Ontario caves to Israel on falsely-labeled wines– for now, anyway

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Anyone who doubts Israel’s awesome ability to manipulate other countries’ public servants should examine the outcome of a complaint of mine to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regarding the false labeling of two West Bank settlement wine products on Ontario liquor store shelves.

On July 6, six months after I drew their attention to the fact that the wines were labelled “Made in Israel” at the website of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), even though they were actually produced from grapes grown in the heart of the occupied Palestinian territories, the CFIA finally instructed the LCBO to cease importation or sale of the red and white wine products until labeling issues were resolved.

Within hours of the LCBO’s subsequent directive to Toronto-area liquor stores (which I had not been informed of or provided), B’nai Brith Canada had posted it on its Facebook page, stating confidently that the outrageous directive would be quashed by day’s end. Numerous people in high positions had told them so.

For several hours after the B’nai Brith post, Canadian supporters of justice in Palestine rejoiced at the enormity of what had just happened. Finally, the Canadian government was walking the walk, expressing itself boldly and clearly on the matter of Israel’s permanent occupation: “The government of Canada does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967,” the CFIA had told the LCBO in its directive. “Wine products from these regions that are labelled as ‘Product of Israel’ would not be acceptable and would be considered misleading as per subsection 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act.”

Celebration was short-lived. Late on July 12 – true to B’nai Brith’s prediction – the CFIA released a terse statement at its website renouncing the directive, and expressing contrition for its erroneous wine labeling assessment. The CFIA had failed to take the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement into consideration, it confessed. Trade deals trump domestic labeling legislation. “These wines adhere to the Agreement and therefore we can confirm that the products in question can be sold as currently labelled.”

One can only imagine the celebratory whoops and shouts the CFIA’s flip-flop provoked in Canadian Zionist circles. B’nai Brith Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs puffed and gloated on various social media platforms, praising the Canadian government for its loyal posture.

But Israel’s agents here in Canada should keep their champagne corked. A court case is now in the early planning stage. A GoFundMe campaign will soon be launched to cover costs. And the initial CFIA ruling and subsequent reversal, in submission to Israel’s lobbyists, has ignited the energies of pro-Palestine activists across Canada.

It’s shaping up to be the campaign of their lives: the best opportunity in years to hold the Canadian government accountable for helping Israel violate international law. Activists are now deluging the CFIA and LCBO with emails and letters, warning authorities not to let falsely labelled settlement wines re-appear on Canadian store shelves. They’re drafting a definitive list of illegal settlement wines, and they’re also calling on authorities not to punish the low-ranking CFIA official who made the original labelling decision, on behalf of Israel and its Canadian agents now braying for blood.

All just the latest twist in a simple quest for truthful wine consumerism. Oenophile that I am, late last year, I began combing through the webpages of Canadian liquor outlets, searching for wine products produced in illegal West Bank settlements. I had visited Palestine on various occasions, traveling up and down between Jenin in the north and the south Hebron Hills, observing Israel’s distinctive approach to apartheid – more sophisticated than South Africa’s, it appeared to me; much cleverer, much more systematic. Why should Israel be allowed to claim sovereignty over the territories it illegally and oppressively occupies, on liquor store shelves down the street from me?

The author, David Kattenburg, at the Psagot Winery.

My attention turned to Ontario’s Liquor Control Board. Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, and the LCBO its largest liquor retailer. It didn’t take long to stumble across Shiloh Legend, a red Shiraz, and Psȃgot Winery chardonnay. Both were labeled “Made in Israel” at the LCBO website, presumably on LCBO store shelves as well. Internet research confirmed that the two wineries actually operated in the West Bank, something obvious from their names. Shiloh winery’s website actually shows young, knit-capped kids harvesting grapes.

In search of detailed documentation, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the LCBO, asking for waybills and other customs materials. They soon arrived in the mail. Psȃgot Winery M Series Chardonnay KP 2014 had been shipped to Ontario by Psȃgot Winery Ltd., Psȃgot, located in the Binyamin regional settlement council, on the eastern edge of Ramallah, in the heart of the northern occupied West Bank. (I would later learn, visiting Psȃgot winery this past May, that their Chardonnay is grown in Kida, due east of Shiloh. Psȃgot Winery personnel greeted me with hospitality. I didn’t tell them what I was up to. Their white wine, chilled, hit the spot. Very tasty.)

Chardonnay poured at Psagot.

