An ancient olive tree.
An ancient olive tree in Israel. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Gabi Tal
Israeli olives. Photo by Gabi Tal

Around this time of year, just after the first rain waters the land in northern Israel, farmers start harvesting their olive trees, exactly as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Family members gather to collect the green and black olives from the ground, carry them to the local olive oil mill where make enough oil for the year to come, very similar to the way it was done thousands years ago.

“A land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey;” (Deuteronomy 8:8)

Olive oil has always been an important part of the local Arab population’s diet. Israeli Jews, however, discovered olive oil only about two decades ago.

For those who think of Israel as the land of milk, honey and olive oil, with all the symbolism of peace that comes with it, this fact sounds astonishing.

There are several behind the relatively late acceptance of olive oil by the Jewish population in Israel.

First, Jews that came from Eastern Europe starting at the end of the 19th century were definitely not used to olive oil and its strong flavor. Nor were the Jews who came later from Arab countries like Yemen or Morocco, where the use of Olive oil was not widespread. But it wasn’t just that.

“People wanted to distant themselves from anything that could be identified as Arab, out of arrogance,” said in a phone interview Hilla Wenkert, award winning olive oil producer and owner of Olia, an olive oil store in Tel Aviv.

Change came from an unexpected direction. The love for olive oil among Jewish Israelis did not grow organically out of local traditions; rather it arrived along with Italian cuisine.

Celebrity chef Israel Aharoni re-introduced olive oil to Israelis through Italian cooking in the late 80’s. At the time, Israelis were just starting to discover various cuisines from around the world, and they were open to any culinary adventure. It might have been that the gentler taste of Italian olive oil better suited the Israeli palate at the time, as opposed to the local Arab oil which sported a strong, peppery flavor.

Studies about health benefits of olive oil helped convince those who still had doubts, and Israelis learned to love the wide range of olive oils, from the flowery to the peppery, from the mild Picual and all the way to the bitter Souri variations.

Olive oil has been used in Israel since the days of the bible not only for cooking, but also for cosmetic purposes, and, as we all remember from the story of Hanukkah, to light the menorah in the temple.

“And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.” (Exodus, 27:20)

Consumption of olive oil in Israel has seen steady growth.  Israeli made olive oil has enjoyed considerable success, as have more affordable oils from Spain, Italy and Turkey.

The average Jewish Israeli now uses 1.5 liters of olive oil a year, up from 1 liter only 5 years ago, said Wenkert.  

Jewish Israelis adopted modern planting and processing techniques for the local olive oil industry and according to Wenkert, the trees yield larger amounts of olives and the extraction of oil is one of the best in the world.

“The Jewish sector has the best farmers, who can produce an efficient and perfect olive oil,” said Abbie Rosner, author of an excellent book entitled Breaking Bread in the Galilee, published earlier this year.
Rosner grew up in Washington DC, moved to the Galilee in the late 80s. In her book she explores old culinary traditions; some from the days of the bible, that still exist today, mostly in Arab farms.

“They [the Jewish farmers] plant the trees in a very specific distance apart so the machine can pick up the olives in the most efficient way,” Rosner continued. They also try many new varieties, like Barnea, manzanilla and kalamata,” while the Arabs own centuries old trees of only the Souri and Muchasan olives. The Souri olive oil is fruity with a bitter pungency, and the Muchasan, from the Nabali family, is “very bitter and very rich,” said Wenkert, “and has a buttery texture that helps soften the bitterness."

In the Arab sector, traditional farming methods still rule. “The extended family works for two to three weeks in harvesting the olives and produce enough oil for two years,” said Rosner. “This is a tradition that continues for thousands of years. They pick up the olives using their hands, hit with a stick a little."

In her book, Rosner describes the olive tree grove of her friend Balkee’s family in Kfar Reine in the Galilee. The family owns 99 trees that are divided between seven nuclear families. During the week, the women do the hard work of picking the olives, and the men join to help them on weekends. These days, Sudanese refugees are sometimes hired to help with the work, since the men have day jobs and are not able to help. This represents a “whole revolution of the work environment,” said Rosner.

After the collection of the olives is done, it is crucial to get them to press as soon as possible, before oxidation begins and their acidity level rises. This is a job that only the men get to do. Most Arab villages have their own olive oil mill and each family brings its olives there in order to produce oil, a process that takes about an hour.

The olive oil goes almost in all to the family itself and is rarely produced for commercial purposes. “The olive oil culture in the Arab sector is rooted deeply,” said Wenkert.” The families tend to the trees, the harvest is done by hand and the consumption is private and inside the village only.” Wenkert said that supermarkets in Arab villages will rarely have any olive oil for sale. Some olive oil mills will sell oil, but moslty people make their own.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about olive trees in Israel without mentioning incidents involving brutal destruction of Palestinian olive trees by settlers in the West Bank in recent years.

“This is a terrible act,” said Wenkert “the more I learn about the meaning of the olive tree in the Arab tradition, the more I realize how dear it is to them, just like family members.”

She accused Jewish extremists that destroy the trees of cynically using the Arab connection to the trees in order to hurt their neighbors. “It’s one of the greatest weaknesses of the Arabs. It’s like shaving the beard to an orthodox Jew.”

But olive trees still symbolize peace for most. Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Valley of Peace initiative from 2006 is a mutual project of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian authority aimed at planting a million olive trees in the Jordan Valley. At Olia, the Tel Aviv olive oil boutique, 25% of the olive sold comes from Arab producers.
 
“And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” (Genesis, 8:11)