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Israeli farmers prepare for year of rest

Preparing for the year of Shmita, when the land must rest and not be cultivated, Israel is privileging the importation of produce from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews harvest wheat in a field near the city of Modi'in, Israel, April 28, 2021.

It is one of the most interesting religious commandments in Judaism, which generations of farmers have kept, with the aim of sustaining and benefitting the earth, and a commandment that was renewed with the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel and the creation of the Jewish state. The commandment of Shmita is that every seventh year the farmer must “leave be” his land, let it rest and replenish its nutrients and fertility, allowing for the rehabilitation of the ecological system from human influence.

With the first wave of diaspora Jewish immigration to Israel in the 19th century, after hundreds of years in exile, the conflict began regarding whether or not to fulfill the commandment of Shmita. With the years, the conflict has sharpened, with religious nationalist rabbis easing the burden and allowing solutions that would still follow Jewish law, such as leasing the land for a year to a non-Jew, who would continue growing the agricultural produce. 

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose this workaround and prefer agricultural produce that comes from abroad. In the last few decades, the conflict has come up every Shmita year, and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who have had great influence over the governments and coalitions, threatened to cancel the kosher certifications of grocers who sell agricultural produce from Israel during the Shmita year. 

The conflict continues, but the Central Rabbinate ultimately authorized the marketing of Israeli agricultural produce grown by a non-Jew leasing the land. The ultra-Orthodox, who don’t accept this authorization, prefer foreign produce, part of which had been supplied over the years by the Palestinian farmers of the Gaza Strip. What’s interesting is that even during the rule of Hamas, the ultra-Orthodox have preferred to buy produce from Gaza farmers, despite heavy criticism in Israel of this practice. Their main reason for doing so is the availability and relatively lower price than imported produce from other countries. 

But produce from the Gaza Strip will come this year in very small quantities, because of the sensitive security situation and the continuing rocket fire from Gaza to Israel. The Shmita year begins with the Jewish New Year on Sept. 7. Ahead of that, organizing has begun to acquire produce from other sources.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Oded Forer, signed Aug. 18 a special arrangement with his Jordanian counterpart, Mohammad Daoudiyeh, to import agricultural produce from Jordan to Israel during the Shmita year, to vary the sources of imports to Israel and provide for the population that keeps the commandment in Israel on the one hand, and on the other hand, to implement the benefits set in the commerce agreement between the countries. Forer met Daoudiyeh at the border crossing on the Jordanian side and used the opportunity to discuss with him ways to deepen cooperation between the countries in the realm of agriculture. 

During the meeting they discussed ways to increase cooperation in agricultural commerce between the countries, and ways to exchange knowledge in innovation, precision agriculture and remote sensing. They further discussed ways to manage pests and deal with plant and animal diseases on both sides of the border. Of note, the Jordanians refused a joint photograph with the Israelis.  

But this too will not be enough to meet the demand for produce during the Shmita year, and another source for agricultural imports is Europe. Rabbi David Tehrani, a rabbi who provides kosher certifications during the Shmitah year, told Al-Monitor, “During the last Shmita year they created greenhouses to grow vegetables without insects at an Israeli farm in Aqaba [Jordan], but today no kashrut organization and no kashrut supervisors are willing to enter Jordan or Egypt, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the security situation."

He said, "In Europe, on the other hand, there are Jews and kashrut supervisors throughout the continent, and so it’s the logical solution. No doubt that it’s cheaper coming from Egypt or the Palestinian Authority [PA], but we all hope we could meet the price. We are trying to get to the Shmita year with reasonable prices for Jews who don’t compromise in kosher certification.”

Among the countries Israel will import fruits and vegetables from are Britain, Belgium, Spain and France. 

At a rabbinic conference on the Shmita year, Tehrani spoke about the possibility of importing produce also from the PA. According to him, in cooperation with the security forces the required regulations have been met for the kashrut supervision to take place [for West Bank Palestinian farms], including security for kashrut supervisors and supply lines, through security cameras, drones and other means of protection.

“The Ministry of Defense instructed us not to enter Arab villages, and so we will suit our work to this, use drones above the fields and accompany the picking season by remote control and video. Our supervisors will follow every move from another street, of course with the escort of the security forces,” he said.

As a general measure, in order to lower the prices of imported produce, the Ministry of Agriculture lowered customs on imported produce during the Shmita year. 

Another solution allowed by Jewish law is growing produce on platforms above the ground, in greenhouses or dedicated nurseries, where the plants, especially cherry tomatoes and greens, grow in pots or boxes high above the ground, and thus get past the prohibition to work the land. 

What happens to Israeli Jewish farmers who take the year off? They lose an entire year’s income. But the Ministry of Agriculture compensates them for their loss of income from the state budget. The compensation comes from the “Seventh-Year Fund” established by ultra-Orthodox organizations that collect funds to compensate the farmers. According to the funds’ data from the last Shmita year, 3,500 farmers took the year off, with 330,000 dunams (81,500 acres) of agricultural land, a tenth of Israel’s agricultural land. 

On the ultra-Orthodox street, these farmers have a lot of respect because of their willingness to fully uphold the commandment. At the beginning of every Shmita year, there is a procession of farmers on tractors in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with the participation of the farmers, rabbis, and of course children, who hang onto the agricultural vehicles. 

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