A problem for Israel's farmers: The seven-year hitch

For decades, Israelis have exploited a theological loophole to continue farming in years when the Talmud forbids it. Now a rabbinical ruling is making agriculture very difficult indeed

Moshe Amar pauses for a moment before beginning the guided tour of his greenhouses at Moshav Sharsheret and sums up his side of a dispute that is increasingly dividing rabbinate from state, Zionist from non-Zionist, ultra-orthodox from national religious Jews. "In our Torah it says you should live religiously," he says. "But religion needs to find a solution for you, and not to make life difficult as the Orthodox are trying to do. Religion asks us to fulfil the law of Halacha, but also to live a normal life."

If anyone has fulfilled the old Zionist dream of making the desert bloom it is Mr Amar, who is one of the biggest vegetable producers in southern Israel. He has a thriving business here in the heart of the northern Negev growing 37 acres of prime tomatoes, 13 of sweet red and purple peppers, along with the flowers, vegetable plants and more than 20 species of herbs in his widely sought-after wholesale nursery. His international reputation is such that he has worked as a consultant to farmers as far afield as India and Turkey.

Yet this year Mr Amar, himself a kippa-wearing religious Jew, faces the loss of 40 per cent of his business – worth some £1m – because for all his painstaking efforts his produce is not regarded as kosher enough to satisfy the hardest-line sectors of Israel's burgeoning ultra-Orthodox market. For the Jewish year which started at Rosh Hashana last week is the shmita, the biblical seventh year in which farmers are required in strict religious law not to work their land.

With good reason, Mr Amar thought that the strict, and costly, precautions that he and many other Israeli farmers had taken during the last shmita, in 2000-1, would allow him to continue to sell his produce to the ultra-Orthodox. Many of his wholesale plants are mounted on trays 120cm (4ft) above the ground and so far from growing in the earth of Israel are bedded in artificial compounds imported from the US and Finland as Biolan and Verniculite to ensure that when vegetables start to sprout, no one can say they were grown on Israeli land.

More importantly, Mr Amar thought he had acted in accordance with the letter of religious law, by arranging – through the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – for the nominal "sale" of his land for the year for something like 50p an acre to an Arab, i.e., a non-Jew, and employing 200 non-Jews (Thai and Bedouin Arabs) to work it to ensure there is no Jewish hand in the growing and picking. This may sound like literal-minded sophistry. But in fact it has a long and honourable tradition behind it – so much so that Mr Amar, like most Israeli farmers, has his own certificate to prove it from the Chief Rabbinate itself.

This confirms unambiguously that "the lands of Moshe Amar from Sharsheret were sold to a goy [gentile] from the day of Rosh Hashana. Because of that the products the above person grows will be without fears of breaking the shmita." And that certificate is in line with a policy adopted by the Jewish religious authorities here since well before the foundation of the state of Israel. Yet unfortunately, this seventh year it is not enough to guarantee Mr Amar the market he can usually count on – because of another ruling made by the same Chief Rabbinate.

For the Rabbinate has also decided that local chief rabbis of individual cities need not, if they choose, be bound by the certificate issued to the producers. Instead they can interpret the scriptures literally and rule that the only biblically authentic way to preserve the shmita is to order supermarkets, greengrocers, hotels and restaurants to buy foreign – i.e., totally non-Jewish produce – inflicting serious damage on the market for Israeli agriculture.

Which is just what – in a number of important cases – local rabbis have done. "In places like Bnei Brak they don't allow me to sell one fruit or vegetable," Mr Amar complains, citing one famous ultra-Orthodox stronghold on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. As he points out, to satisfy even a small minority of customers who require this ultra-strict interpretation of the shmita, stores and restaurants in the relevant neighbourhoods need to ensure all their produce conforms to the local rabbi's ruling. "For the sake of 3 to 4 per cent of people who want to keep the shmita in this way, they are ordering 30 to 40 per cent from abroad," he says.

At the root of the dispute, which has now gone to the Israeli courts and has sparked a delicate but unmistakable power struggle between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, are verses 1-5 in chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus, which say (to quote the King James version of Bible): "And the Lord spake unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which growth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land."

