JERUSALEM – Israeli technological prowess went head to head against the Arab Spring, and won.
As a result, there is no shortage of date palm fronds (lulavim), one of the so-called four species observant Jews require in a ritual celebrating the festival of Sukkot that began at sundown on Wednesday.
“There are enough lulavim this year. There may even be an oversupply. You can buy whatever you want,” Meir Mizrahi, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry official responsible for imported flora, said before the start of Sukkot. “We’ve succeeded in meeting demand using domestic sources, with some supplement from Jordan.”
During Sukkot, the Four Species – which include twigs of myrtle and willow bound together with palm fronds, as well as a citron held separately – are a critical part of the festival’s week-long observance.
Israelis this year were expected to buy between 600,000 and 700,000 lulavim in time for Sukkot. However, for a time it looked as though many of them would end up empty-handed.
A little over three weeks ago, Egypt banned the harvest and export of lulavim from El-Arish in the Sinai peninsula, threatening to leave short of as many as 450,000 of the fronds. Egypt has barred exports before, but this time it gave Israel little notice and ignored appeals by the U.S. to reverse the decision.
Faced with a shortfall, Israel’s Defense Ministry last week authorized the export of lulavim from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, but Hamas imposed a ban on the exports. Officially, the ban was imposed when an unspecified disease was found in one Gaza plantation. Growers, however, told Al-Jazeera television that the move was political.
Israel’s Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, rushed to assure the public there would be supplies, saying it would authorize imports from any country whose standards for agricultural inspection were adequate. In the end, Jordan quietly came through with shipments totaling about 110,000.
With the Israeli harvest of lulavim typically about 200,000 annually, there was still a yawning gap ahead of Sukkot. Last year, however, around the time of the previous Egyptian ban, David Kenigsbuch and Nechemia Aharoni, two researchers at Israel’s Volcani Center, began developing a system for storing lulavim.
Like Christmas trees in the West, the market for lulavim lasts for a very limited time. Because lulavim could be stored for between 30 to 45 days only, that always meant that the harvest season was limited to a very short period before the festival.
“We developed a special technique that preserves the lulav for up to six months. Now growers can begin harvesting as early as the spring in time for Sukkot,” Kenigsbuch said. “The whole idea about this was to not be reliant on imports and help provide more income to growers.”
The technique involves other factors, such as special packaging. The preservative, however, is the key factor. While some rabbis objected that its use made the lulavim unfit for ritual use, Kenigsbuch said, most rabbis approved because the preservative eventually disintegrates.
The improved storage technique, as well as efforts to develop new varieties of date palms, has encouraged growers to plant more acreage, Kenigsbuch said.
Mizrahi says prices for lulavim are about the same as last years, or 30 shekels ($8.80) each. He said the big wholesalers began locking up their supplies from domestic growers over the past few months and were ready to cope with the Egyptian ban when it came. Smaller dealers have had to rely on last-minute contracts with Jordanian growers, paying about $2 a frond, including transport and other costs.
Egypt palm fronds are traditionally inexpensive, but last year, say some dealers, a group of Israeli importers cornered the market on Egyptian imports and boosted prices, so year-on-year comparisons are on misleading.
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