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How a Biblical Edict Became a Boon for Palestinian Farmers

Just beyond the Israeli military’s Al Hamra checkpoint, the Jordan Valley opens into a checkerboard of red soil farms that make up the Palestinian village of Froush Beit Dajan. It is a land under Israeli occupation. But occupation notwithstanding, in early October, an intricate year-long transaction was underway in the village that crosses this stubborn region’s usual ethnic, religious and geographic lines.

Soon after the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, workers in Froush Beit Dajan loaded boxes of young cucumbers with yellow blossoms still attached to their stems into a truck bed shaded by a blue tarp. The cucumbers were destined for Israel, where, to the consternation of some Israeli Jews, they would be sold almost exclusively to the ultra-Orthodox.

The reason for this transaction, which continues throughout the Jewish calendar year, is the religious mandate known as shmita. As dictated in Exodus 23:10-11, among other places, Jews who farm within the biblical borders of the Land of Israel must let their fields lie fallow every seventh year. Right now in Israel, it’s 5775 on the Jewish religious calendar, a shmita year.

Most other Jews in Israel accept a workaround devised by Zionist rabbis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that allows them to eat food grown on Jewish-owned farms. But to comply with Jewish law as they see it, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10% of the country’s population, are forgoing produce from Jewish farms in Israel and the occupied territories this year. Instead, they look to their Palestinian neighbors — as well as to Turks, Jordanians and Israeli-Arabs — to fill their salad bowls.

To Palestinians, therefore, shmita is boom time. Shmita is the “year of the Palestinian farmers,” said Nasri Haj Mohammad, a partner in one of Froush Beit Dajan’s largest farms. On a short break in the workday, he sat next to a fishpond surrounded by citrus groves and greenhouses. A white crane alighted on the water. What is shmita? he contemplated. “The simple answer is, it’s a good season to sell the products at a premium price.”

That is a situation that infuriates some in Israel’s nationalist camp. This year’s shmita commenced with a fervid opinion piece by commentator David Weinberg published in both The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, Israel’s largest circulation daily paper.

“Primary reliance on Arab produce is neither realistic nor acceptable for health, nationalistic, and religious reasons,” Weinberg wrote.

Among other things, Weinberg claimed that Palestinian vegetables grown in sewer water caused an “epidemic of hepatitis” in the last shmita and that the Ministry of Health barred cucumber and bean imports because of “high levels of pathogens.”

Reached by the Forward, a Ministry of Health representative said that there were no records regarding the last shmita. At the same time, the Civil Administration — the Israeli military’s administrative arm in the West Bank — rebutted Weinberg in an email: “There is no trace of truth in the claims that the agricultural goods caused diseases in Israel.”

Shmita is referenced several times in the Hebrew bible as a “sabbath” for the land in ancient Israel’s agrarian society. The cycle of six years on, one year off, mirrors the Jewish workweek, which ends with a day of rest. Rabbis interpret shmita not only as an agricultural imperative, but also as a way to temporarily reorder society. The land is rendered ownerless in the shmita year, erasing distinctions between proprietor and worker. Shmita ends with the relief of all debts accrued before the start of the year.

It was not in practice for most of modern Jewish history, because nearly all Jews lived outside the biblical borders of Israel. But when the Zionist movement brought Jews to Ottoman Palestine in the late 19th century, it once again became relevant. Rabbis debated the best way to observe shmita without imperiling Jewish agricultural settlement with a periodic yearlong pause.

In the early 1900s, the chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, approved a loophole that would allow Jewish farmers there to “sell” their property to non-Jews for a year before ownership reverted back to Jews. Today, the practice, called heter mechira, continues in Israel. This shmita, thousands of Israeli farmers technically sold their property to the government, which then sold it to a 25-year-old immigrant named George Shtraykhman, making him one of the largest landowners in Israel — for just this year. Though of mixed Jewish and Russian non-Jewish background, Shtraykhman is considered non-Jewish under traditional Jewish religious law.

Thanks to Shtraykhman, Jewish farm laborers in Israel may continue to work the fields during shmita, but they are forbidden to do certain jobs, like planting seeds. Those tasks are completed by foreign laborers, who already make up the vast majority of farm workers in Israel today.

From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox, eating vegetables and fruits grown on heter mechira farms, as most other Israeli Jews do, is a sham, a legal fiction that doesn’t legitimately transfer the farms out of Jewish hands. What’s more, many argue that if the land sale were legally binding it would run afoul of a biblical prohibition against selling Jewish land in Israel to non-Jews.

“The Haredim don’t trust it,” said Matanel Ben Hamo, an importer and exporter with Badatz Beit Yosef, a large kosher certification organization in Israel. That’s why the ultra-Orthodox buy from Palestinian farms like the one in Froush Beit Dajan instead.

In reality, Palestinians sell their produce on the Israeli market all the time. But the shmita harvest is a more intricate undertaking. To pluck a cucumber from a vine in Froush Beit Dajan and serve it at the table of an ultra-Orthodox Jew inside Israel entails a combination of cross-border diplomacy, technological prowess and historical research — all in the name of Jewish law.

The preparation for this year’s shmita began in 2013 with meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials, Israeli businessmen and rabbis and Palestinian farmers, to plan the harvest. Thousands of farmers from Jenin, Tulkarem, Jericho and beyond are participating in the shmita, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. The farmers must be approved by the Civil Administration. These growers can expect up to a 35% bump in business in the shmita year. This translates to about an extra $15 million to the Palestinian economy.

“Relatively speaking, this is a very big thing for our agricultural sector,” said Tarek Abulaban, director of marketing with the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture.

