In March, the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn made history, or at least the national media, when its members voted down a proposal to ban Israeli-made products in political protest of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Park Slope’s is not the first food cooperative to discuss such a boycott, nor the first to vote it down. But because it is among the oldest and largest member-run co-ops in the country (founded in 1973, the membership now tops 16,000 people), news outlets from The New York Times to The Associated Press covered the story.
As a longtime co-op member — joining was among the first things I did after moving to Brooklyn in 2004 — I also followed the debate closely. And early on I resolved not to write about it, preferring to keep a bit of distance between the personal and professional aspects of my relationship with food. And yet one small piece of the story stuck out enough that I think it’s worth breaking my resolution: a jar of olive tapenade.
The co-op presently sells about half a dozen Israeli products, among them Meditalia-brand green and black olive tapenades. I had purchased Meditalia’s tapenade before, enjoying the garlicky olive spread with eggs on toast.
And I had noticed the following message printed on the side of the package: “Meditalia is made possible through business partnership among Israelis and Arabs. Shared wallets lead to shared visions of the future.” I have always been a fan of thoughtful, message-driven products and of foods that share a story on their wrappers. But now, with the food co-op vote freshly in mind, I wanted to know more. Who was behind the company? And how, in a region so defined by strife and conflict, did they manage to foster such cooperative food production?
It turns out, Meditalia’s seven products (in addition to tapenades, the company produces basil pesto, eggplant, red pepper and sun-dried tomato spreads) are made by the aptly titled PeaceWorks Foods. Founded in 1994 by a then 26-year-old named Daniel Lubetzky, the company’s mission is guided by both peace and profit.
Lubetzky, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, was raised in Mexico and the United States and spent time in Israel during a study abroad program. As a budding entrepreneur invested in promoting peace in the region, he believed that a shared business venture between Israelis and Palestinians could lead toward economic interdependence and foster cross-cultural relationships.
To that end, Meditalia spreads are produced in an Israeli factory south of Tel Aviv, using olives, basil and other fresh ingredients grown by Palestinian farmers in both Israel and the West Bank. The company also sources sun-dried tomatoes and glass jars from Turkey. These partnerships are possible, in part, because Yoel Benesh, an Israeli who owns the factory where Meditalia’s products are made, has strong ties with Hani Jashan, a Palestinian olive grower working in Israel. Their relationship stretches back a generation, to when their fathers traded with each other.