Promoting Peace Through Business

This movie tells the Moshe and Ali story, and how Pesto and Tapenades was born.
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Associated Press: What Does Peace Taste Like? One American Company Ventures into the Heart of Conflict to Find Out

By Heidi Vogt, AP Business Writer
September 28, 2005

Yoel Benesh can't hire Palestinians anymore. Plenty of other Israeli manufacturers are suffering from the same shortage of cheap labor, but it's a particularly heartbreaking problem for Benesh, who has committed to using his gourmet food business to bridge the divide between Israelis and Palestinians.
"The second intifada -- then all the problems started," Benesh said in a phone interview from Israel, referring to the wave of violence that began in 2000 between Israelis and Palestinians. "I couldn't buy materials from the West Bank. The workers couldn't get in."
Benesh has struggled in the years since, but hasn't given up, partly because he has the weight of a small American firm called Peaceworks behind him. The 11-year-old New York company tries to bring people together in areas of conflict to promote peace through commerce.
In Benesh's case, Peaceworks helps market and distribute his products in the United States because he agrees to put extra effort toward buying olives from the West Bank and their jars from Arab merchants in Egypt. The 49-year-old Jewish businessman was Peaceworks' first trading partner, but his story is pocked with failures and plain old hardships, reminders of how difficult it can be to work through long-simmering tensions.
Peaceworks founder Daniel Lubetsky came up with the idea for his "not-only-for-profit" company straight out of law school, and launched it with about $10,000 dollars of his own money. Now 37, he chuckles now at his fresh-faced idealism. "I wanted to organize workshops for the employees where they would meet the other side and there would be role reversals," he said. "And the factory owners were like, 'Daniel, we're going to work with you to an extent, but don't get carried away.'
So Lubetsky kept the plan simple: break down cultural stereotypes by aiding businesses that bring together people with a history of conflict. It's a concept that first led him to pesto in the Middle East, then snack chips made by blacks and whites in South Africa and curry from a women-run factory in Indonesia at which Muslims, Christians and Buddhists work side by side.
The idea is to find companies' whose product that would appeal to the U.S. specialty food market, then screen them through a list of social requirements.
"Like, how is it manufactured? Is it socially conscious?" Lubetsky suggests. "Can it help?"
Benesh said he hopes his sun-dried tomato spreads and pesto sauces -- which sell under the Meditalia brand -- will reach $1 million in sales next year, a mark it hit before violence escalated in the region and revenue dropped off. His factory has also grown from 10 workers before he got involved with Peaceworks to 70 employees today, though he has no Palestinian workers left and just one Arab supplier.
Not every peace-making food product works. The company ditched another Israeli/Arab effort around candy bars because it was too difficult to make the bars with all-natural ingredients -- a Peaceworks staple; it dropped the South African snack chips because of high shipping costs for bags that were mostly air; and Peaceworks gave up on salsa from the Chiapas region of Mexico after insurers charged too much to cover shipments from the violence-torn mountain area.
As it dealt with these failures, Peaceworks also started to become more like a traditional business that does its charity work through donations. The company's best-selling product, a snack bar called Kind, isn't made by any cooperative venture between conflict-prone groups. Instead 5 percent of its profits go to a foundation that works for Middle East peace through old-fashioned political organizing.
But Lubetsky and his partners say they aren't giving up on their vision any time soon.
"First it's a business," Benesh's remaining Arab supplier, Abdullah Ghanim, said through a translator. "Second, it helps the peace. Because if we work together, we become friends, we visit each others' houses."