But the idea that this sacred text should not fundamentally disrupt Israeli agriculture, is hardly new. The Rabbi Abraham Kook, the Latvian-born eminent biblical scholar and hugely influential first chief Rabbi of British mandate Palestine, did indeed believe, working as a rabbi in Lithuania at the end of the 19th century, in the absolutist interpretation of Moses' exhortation to the children of Israel.

It was after coming to Palestine as the Rabbi of Jaffa in 1904 that he began to change his mind. As a Zionist, he began to share the Jewish farmers' arguments that they could not sustain the cultivation of a hostile, desert terrain if they had to down tools every seven years, and that some way of permitting them to continue would need to be found. He hit upon pretty well the stratagem in force today. "Although it pains us, we must follow this course of action," he decreed. "We have no choice. We must use this narrow loophole and rely on the arrangement afforded by the permit."

One reason why Mr Amar and his fellow farmers are facing much greater problems this year than they did seven years ago is no doubt the growing assertiveness of a numerically fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population. But other overtones of conflict are the old tensions between Zionist – including religious Zionist Jews – and an ultra-Orthodox population many of who are essentially non-Zionist in their outlook. For classic Israeli Zionists the rush to observe the shmita by importing large quantities of foreign produce is positively unpatriotic; for many of the ultra-Orthodox, to do so is a matter of placing religion where they believe it should be – above the state.

One man who believes strongly in the right of local religious authorities – and individual citizens-to observe the shmita as they see it is Rabbi Arvram Ravitz, a Knesset member in United Torah Judaism, supported by many Ashkenazy (European origin) ultra-Orthodox Jews, and with original roots as an anti-Zionist party. For Rabbi Ravitz, the original "beautiful" idea of the shmita – that farmers who cannot lose a single day's work, who rise – as Mr Amar does every day – at 5am should be able to take a holiday, study year or even use it to diversify into another occupation. "I changed my job by becoming a politician," he chuckles. "Maybe one day I will change back again."

Rabbi Ravitz says he has been disturbed at reports that the Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, may be considering intervening to order local rabbis to withdraw orders for importation of non-Jewish produce as an unacceptable interference in a sphere of essentially private behaviour. "It's a big mistake," he says. "It reminds me of the days of Russian Communism when the state gave instructions to the rabbis how to behave." The sale of farming goods is an "open market", he points out, adding that he believes neither the state nor farmers have the "right to say you have to change your mind because I am losing my business".

Rabbi Ravitz also casts doubt on the modern relevance of the long-standing idea of agriculture "as an ideological way to express Zionism" when it is a prodigious consumer of scarce resources, including water, when it is often possible to buy produce from abroad more cheaply, and when there is a case for Israel instead emphasising "more sophisticated industries" at which it already excels.

In direct opposition to this, a Zionist rabbi, Benjamin Lau, the nephew of a former chief rabbi in Israel, wrote in Ha'aretz this week in strong defence of using the loophole, something he pointed out Orthodox leaders of Sephardic Jews - those from Arab countries - had been more flexible about than their Ashkenazy counterparts. "We must declare in the nation's schools, youth movements, synagogues and in every other possible forum that each purchase of non-Jewish agricultural produce unravels another thread in Zionism's flag."

Mr Amar, for one, agrees that the insistence by the ultra-Orthodox on foreign, or Palestinian, produce in the shmita, which he acknowledges has always gone on, though not at the levels threatened this year, has unacceptable consequences for Israeli agriculture. In past shmitas, Palestinian greenhouses in Gaza, whose border is a few kilometres from this moshav where his company, Tiv Shtil, operates, has been a steady supplier of agricultural produce to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox market. Even this, says Mr Amar, had the effect of "empowering our enemies... and weakening [Israeli] farmers". This shmita, in what is a disaster for the already collapsing Gaza economy, the total closure of the Karni cargo crossing since Hamas's bloody take-over in June, ensures that no agricultural produce will make it from Gaza to the West Bank, let alone Israel.

Mr Amar, of a group of farmers who have challenged the local rulings in the courts and who recently met the Agriculture Minister, Shalom Simchon, says they would accept a compromise allowing a 10 per cent quota of imports for the shmita rather than the open-ended level Israel currently faces. Believing he is every bit as religious as the next man, he says that in Ma'agalif the neighbouring moshav where he actually lives, there is a kollel – or religious Jewish college. "Every week I give them vegetables for free and the Orthodox there don't seem to have a problem with the products."

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