Israeli farmers threaten IDF boycott

Controversial sabbatical year decision has growers warning they may stop selling produce to the army

Illustrative: Wheat fields near Kibbutz Einat in central Israel. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: Wheat fields near Kibbutz Einat in central Israel. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Israel Farmers Association has threatened to refuse to sell produce to the IDF if it does not get a clear answer about the military’s new policy on observance of the Jewish sabbatical (shmita) year.

Earlier this month, union chairman Meir Zur accused the Defense Ministry and IDF of declaring “war on Israeli agriculture” after the army decided to import produce from abroad in order to comply with a strict interpretation of shmita — the biblical prohibition against tilling the land and cultivating crops during the sabbatical year, which occurs every seven years.

Association president Dov Amitai said the army had given him a commitment that in the second half of the year, it would revert to the policy of previous sabbatical years and buy from Israeli farmers, according to Israel Radio. The policy does not appear to comply either with the Jewish legal position that mandates avoiding Israeli-grown produce throughout the sabbatical year, or the most lenient position that allows it throughout the year.

IFA leaders said the IDF’s promise to change its policy mid-year was insufficient. Amitai threatened to lead Israeli farmers in refusing to supply produce to the IDF in the absence of a clearer answer. He asked Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir to convene an emergency meeting and prevent the import of agricultural produce into Israel for the IDF.

Amitai also said that Israeli hotels had received requests to import agricultural products, causing concern that the trend will extend to other industries, which could cripple Israeli growers.

The army responded to Zur’s initial accusation in writing: “The population of the IDF is diverse, including over 5,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers, who do not recognize the heter mehira [lenient loophole allowing farming] during the sabbatical year. In order to preserve the unity of the camp, and to allow the entire IDF population to eat in a single kitchen, and in order to attain the national goal of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF… the army rabbinate has decided to avoid procuring vegetables [grown under] the heter mehira for the first half of the sabbatical year, until the end of February 2015.”

During that period, the army explained, most of the produce would come from the southern Arava desert, an area that lies outside the Biblical and Jewish legal boundaries of the land of Israel, and therefore exempt from the sabbatical restrictions, and from stored crops. “Only in the event of scarcity will there be a limited purchase of non-Jewish [the prohibition applies primarily to Jews] or imported goods.”

From March 2015 onward, the army will buy vegetables grown under the heter mehira, the army said, and the ultra-Orthodox soldiers will be given catered meals on disposable plates, in addition to sealed packages of fresh, imported vegetables.

The shmita year’s mandate to let the land lie fallow is relevant only to Jewish-owned tracts in Israel. Thus, it remained dormant for nearly two millennia until Zionist farmers began large-scale Jewish agriculture in the land of Israel.

Israel’s state rabbinate has adopted a religious ruling initially handed down in 1889 and later upheld by Israel’s first chief rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that allowed Jews in Israel to sell their land to a non-Jew for the duration of the sabbatical year, while retaining the right to work it and reap the fruits of the land.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders disagree with this interpretation, noting that Rabbi Spektor of Kovno, in first authorizing the exemption, wrote, “It must be explicitly stated that this exemption is only for the year 5649 (1889) but not for future shmita years… Then further meditation will be necessary…”

In 2007, the last shmita year, Israel’s High Court of Justice forced a group of municipal rabbis to adhere to the State Rabbinate’s exemption and to provide certificates of kashrut to hotels and restaurants that served produce grown under the loophole.

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