Berg that Canadians should be kept in the dark on this matter. In support of truthful labeling, Independent Jewish Voices has also intervened in my case, represented by Canadian human rights lawyer Barbara Jackman.

A complete transcript and video of Dimitri’s Yaakov Berg Zoom cross is now posted at Dimitri’s blog. Read it here.

Fractured English notwithstanding, Berg,  a child immigrant from Russia, was in full form.

In his affidavit to the Canadian Court of Appeal, Berg claimed that the land he first planted his grapes on, back in 2002, consisted of just sand and rock and was “barren” and “virtually uncultivatable.” Aside from the fact that his grapes did indeed prosper – without divine assistance — “virtually uncultivatable” is an oxymoron.

Equally absurd is Berg’s claim about the archaeology of his “barren hilltop”, based on the discovery of a Hasmonean coin bearing the image of a grape leaf and amphora. Attempts by Dimitri to get to the bottom of the outlaw vintner’s archaeological bona fides were thwarted by Berg’s Lawfare Project attorney, David Elmaleh. According to Ramallah-based activist Fadi Quran (who isn’t an archaeologist either), the remains of an 800-year-old Sufi shrine are visible on the edge of the hill where Psagot Winery sits, underlain by deeper relics of Canaanite habitation predating the Hebrews.

Dimitri had a particularly hard time getting Berg to specify what he meant, geographically, by the ‘Land of Israel’. “You can take a Roman map, you can take a Greek map from 2000 years ago,” Berg shrugged. The ‘Land of Israel’ encompasses all the lands from the Jordan to the sea, including Gaza, Berg finally admitted. Asked if he could provide a map, Berg’s attorney agreed to take the question “under advisement.” (I’ve seen plenty of maps of this sort in West Jerusalem tourist shops).

Having established that Berg’s Israel includes all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, a lengthy round of jousting ensued over the location of that most obscure geographical feature, the Green Line, Dimitri referring to occupied territories east of the Green Line, Berg countering that Psagot sits north of the Green Line. Of course, Berg denies that the lands east of the Green Line are “occupied,” all the while acknowledging the disreputable nature of belligerent occupation.

“When you say something that it’s whatever, occupied territories or something like that, people say, you know what, I don’t want to touch it. I don’t know what it is,” Berg told Dimitri, his Zoom link occasionally garbled. “All over the world, there is ‘Made in USA’, ‘Made in Canada’, ‘Made in France’, ‘Made in England’, you know. People used to that. People don’t used to ‘Made in Occupied Territories, West Bank’ … It’s like a warning, cigarette warning. Don’t touch it. So, the idea of [Federal Court judge Anne Mactavish, who upheld my wine labeling complaint last July] was to make sure that people are not going to touch my wine.”

Pivoting, Berg turned the argument on its head. “I remind you that like a Jew, we’ve been occupied for 4000 years! Three thousand years, at least. So, we have a very long history of being occupied!”

Dimitri turned to a quote of Berg’s in a recent article in The Independent, stating that lands Psagot sits on have been effectively annexed, and that “the Palestinians should thank the Israelis ten times.” (The Independent article also reports that Israeli military authorities issued a demolition order against Berg’s home in 2003 — COGAT Order 252/03 — that’s never been carried out. Berg and his lawyer have obfuscated on this matter.)

“I don’t know what it means, annexation,” Berg coyly replied. “It’s the first time I heard this term, so of course, I didn’t say that. Right now, I don’t understand what it means, annexation.”

Asked if the lands Psagot sits on are part of the State of Israel, Berg replied (before his attorney could stop him), “Of course it’s part of the State of Israel!” His lawyer then vetoed any further questions about annexation.

Throughout Dimitri’s cross-examination, Berg continually equated my July 29 Federal Court victory with ‘BDS’, even though truthful labeling is all I seek. Berg and his associates have been quoted in Ha’aretz and elsewhere as saying that BDS actually boosts Psagot’s sales. Queried about this, Berg countered that Ha’aretz “works for Israeli enemies,” and have taken him out of context. If Psagot does nothing to counter hateful BDSers, Berg snapped, they would definitely lose business. But if they fight back, recruit friends and allies, they end up on top.

“This is our goal, because Jews used to do nothing, and now we need to fight … Of course, we win. Thank God we win, and you lose.” Psagot Winery has good friends in the Canadian House of Commons and other parliaments, who help him out, Berg boasted.

