Annual scares of an acute shortage of lulavim in the market are fast becoming an annual feature of Israeli life. Last year’s involved not only Israel, but the entire Jewish world, as Egypt enforced strict restrictions on the export of lulavim. Only at the last minute, in the face of intense pressure from key figures in the United States government and from then Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, did Egypt lift its ban.
This year, by contrast, Egypt has been more than willing to export lulavim from any areas other than El Arish. As a result, only Israel has been affected because of the Israeli Agriculture Ministry’s refusal to permit the import of lulavim from any area other than El Arish.
Last year’s Great Lulav Scare and this year’s do, however, share a few common elements. Once again there are suggestions of unscrupulous individuals (indeed the same ones as last year) trying to corner the market. And once again, the Israeli government has shown a remarkable lack of interest in the ability of Israeli Jews to obtain the dalet minim for the Chag.
In a piece written after last year’s scare, I called for an immediate effort to clarify just what had taken place and for high level discussions between Israeli and Egyptian officials far in advance of Sukkos to ensure that there would be no repeat of the crisis. At least some parties took that advice. Shortly after Pesach, a lulav dealer with whom I have been close friends for nearly thirty years traveled to Egypt to meet with Dr. Safwat El Hadddad, director of plant quarantine in the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry.
It quickly became clear in the course of those discussions that the Egyptian attitude had changed dramatically from the previous year, when Egyptian authorities imposed a ban on all lulav cutting on the grounds that it was injurious to the productivity of date trees. Only deep into the eleventh hour, did Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice-President of the Council of Presidents of Major Hewish Organizations and Abba Cohen, director of Agudath Israel of America’s Washington D.C. office succeed, together with Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, in enlisting key White House officials and members of the National Security Council to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Egypt.
The memory of the intense American pressure was clearly still fresh in Dr. Haddad’s mind when he met with my friend. He assured him that Egypt would allow export of lulavim from every area except El Arish, where the local governor has imposed a three-year ban (due to expire well before Sukkos next year) on all cutting of lulavim. Since 1973, El Arish, on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula, has been the major source of lulavim in Israel.
The next step in the efforts to prevent a recurrence of the last year’s scare was a meeting held in the office MK Rabbi Meir Porush just after Tisha B’Av. Present was Meir Mizrachi, head of plant quarantine in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, and several lulav importers. Rabbi Porush who had been involved up to the last minute in efforts to import sufficient lulavim last year announced that he had convened the meeting specifically to prevent a repeat of the crisis.
Mr. Mizrachi stated that Israel would only allow the import of lulavim from El Arish because of fear that the Egyptian lulavim from the African regions of Egypt might be infected with a fungus (fusaris oxysporum sent.f.sp. albedinis) that could threaten Israeli date trees. The lulav importers made clear that the governor of El Arish would not permit any cutting of lulavim in El Arish, and urged Mizrachi to send inspectors to Egypt to satisfy himself that the trees designated for harvesting lulavim were not diseased.
At the same time, the importers pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Egyptian lulavim had already been shipped to Europe and the United States, and had been cleared for import. They argued that the United States government would not endanger its billion dollar date industry to ensure lulavim for a few hundred thousand Jews if it had the remotest concern that fumigation of the lulavim in methyl bromide for four hours would not remove the slightest danger of disease.
Mizrachi’s only response was to say that Israel’s standards are stricter, and to argue that the lulavim being sent to America would remain in the tri-state area and the principal date growing region is across the continent in southern California. When one of the producers told him that he was shipping to California as well, he quickly closed the meeting.
Earlier in the meeting, Mizrachi suggested that either Israel or Jordan could serve as alternative sources of lulavim. Neither suggestion, however, bears scrutiny. An official Israeli government registry of the date trees in Israel lists 377,000 trees, which at the rate of four lulavim per tree, would more than cover the demand of the Israeli market. But, in fact, lulavim cannot be cut from young trees and only a few species produce halachically fit lulavim. Of the two such species in Israel – Deri and Deklat Nur – there are only 34,000 trees of a sufficient age.
