At Bassem Kadari’s flour mill, there is a special grinder to mill za’atar, the herb ubiquitous in Israel that is combined with other ingredients to create a spice blend. As the grinder runs, the mill in the small Arab community of Nahf in central Galilee fills with microscopic particles of hyssop leaves. “There isn’t a single house in the village that doesn’t have za’atar,” Kadari says. “The kids are sent to school with pita or a roll and za’atar.”
Some residents from nearby villages come to Kadari with dried za’atar leaves, asking him to grind them. Others buy the leaves from him, grind them and make the final product, which includes sesame, sumac and salt, themselves. Kadari also has customers who buy the finished mixture, in which he takes great pride.
“In season, in the months of March and April, za’atar is like kitchen salt for me,” says Duhul Safadi, the owner of the Diana Restaurant in Nazareth. “I add it to almost everything – meat, fish, marinades – and make salads with it,” he says, adding: “Bread with olive oil and za’atar is a whole meal. People don’t need much more than that. Maybe tomatoes and a little onion on the side.”
Za’atar, usually dried and served with bread and olive oil, is a local staple, and it has become a symbol of Palestinian culture. “Za’atar is not unique just to Palestinian cuisine,” says Rabea Agbaria, a law graduate who wrote an article about the battle over za’atar in a forthcoming book published by Tel Aviv University on law and food.
“As with the more commonly discussed cases of hummus or falafel, it is also present and dominant in Syrian and Lebanese cuisine, but it has gained special status in Palestinian culture. Za’atar, which for hundreds of years was picked in nature, has always symbolized a link to the land.” Referring to the Arabic term for the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, Agbaria added: “After the nakba, za’atar took on added significance as a symbol of modern Palestinian nationalism. For Palestinian refugees, it symbolizes the connection with the homeland.”
Prof. Nativ Dudai, a researcher on herbal and aromatic plants at the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute who wrote his master’s thesis on za’atar, calls it a superfood. He grows 256 different types of za’atar that were collected in recent decades around Israel. One of Dudai’s research colleagues, Avraham Dahan, says cultivation of za’atar (“ezov” in Hebrew) is intimately linked to the history of the Jewish people and symbolizes the redemption of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The story of Exodus has it that Jews used za'atar for marking their homes with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that death would not touch Jewish firstborn sons as it did the Egyptians'. “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the side-posts with the blood that is in the basin . For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:22-23).
Dudai aspires to crossbreed hyssop and one of its close relatives, oregano, which is common in Europe. In the 1980s, he noted, Israeli farmers tried to sell za’atar abroad using the name oregano but found it difficult to break into the market with a Middle Eastern strain. If efforts were to be made now, it’s reasonable to assume that the results would be different. In addition to the current interest around the world in Middle Eastern cooking – particularly Israeli and Palestinian – za’atar is becoming increasingly well-known as a culinary ingredient.
Anyone going into Kalustyan’s in New York, one of the top specialty food and spice stores in the world, will find dozens of varieties of za’atar from around the Middle East, including from Israel. The store is just one example of the trend.
But the Middle East being the Middle East, this common wild herb is the subject of a dispute centering around the ban that Israel has enacted against picking wild hyssop. The controversy also relates to the land and belonging. Za’atar, like hummus has become another symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wild hyssop and sage, part of the diet of residents who have lived on this land for centuries, were placed on Israel's list of protected plants when it was issued in 1977. The list also includes flowers such as the anemone and the cyclamen, which have been the subject of a high-profile public education campaign to protect them. Currently 257 plant species are afforded protection, but there are no systematic surveys about the state of wild hyssop and sage since they were awarded this status. The two herbs do not appear on a separate list of Israeli endangered plants.
Many botanists and ecologists are of the opinion that there is no justification at this time for an overall ban on picking wild hyssop, but it remains on the book. Violators, including anyone in possession or trading in the wild plant in any quantity, are subject to punishment of up to three years in jail; usually they just face a fine.
Israeli authorities have been trying to encourage cultivation of hyssop plants, but Palestinians claim there is a distinct difference in taste between wild hyssop and the cultivated variety. Many continue to pick wild hyssop and claim that they do so in a sustainable way that doesn't harm the plant's ability to grown back, either as a matter of tradition or as an act of protest against a policy they see as anti-Palestinian.
For his part, Agbaria says the difference between wild hyssop and the cultivated variety is not just a matter of taste. “It also relates to the tradition of going out into nature and of the harvest. During the commercialization process, which was among the reasons that led to the legislation, this connection between man and his land was broken. It’s impossible to understand the ban and the injustice without the cultural context, meaning the significance that za’atar and harvesting it have in Palestinian culture and in shaping Palestinian identity.”
In his continued objection to the Israeli approach to the wild hyssop plant, Agbaria makes the following claim: “Zionism as a movement seeks to acquire control over nature, over plants and the land. The Zionist ethos, the Ben-Gurion ideology of making the desert bloom, is deeply rooted in the Israeli experience and purports to extract the best from the land, unlike ignorant natives who did not develop the natural environment and only harmed it.” Saying that such an approach is typical of colonialism, Agbaria also cites the Zionist movement’s effort to drain the Hula swamp in the north, which was later seen as an ecological mistake.
“I’m not a botany expert and I don’t know the exact balance that is needed to maintain the za’atar population,” he acknowledged, “but I know that the current version of the law is unjustifiably sweeping and harmful.”