Still, Yaakov Berg is rattled by my wine labeling victory at the Federal Court of Canada, and by the prospects of losing again at the Federal Court of Appeal next year. With good reason. Yesterday, Berg and his winery lost a similar case at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), that will likely be cited in my appeal.

Embracing the recommendations of its top lawyer, Advocate General Gerard Hogan, the ECJ confirmed on November 12 that Jewish settlements violate the “rules of general international humanitarian law,” that the provenance of settlement products is a matter European consumers have the right to base their purchasing decisions on, and that settlement wines must therefore be specifically labeled as such.

“It’s destroyed our reputation, and people are asking questions,” Berg told Dimitri. “They say, you occupied, who you occupied? What you did? What you steal from somebody? People difficult to understand … And most of the people, they don’t want to deal with somebody that is not, that didn’t look like a good person. And again, the idea of [the Federal Court of Canada] judgement was to show that they’re not good people. That’s the whole idea. When you say about somebody that is occupied, or occupying something, people don’t want to, you know, people don’t want to be with you. It’s very simple.”

“Yes,” Dimitri countered, with one of his broad smiles, “I agree that occupying people is a very bad thing. I’m in complete agreement with you there, sir.”

In support of his claim that BDSers have trashed Psagot Winery’s reputation, Yaakov Berg has good news to share: Not a single bottle of Psagot’s award-winning chardonnay or cab sauvignon has been sold in Canada since Justice Mactavish’s 29-July ruling that ‘Product of Israel’ labels on settlement wines are “false, misleading and deceptive,” and that truthful labeling – including on matters ethical in scope – is a protected right under the free speech provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Dimitri questioned Berg closely on this. Berg dodged and weaved. The bottom line, patiently extracted by Dimitri: neither the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), nor any other Canadian liquor purveyor, nor the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), have actually told Berg that he can’t sell his wines in Canada. (The LCBO may well have placed a block on Psagot products, all the while continuing to stock ‘Product of Israel’ Golan Heights wines.)

Echoing the arguments of Psagot Winery’s Canadian allies, Berg feels any designation other than ‘Product of Israel’ would be discriminatory and antisemitic. Being told by Canadian authorities he has to label his wines ‘Product of Psagot settlement, West Bank’, or something similar, would be akin to what Jews faced seventy years ago, forced to wear yellow stars, Berg declared.

“You understand that Justice Mactavish is not ordering you to wear a yellow star on your clothes, sir, you understand that?” Dimitri asked.

“It’s the same thing, it’s exactly what happened in Germany,” Berg replied. “They mark me, like a Jew seventy years ago. They mark me. They say, you know what, we’re going to mark you in a very, in a yellow star … Please guys, don’t touch this wine, because it’s coming from occupied territories.”

Asked if he has discussed alternative labels with Canadian authorities in the wake of Judge Mactavish’s July 29 judgement, Berg countered: “Again, it’s like to ask, seventy years ago, that the Jew will ask the German government, excuse me, the yellow star, how big it’s supposed to be? It’s supposed to be ten centimeters or fifty centimeters? I’m not going to ask that question.”

The most astonishing part of Dimitri Lascaris’ cross-examination of Yakov Berg: a story of Berg’s, perfectly capturing, in his mind, the cruel conundrum Jewish vintners like him face, told they must declare their wines as originating somewhere other than the ‘Land of Israel’, then getting punished for refusing. Berg recounted an old Talmudic tale about “the most evil people on earth,” 4000 years ago — the story of two men who’d had a fight, one of them defended by his pregnant wife, who got punched, miscarried, and then got told by the evil people’s court that she should go sleep with the man who hit her so she and her husband could have another baby.

A pregnant silence fell on the video-conferenced cross-examination, as Berg shared his bizarre Talmudic parable. From my vantage point in Winnipeg, I could almost hear a collective breath of disbelief and bafflement from the court reporter and the pair of government lawyers who’d been quietly listening in, as they pondered the relevance of Berg’s story to the litigation at hand, wondering where it actually came from.

Subsequent inquiries with Jewish friends familiar with the Talmud cite Sanhedrin 109b as the source of Berg’s tale — a colourful account of four Sodomite judges named ‘Liar’, ‘Lying-Liar’, ‘Faker’, and ‘Justice-Perverter’.

Thankfully for Berg and his outlaw winery, these details did not find their way into the official transcript of his cross-examination by my able friend and attorney Dimitri Lascaris. Berg’s twisted depiction of how the wheels of  Canadian justice turn may ring true for settler-colonists of his ilk, but will score him no points at Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal, when it evaluates my lower court victory some time in the first half of next year.

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