Mizrachi’s other suggestion – Jordan – proved no more promising. Already last year, he had made the same suggestion, but when the car of the Israeli inspectors who were supposed to check the trees in Jordan broke down, he had refused to send another car to bring them to Jordan. In any event, the vast majority of Jordanian trees are of a species not fit for the harvesting of lulavim. Finally, Jordanian authorities made clear that in light of the war in Lebanon that they wanted no Israelis in the country cutting lulavim because they would be unable to guarantee their security.
The upshot of the meeting in Rabbi Porush’s office was that no Israeli inspectors were sent to Egypt to clear for import lulavim from areas other than El Arish. In an interview with Mishpacha Magazine for the Erev Yom Kippur issue, Mizrachi claimed that he had never received a written request from lulav importers to send inspectors to Egypt. But he had been clearly informed of their request and had never suggested that they submit a written request. At the very least, Mizrachi was guilty of complete indifference to the availability of lulavim for Israel’s traditional and observant community this Sukkos.
FROM THIS POINT ON, matters become murky, with evidence of attempts by unscrupulous parties trying to take advantage of the situation to gain a monopoly in the marketplace. On September 17, the Agriculture Ministry sent a letter to growers stating that the author, a subordinate of Mizrachi, had just learned that morning that the governor of El Arish was not permitting any cutting of lulavim. In fact, that ban had been a matter of public record for at least a year, and had been explicitly discussed in the post-Tisha B’Av meeting in Rabbi Porush’s office.
In the meantime, it appears that some importers had succeeded in having their packed lulavim stamped as of El Arish origin, and even in bringing them into Israel on that basis. A lawyer, who has previously represented the figure suspected in trying to corner the market last year, sent a letter to Dr. Haddad requesting that he confirm that he had not approved for shipment any lulavim from El Arish. In his letter, the lawyer declined to identify his client.
Dr. Haddad’s confirmation would obviously have been of great benefit to any importer who had already succeeded in bringing a substantial supply of lulavim into Israel because it would have prevented any other importer from following suit.
And indeed just before Yom Kippur, Israeli officials uncovered in southern Israel a stash of close to 150,000 lulavim from Egypt linked to the same shadowy figure mentioned above. (Other importers aware of what he had done pressured the authorities to uncover his storehouse.) At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian lulavim that had been impounded at the Israeli border and fumigated in methyl bromide were burned by Israeli authorities. Those two events in tandem seemed to guarantee a severe shortage of lulavim for the Israeli market this Sukkos.
Only last Shabbos was some agreement apparently brokered at the Egyptian border according to which 125,000 out of 300,000 lulavim for which Egypt had granted export licenses would be permitted into Israel. (My friend heard the phone ringing from his Egyptian go-between repeatedly on Shabbos night.) Those lulavim were accompanied by an official document from the Egyptian Ministry of Industry and Trade (not the Ministry of Agriculture) stating that they were of El Arish origin.
What exactly happened is anybody’s guess. My own would be that political pressure from the religious parties in Israel resulted in finding some face-saving solution for the Agriculture Ministry so that it would not appear to have backtracked on all its previous demands. But the bottom line remains there will be far fewer lulavim in Israel this Sukkos than normal and prices will be far higher than in years past (excluding last year.)
The concern of the Israeli agriculture officials in protecting the health of Israeli date trees is perfectly legitimate. But with any good will those concerns could have been fully reconciled with the needs of Israel’s religious population to obtain the four species for Sukkos. In a last minute petition by importers to the Israeli Supreme Court to force the Agriculture Ministry to issue the necessary imports, for instance, the Agriculture Ministry raised for the first time concerns about a virulent plant disease that had once destroyed the entire Moroccan date industry. But Meir Mizrachi was already in possession of a letter from Dr. Haddad a letter representing that the Egyptian trees are free of any suspicion of that disease.
In short, the requisite good will on the part of bureaucrats of the "Jewish state" towards the observant population was totally lacking – a situation which unscrupulous individuals sought to exploit to reap whirlwind profits.