Once shmita begins, it’s up to brokers to connect Palestinian farmers to Israeli traders who will ultimately sell to the ultra-Orthodox. One such middleman is Einam Zahavi, the Israeli owner of Trig Imports and Trade. Zahavi works with 10 different warehouses and factories on the Israeli side. He fields their requests on a day-to-day basis and then locates the Palestinian or Israeli-Arab farmer who can provide the vegetables they need.

Zahavi often buys from Harbi Daraghmeh, who is a farmer in Al Jiftlik, another Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley. Sitting at a plastic table near a grove of date trees in October, Daraghmeh ticked off his farm’s offerings: hot and colored peppers, dates, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, brown beans, corn, cabbage, cauliflower and herbs. He called shmita “a good year for marketing our product.”

But before Zahavi can move the produce from farm to warehouse, he must coordinate with a mashgiach, a kosher inspector, who will ensure that the farm meets ultra-Orthodox standards. The inspector needs to confirm one critical detail: that the farm is Palestinian owned. In the West Bank, that is a particularly charged endeavor. Most of the Jordan Valley is under Israeli civil and military control, even as Palestinians declare it as part of their future state. Since 1967, Israel has designated vast portions of the fertile Jordan Valley as Israeli state land. There are 39 Jewish settlements there, including nine outposts established without government authorization. About 85% of the land is off-limits to Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Staying Fresh: Dror Moshe Cassouto shops for produce from Gaza and Jordan with his three sons at Rami Levy, a Jerusalem market. Image by Naomi Zeveloff

Yet while their state sucks up land and water in the Jordan Valley, ultra-Orthodox Israelis rely on the remaining Palestinian farms for their shmita needs. Kosher inspectors ask Palestinians to provide paperwork proving that their land is registered in the tabu, the Israeli land registry that includes records from Ottoman times.

“They see the land, they see the farmers who plant,” Daraghmeh said of the inspectors who come to his farm. “They look at the paperwork of the land and make sure it’s tabu.”

Kosher inspectors are also on the lookout to make sure that they’re not being duped — by other Israeli Jews. Everyone involved in the Haredi shmita is familiar with the stories of Israelis who secretly sell vegetables to Palestinians, who in turn sell them back to the ultra-Orthodox for a markup. “The deceitful sale of Israelis,” as a Civil Administration representative described the phenomenon, is looked down upon by Israeli and Palestinian authorities alike. In past shmita years, the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture investigated the matter but came up empty-handed.

“So far we only heard about this,” Abulaban said. “We never captured anyone.” This shmita there have been no reports of the activity, the Civil Administration said.

The ultra-Orthodox also source from West Bank farms in areas under Palestinian Authority control, such as Jenin. The Israeli government forbids its civilian citizens from entering these zones, making it impossible for kosher inspectors to make their rounds. Israel’s kosher organizations have created a workaround by providing Palestinians with security cameras.

Inspectors in Israel monitor live feeds to ensure that Jews aren’t sneaking in their vegetables with the Palestinian crop. But the cameras have posed a new set of problems for the farmers. Munir Shaaban, another farmer in Al Jiftlik, said that his camera feed kept cutting out because of a bad signal. “The Israelis reject the product if they can’t see the feed,” he said.

Even so, Abulaban said that the surveillance cameras were a crucial component in facilitating the last shmita. That harvest happened soon after the second intifada, in 2007, when Israeli security prohibited kosher inspectors from visiting any part of the West Bank.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Abulaban said. “And the way out of that problem was fixing little cameras in the farms, to be viewed by rabbis and controlled by those rabbis 24 hours a day. We succeeded in that.”

This year’s shmita was a hassle for farmers in other ways. According to Abulaban, Palestinians were left with a surplus of produce when Israel sourced from Turkey and Jordan as well. As it turned out the extra crops were destroyed by a winter frost. But many farmers were embittered by the episode, saying that the shmita year hadn’t lived up to its promise. “Before shmita happens, everyone waits and thinks they’ll benefit,” said Daraghmeh, one of the Al Jiftlik farmers. “But we must rely on Allah.”

Some Israeli Jews have also been disgruntled with this year’s shmita, but for an entirely different reason. In mid March, the Israeli government announced that it would allow the export of tomatoes and eggplants from Gaza for Haredi consumers. This is the first time in Hamas’s seven-year reign that Israel has authorized exports from the Gaza Strip, which largely remains under an Israeli blockade. Alan Haber, a rabbi and shmita educator, said that he was bewildered by what he called the government’s choice to appease the ultra-Orthodox by opening Gaza.

“It could be that people who are buying groceries believing they are upholding the highest religious standards are funding the latest round of rockets and terror tunnels,” he said.

“It’s not true,” countered Yerach Tucker, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose organization, Keren Hashviis, pays Jewish farmers not to work during shmita. “Farmers are not Hamas, and farmers are not ISIS, and farmers are not terrorists.”

In mid April, produce from Gaza and Jordan lined the walls of Rami Levy, a Walmart-style mega store in Jerusalem’s Orthodox Givat Shaul neighborhood. The shop also stocks Israeli-grown items during the shmita year in a small side room for its non-Haredi customers.

Orly Hzen, a mother of 11 in a knee-length coat and a shiny brown wig had come to the market for her pre-Sabbath shop. What was she buying? “Everything.”

Pausing by a pile of gleaming purple eggplants, she said that she goes out of her way to purchase vegetables from non-Jews this year. During shmita, she said, she pays 30% more for produce that’s still not the quality she’s accustomed to at other times. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians plays no role in what she decides to put on the dinner table.

“Jewish law is before everything,” she said.

She grabbed a handful of young cucumbers and, stuffing them into a plastic bag, continued down the produce aisle.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff

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