A Biblical order drives Arab-Israeli cooperation

To keep Israel fed in a year when land is required to lie fallow, farmers look to Palestinians for help.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Farmers here are rushing to meet a deadline more sacrosanct than the usual demands of the fall harvest.

By Wednesday evening, the start of the Jewish year, farming in any part of the country defined as the "Land of Israel" should come to a halt in compliance with the biblical commandment to let the land lie fallow once in every seven years.

And, under divine orders outlined in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, all of Israel – from professional farmers and collective agricultural settlements to nursery owners – must find ways to cope with this sabbatical year known in Hebrew as shmita.

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But the solution to keep Israel fed this coming year involves Jewish-Arab cooperation and the promise of the increased purchase of Palestinian produce by Israeli wholesalers. Israel has now temporarily sold a huge portion of its farmland to an Arab-Druze citizen of Israel and is in discussions with Fatah officials in the West Bank to significantly increase the amount of fruit and vegetables making it to Israeli buyers.

Weeks of negotiations aimed at getting Gazan growers to be able to ship their goods into Israel have collapsed, an Israeli army official said, due to the rocket attacks on Israel from inside the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

If the biblical order were to be followed to the letter, those who make a living from agriculture might well go broke and the country hungry. There's an acknowledgement by some rabbinic authorities that letting every farm and field go without planting, picking, or pruning is not just impractical, but virtually impossible.

The ushering in of the shmita year is such a challenge that the Ministry of Agriculture has allocated about $25 million to help farmers. While many secular Israelis may not care where their vegetables are grown, farmers are still doing what they can to follow the order as mainstream markets are kosher.

The most common technique for coping is to sell the land to a non-Jew who is contracted to sell it back. But the idea, based on a loophole in Jewish law, is a solution that most modern Orthodox rabbis agree with but many ultra-Orthodox do not.

Shlomo Forscher, who is in charge of all the 444 acres of land belonging to Kibbutz Beerot Yitzhak, a communal agricultural settlement, says the sale is the only way farming communities like his can obey the law without going belly-up. "Agriculture in Israel cannot survive without the heter mechira," he says, using the term that means there's rabbinical permission to sell the land to someone else.

Thereafter, farming can continue at will. But just to be safe, most of the work on the fields that were sold will be done by hired helpers from nearby Arab towns and from Thailand.

"All of this sale is a clear fiction," he says, looking over the contract that shows that the kibbutz no longer owns most of its farmland in central Israel. "All of the issues are confusing, and it's not so clear how a modern farm upholds this commandment." He and many others follow the directions of Rabbi Avraham Issac HaCohen Kook, who was chief rabbi here from 1865-1935. "Rabbi Kook said that if you sell your land to a non-Jew, it's as if it doesn't belong to you."

Ultra-orthodox Jews, however, don't find that loophole acceptable, and many say that they will therefore only buy fruit and vegetables grown outside of Israel altogether. But some purists, who will only accept the strictest of interpretations, will in fact accept a different way to shortcut the sabbatical.

"The majority of farmers use the method of heter mechira – selling the land to a non-Jew," says Yael Shealtieli, the director-general of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. "But there are some others who are more strict, and they use [another technique] in which the land becomes the property of the court, and the farmers act as the agents of the court when they tend their land, and the court is responsible for selling the produce."

The aid from the ministry, Ms. Shealtieli says, is to protect the interests of the farmers and help cover these legal costs. "We also took many steps in the past year," she adds. "In that sixth year, we have provided farmers of crops such as onion and potato, which can be stored, a way to grow more in the sixth year."

What's more, in a country that pioneered new techniques for making food grow in the desert, who says you really need to plant in the earth? At an educational hothouse here at Beerot Yitzhak, farmers are working with hydroponics and aeroponics to grow vegetables and flowers in water, rocks, and in the air.

"God said we were supposed to take a break from the land," says Samuel Glickman, demonstrating a technique that gets vegetables to grow in a steam chamber. "So we're finding lots of new ways to grow things that are essentially removed from the land." Another part of the goal, he says, is to spend a year with less work and more studying of holy texts.

In the fields that belong to the kibbutz, two actually are being left to lie fallow, says Forscher. "These are two pieces that we won't touch at all," he says. "It's a symbol – we decided to leave it there as a remembrance."

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