Shiloh Winery’s waybill was the most interesting. Shiloh Legend KP 2012 had been shipped to LCBO outlets by Shiloh Winery Ltd., Ma’ale Levona, Israel – a preposterous claim, as anyone with a map knows. Shiloh winery grapes aren’t grown in Israel. They’re grown entirely in fields near the illegal Jewish settlements of Eli and Shiloh, in the heart of the occupied West Bank.

Waybills and other documentary evidence in hand, now all submitted to the LCBO, I sent regular messages from the HelloLCBO web page, pressing for a decision. At the end of March, weary of waiting, I filed a formal complaint to the CFIA by registered mail.

These two wine products are labeled “Made in Israel” at the LCBO website, and on LCBO store shelves, I complained to the CFIA, when in fact they were both produced from grapes grown entirely within Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Canadian government – indeed, the highest UN authorities – have explicitly stated over many years that the OPT do not fall within sovereign Israeli borders, and that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, I argued, providing the CFIA with web links. Israel, expert at playing the game both ways, acknowledges that settlements lie beyond its sovereign territory, I added.

I reminded the CFIA of its own explicit regulations on this matter: “A wine may claim to be wine of a country,” they state, “if: 1) the wine is made from at least 75 percent of the juice of grapes grown in that country and it is fermented, processed, blended and finished in that country; or 2) in the case of wines blended in that country, at least 75 percent of the finished wine is fermented and processed in that country from the juice of grapes grown in that country.”

These wine products should not be labeled “Made in Judean Hills, Israel,” I concluded in my letter of complaint, but rather, more truthfully: “Made in Ma’ale Levona settlement, Occupied Palestinian Territories,” and “Made in Psȃgot settlement, Occupied Palestinian Territories.” To label them as Israeli in origin flagrantly violates CFIA regulations and compromises the trust Canadian consumers have in product origin labeling.

Patiently, I waited for the CFIA to respond. One day in May, in a Ramallah hotel room, surfing the internet, I noticed that the two settlement wines had suddenly vanished from the LCBO website! In response to my email query, LCBO staff confirmed that the two products were indeed no longer in stock, nor on store shelves. What a delight! I thought. My CFIA contact person shrugged off the good news. Consumer pressure often drives these things, he said, adding that he had no news to share regarding the status of my complaint.

Then, on July 11, the LCBO suddenly circulated its historic labeling statement to liquor outlets throughout Ontario, pulling the two flagrantly mislabeled wine products off shelves. B’nai Brith — the only outside entity aware of the LCBO move — delivered the Big Scoop a few hours later on its Facebook page, assuring its friends that the damnable directive would soon be reversed. Twenty-four hours later, the prediction was upheld. B’nai Brith Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs had had their way, assisted by Israel’s embassy in Ottawa and its highest-ranking friends at Queen’s Park (seat of the Ontario provincial government). All the right people had been button-holed. All the right strings had been pulled.

The most remarkable aspect of the CFIA’s volte-face was the honesty of its rationale. The Canadian agency responsible for food safety and the integrity of Canada’s food system had declared that Israel should have the right to market wines falsely labeled “Made in Israel” on Canadian stores shelves, because, according to Article 1.4 1b of the much-exalted Canadian-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA), “Israel” is defined as existing wherever its customs laws operate, and Israeli customs laws operate in the occupied Palestinian territories (all thanks to the Oslo Accords, which really did sell Palestinian independence down the river.)

It was an astonishing ruling. What the Trudeau government is saying is that secretly negotiated trade deals trump domestic Canadian food labeling [and presumably safety] laws and regulations; that the quality of a product or truthfulness of its labeling are of lesser concern to the Canadian government than the sanctity of a provision in a free trade agreement with a tiny country thousands of kilometers away; that Canadian citizens have less of a right to know the contents of the food and water they eat and drink, and where they come from, than little Israel has to market its falsely labeled products in Canada, without being hassled.

In the wider realm of Canadian foreign policy, the CFIA ruling clearly endorses Israel’s extension of its domestic laws into occupied territory, essentially annexing those territories without using the word. Israel has been doing this for years. The half-million Jewish settlers living in the West Bank are subject to civil Israeli law. The territories are crisscrossed by roads and civil infrastructure, all administered by domestic Israeli entities. Israeli banks and insurance companies operate in settlements. So do Israeli wireless and cable networks. By endorsing Israel’s extraterritorial application of its customs law – waiving its own laws and public policies in favour of Israel’s – Canada offers a helping hand to a fast friend in multiple grave breach of the most canonical of international laws, the Geneva Convention. It lends its support to the only country in the world that refuses to declare its own borders, oppressing occupied subjects as it pleases.

