Tel Aviv is sweltering even in January. On Ha Ta’asiyah Street, two men sweat through t-shirts lifting industrial sized boxes into a warehouse across the street. Palm trees and rust abounded.
Stepping into the Dancing Camel Brewery, I was transported. Christmas tinsel in red, gold, and green ran loops around the high-beamed ceilings of the bar. Tinsel wound its way through shelves of beer along the walls and under a “NO Parking 8AM-6PM Mon-Fri” sign in red lettering that looked like it had been stolen off a New York City sign post.
“If you’re here as an oleh [recent immigrant], all your background comes from chul [outside Israel], from the States. You don’t know how to speak to Israelis, you don’t understand what they want, what a certain look means to them,” David Cohen, founder of Israel’s first microbrewery, told me. Decked out in an old Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt, Cohen sat with me, perched on a high-top barstool. He explained how he had brought American micro-brewing, and the American small business politics that come with it, to Israel.
Cohen founded Israel’s first microbrewery, the Dancing Camel, in 2006 with equipment shipped in from the Flying Pig Brewery in Everett, Washington. (The first in the region, based in Taybeh, predated the first Israeli microbrewery by a little over a decade). Today, approximately 30 other commercial microbreweries have popped up across the region.
Israel presents a particularly difficult challenge for microbrewers, since the country has one of the lowest per capita beer drinking rates in the world. Israelis consume approximately 14 liters of beer a year, although the rate of Israeli drinking is increasing faster than most countries in the same economic bracket. This is in keeping with the stereotype that Jews don’t drink, for some because of genetic predisposition to a lower alcohol tolerance. For others there is a religious and cultural tendency towards wine over other alcoholic beverages.
Cohen was unperturbed by his odds. He set out to make Israeli beer anyway, “beer that actually reflects the culture of a place and historically it always had.” Cohen rattles off examples: “Over Sukkot [we brew] beer with etrogim [citrus fruit used during Sukkot]. For Rosh Hashanah, we brew with pomegranates. We use an un-malted Israeli wheat, instead of bringing malt in from Europe.”
It’s not just the Israeli audience that has been a struggle for Cohen. Israeli politics have been hard too. Cohen and his brewery made the news circuit in 2012 when he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu opposing a hike in the purchase tax on beer from NIS 2.18 to NIS 4.19 per liter. The letter, which he published on YouTube, pleads that a hike in taxes would force him to fire his employees, shutter the doors of his business, and leave him with “staggering debt.” Cohen organized a protest with The Israeli Freedom Movementa coalition advocating for individual freedom and lower taxes, the Dancing Camel in opposition to the tax. “There’s a lot that’s wrong with the country,” Cohen told the crowd. The legislation passed under the purview of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, but was widely unpopular and contributed to sale declines. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon slashed the tax two years later.
The moment was a turning point for Cohen in recognizing the unbridgeable differences between his American outlook and his Israeli context, despite his intense love of the State of Israel. “I don’t want to be Israeli, I want Israel to be more like me” he told me proudly. Specifically, he wants Israel to be more open to small business and less regulations. Israelis don’t yet understand the fundamental American values that “the government is there to serve the people, not the other way around.”
Cohen’s politics were not unrelated to his industry of choice. As a craft brewer, creativity and individualism make one company stand out from the others and make consumers remember a brand. “All of [the breweries] are in some way or other stressing their independence,” Israeli beer expert Doug Greer commented. A libertarian politics naturally follows from that value set and professional-artistic field.
Which Israeli politicians impress Cohen? Ayelet Shaked.
“[Shaked] said, ‘I consider my role here to filter legislation and I am proud to say that two thirds of what has crossed my desk has never made it beyond my desk.’ The toll that [new regulations] take on average people is insane.” Home Party Member of Knesset Ayelet Shaked is often seen as a controversial figure. She’s a supporter of a bill targeting left-wing organizational funding and has also led the charge on some West Bank house demolitions.
I asked him what he thought of Shaked’s other work, “I’ve turned apolitical about that,” Cohen told me. The Israeli politics that fire up so many Israeli voters were of less interest to him than the issues that impact his work with the Dancing Camel. He still sees himself as someone who, through beer and at the bar, helps facilitate conversations for people across lines of difference.
Because at the end of the day, Cohen is a pragmatic, hardworking citizen and a supporter of his country. He even has a beer dedicated to patriotism. It’s aptly named The Patriot, a Pale Ale with American hops and an Israeli grapefruit, lemon twist.
Liya Rechtman is the former manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in Washington. Now in the master’s program at Harvard Divinity School, she was a Dorot Fellow in 2016-2017 living in Jerusalem when she wrote this article.