LETTER FROM ISRAEL
IN OUR REGULAR REPORT ON LIFE IN ISRAEL, PAM PELED VISITS A UNIQUE ARAB-ISRAELI
OLIVE OIL BUSINESS THAT IS PROMOTING CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING
THE FARMERS MAKING OLIVE OIL (NOT WAR)
It happens every time: heat a little olive oil in a pan, toss in onions and parsley, and within seconds the most mundane kitchen is transformed into paradise. Olives have been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine forever; the trees in the Galilee have produced liquid gold for thousands of years.
Israel’s agriculture is cutting-edge and innovative; automated watering systems deliver each drop precisely, computers control crop yield. Arab agriculture is more traditional and low-tech. The olive trade, once 80 percent Arab and 20 percent Jewish, has reversed in the last 20 years; today Jewish farmers produce 80 percent of the crop. Hadas Lahav, general manager of Galilee’s non-profit olive oil producer Sindyanna and a social activist from a mixed Arab-Jewish neighbourhood in Haifa, recognised an exciting “business for peace” opportunity in this oil.
Lahav, who had previously taught Arab mothers to help their children with homework, was already aware of the huge unemployment rate among Arab women. “In 1996, when we started Sindyanna, only 20 percent were working,” she explains. Today that number has more than doubled. “We wanted to give uneducated Arab women a chance to earn money, to improve Arab agriculture and create a constructive meeting place between Jews and Arabs.”
Sindyanna, (“evergreen oak tree” in Arabic), is a non-profit organisation that started off buying oil from local Arab farmers. Pretty soon the directors realised that to ensure high quality they needed to control the entire process – from grove to bottle. The Yunis family in Kfar Ara split 100 dunams of their uncultivated and neglected land with Sindyanna (despite fierce criticism from neighbours accusing them of selling out to settlers), water was pumped in from Mekorot, and the trees bore forth their fruit in biblical abundance.
Sindyanna still uses the Yunis olives, although they have returned the land to the family; the five tons of organic oil produced there annually is their signature product and part of the only guaranteed organic and Fair Trade Israeli olive crop. The company, which channels all profits back into improving Arab agriculture and promoting the status of Arab women, now works with other groves, including 30 dunams belonging to the Church of Scotland, and uses Jewish and Arab
“ The company channels all profits into improving Arab agriculture and the status of Arab women”
pressing houses to provide the almost 100 award-winning tons of oil a year shipped all over the world to discerning palates.
Every day, tucked away in the rather dilapidated industrial zone of Kfar Kanna, women from neighbouring villages filter, store, bottle and label various strains of olive oil including Barne’a and Coratina, as well as a house blend of various cultivars. A visitor centre welcomes guests for olive oil tastings, traditional Arab cuisine, handicrafts workshops and lectures in hydroponic farming. Traditional products available include za’atar spice mixes, tahini from Nazareth, honey, olive oil soaps from Nablus; cheerful labels proclaim Extra Hopeful Olive Oil.
Nadia Giol, co-manager of the visitor centre and chief facilitator, says the real magic of Sindyanna lies in human stories. “We know that women who work with us come from traditional families and still
Sindyanna’s Hadas Lahav have to take care of the kids, so we include everyone – our labels, for example, were inspired by children’s drawings.”
Courses to weave baskets from palm fronds have revived an ancient skill; women can work from home and earn welcome shekels. Naheda Zreki, a mother of five, who never finished high school, came to Sindyanna to learn weaving. Today she cooks melt-in-the-mouth lunches for the visitor centre; her carpenter husband often drops by to hammer a rickety chair back into business, or straighten a shelf.
“You can’t stop a conflict of a century in one day,” says Giol, “but women from all sectors of society have to work together towards peace. I’d wachade ma bedze’ef lechala,” she smiles. One hand can’t clap alone. n sinyanna.com. Dr Pam Peled lectures at IDC and Beit Berl.
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