But the CFIA ruling is faulty, says an Ontario-based attorney who’s agree to take on the case pro bono. It is true that Article 1.4.1(b) of CIFTA stipulates that, for purposes of CIFTA, the term “territory” of Israel shall mean the territory where its custom laws are applied, the attorney says. However, there is no provision in CIFTA that imposes restrictions on Canada’s or Israel’s product labelling requirements. And the purpose of CIFTA is to eliminate or reduce barriers to trade in goods, not to regulate product labelling.

To dramatize this point, the attorney continues, imagine a settlement wine has been adulterated or contaminated in some way. Section 4(1) of Canada’s Food and Drugs Act prohibits the sale of food products that are unfit for human consumption. Does CIFTA ‘trump’ section 4(1) of the Food and Drugs Act so that a settlement wine can be sold to Canadian consumers even though it’s gone bad? Of course not.

The CFIA’s wine labelling flip-flop doesn’t just misread CIFTA. It flies in the face of long-established Canadian foreign policy. “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” Global Affairs Canada’s website states, and has so for years, even under the staunchly pro-Israel Harper government.

And Canada has always said it supports a “Two-State Solution,” strenuously insisting that “peace” can only be achieved through the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, via direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians; that the two parties must not deviate from negotiation by engaging in “unilateral” moves.

So why is the Trudeau government now endorsing unilateral Israeli sovereignty claims on Canadian stores shelves? Canadian friends of Palestine ponder the question, but they’re not waiting for an answer. They’re preparing to oppose Trudeau in court. Israel’s self-declared right to sell falsely labeled products on Canadian store shelves should not be allowed to trump the right of Canadians to know what they’re eating and drinking; to know that the fine bottle of “Israeli” red or crispy chardonnay that they just bought was actually not produced from grapes grown in Israel, but rather, in Israeli-occupied, brutally exploited Palestine. If Israel opposes truthful labeling, citing customs arrangements, then it has something to hide. Canada shouldn’t facilitate the concealment.

Likewise, Israel’s de facto annexation of the Occupied Territories – in violation of international law – is not an activity Canada should be complicit with or endorse, debasing its own laws and policies. As a high contracting party to the Geneva Conventions, Canada is obliged to oppose war crimes of this sort. Getting it do so is worth going to court over.

The good news: Israel’s lobbyists here in Canada are amazingly powerful, but Canadian friends of the Palestinian people have law and justice on their sides. Stand by for updates.

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Perhaps Mondoweiss could set up some blog hyper tags like “Canadian Politics” and “Canadian Jewish Community” for stories like this one? Just a thought… after all, just as Golan Heights is not a “sub-region” of Upper Galilee (as our wine retailers falsely claim…), the Niagara Peninsula is not a “sub-region” of Upper New York State.

Great initiative, go for it, David Kattenburg and attorney!

Well done David, here in the UK I am experiencing the same frustrations as you. Golan Heights Winery sell wine all over the world as two examples Yarden, one of their brand names, sell a muscat white wine, and a red wine, Sauvignon Blanc, both wine labels make at least two false representations: 1. ‘WINE OF ISRAEL’ and 2. PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY 183 KATZRIN 12900 ISRAEL. These are false facts in… Read more »

When Israel insists on playing this game of trying to assert de facto sovereignty over the Golan or West Bank, and denies basic rights to the civilians in those territories who are brutally oppressed under military occupation, a de facto apartheid, it seems fair to say that Israel’s mislabeling of products (which leads to some confusion about origin) means that everyone should in fact choose not to purchase any products labeled “Made in Israel” so… Read more »

Here is the information referred to in my comment above… Guidance from UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Overseas Business Risk The Occupied Palestinian Territories Inter alia…”Potential buyers and investors should be aware that a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, or between Israel and Syria, could have consequences for property they purchase or economic activities they promote in these settlements. In case of disputes, it could be very difficult for Member States to… Read more »

For information.. A first attempt to summons ‘The Wine Cellar’ London for falsely labelling wine made in Syria as Israeli wine was turned down by the District Judge Abeleson [of Jewish origin]. The Judge unbelievably asked me what made me think Katzrin was not in Israel, I replied “Its not me that asserts that fact it is the UNSC” Here is part of the summons INFORMATION (Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, s 1) Magistrates’ Court (Code… Read more »