Is There Anything Left to Squeeze Out of Zionism's Former Symbol?

Shrinking citrus groves have reduced the economic importance of oranges, but farmers, artists and high-tech professionals are now looking to give the golden fruit new meaning

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Actors playing Jewish members of the HeHalutz movement carrying oranges, as part of the national ceremony for the 70th anniversary of Israel.
Actors playing Jewish members of the HeHalutz movement carrying oranges, as part of the national ceremony for the 70th anniversary of Israel.Credit: Emil Salman
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

For the past 70 years, the orange has been the leading candidate for the title of the “symbol of Israeli culture.” Oranges have represented Israel on every possible platform around the world. They’ve appeared on posters, and in films and songs. Young women in blue hats smiling from the tops of ladders, workers in shorts picking them happily.

Yet, it seems that this era is no longer. Has the time come to eulogize the orange? Has the great symbol of the Zionist movement, the Jaffa orange, passed on? And if the answer is no, then where is the orange still being preserved and being given new importance in life?

In Hebrew, an orange grove, or orchard, is called a “pardes” – as in “paradise,” or the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word comes from Old Persian, and refers to a garden of trees enclosed by a wall. In the writings of the ancient rabbis, the word “pardes” is used to describe the study of Jewish mysticism. Real orchards existed in the Land of Israel a long time before the modern Zionists arrived, but growing oranges was enthusiastically adopted by the settlers when they arrived in the new land.

File photo: Jaffa oranges loaded for export at the Ashdod port, Israel, 1981.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

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The beginning was in 1855, when Moshe Montefiore bought from the chief rabbi of Jaffa, Yehuda Margoza, an orange grove near Wadi Musrara, today the Ayalon Stream, in what is now the center of Tel Aviv. Decades later the Montefiore neighborhood was built on the site.

The title of the “first Hebrew citrus grove in the Land of Israel” is usually connected to the grove planted by David Fellman near the Arab village of Summayl, exactly on the spot where Tel Aviv city hall sits today, at the northern side of Rabin Square. Fellman died from heat stroke a short time after the planting, and it was left to his widow, Sarah Ita Fellman, to cultivate the grove, with the help of her Arab neighbors. The huge orchard she ran for 50 years covered an area in northern Tel Aviv that is now crossed by Even Gvirol, Frishman, Shlomo Hamelech and Arlozorov streets. The only remnant of the citrus trees that once grew there is a small street – called in pure simplicity, Hapardes.

In the 1870s, even before the first aliyah wave of immigration, the vast majority of oranges here were grown for export. This trend grew even stronger once Jewish immigrants began arriving. According to the Zionist Archive, representatives of Baron Edmond de Rothschild began planting citrus groves in 1890, which became the economic foundation of most of the baron’s colonies. In 1900, out of 10,000 dunams (2,500 acres) of citrus orchards in Ottoman Palestine, 2,000 dunams were owned by Jews, and the remainder by Arabs.

The orange business flourished during the British Mandate period. In 1938, citrus counted for 84 percent of all local exports. A fifth of Jewish residents in the Land of Israel worked in citrus growing at the time.

Land of sad oranges

The groves and oranges became a symbol of the Israeli revolution at a rapid pace, and from there it was just a short jump to becoming a cultural symbol. The long list of those who employed it includes some of the greatest Hebrew writers: Haim Nahman Bialik, S. Yizhar, Nachum Gutman, Haim Gouri, Amos Kenan and Meir Shalev.

At the same time the Zionist narrative was unfolding, the image of the orange groves became a prominent object of longing in the Palestinian memory and one of the symbols of the disputes over the land. Ghassan Kanafani’s 1963 story “The Land of Sad Oranges,” is about his family, which was uprooted from Acre and left to Lebanon.

File photo: Jewish immigrants pick oranges, Kibbutz Naan, 1938.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

“Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork,” a documentary by filmmaker Eyal Sivan from 2009, asks whether the Jaffa orange is an Israeli invention or a literary and commercial theft. Amos Gitai’s film “Orange,” from 1998, presents the history of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict by way of the citrus industry. How convenient it is to reduce such a long, historic conflict into the size of a small ball.

Keren Benbenisty, an Israeli artist who lives in New York, is displaying (until February 9) in the Petach Tikva Museum of Art an interesting project named “Fajja,” which takes its name from a former Arab village just east of Petah Tikva, whose lands became the site of a temporary refugee camp for Jewish immigrants – and which today is the Kiryat Alon neighborhood of Petah Tikva.

Work by Keren Benbenisty depicting painted orange peels.Credit: Keren Benbenisty

On two video screens, Benbenisty presents images of a press that was in use up until the 1990s for printing the packing paper used to wrap Jaffa oranges. Along with these scenes, appear excerpts from Victor Guerin’s book “Geographical, Historical, and Archaeological Description of Palestine” from 1868, which documents the villages of the region – which have long since disappeared form the map. Projected on a second screen are drawings on sheets of wrapping paper that Benbenisty inherited from her grandmother, who worked packing citrus fruit in Yavne.

Work by Keren Benbenisty depicting coordinates carved on an orange peel.Credit: Keren Benbenisty

The printing press that was used to print the Jaffa logo on the packing paper can still be seen in all its glory in a shack that was preserved and restored at 14 Hovevei Zion Street in Petah Tikva. The press stands in the middle of the living room, like a large elephant in a space that is inappropriate for its dimensions. Dr. Haim Meitlis, the head of the history and preservation department in the Petah Tikva municipality, operated it for me and told me about the Greenboim family who owned the printing house in the early 20th century.

Benbenisty told Haaretz that the “orange is something political. Every contemporary conversation about Jaffa oranges and about Fajja is a political discourse. The history of the land is packed up in the packing houses of the orchards, but my feeling is that in Israel, people prefer to ignore this aspect. They don’t want to hear. The erasure that was carried out in this context is important in my eyes – Fajja does not exist any longer – and in retrospect it is possible that I needed to insist that the word ‘Nakba’ appear in the work. It is easier to ignore if it’s missing.”.

A taste of childhood in Rehovot

There are no more oranges in Petah Tikva. To see an orange grove, I went to Rehovot. Zalman Minkov planted his orchard, the first in the town, in 1904 on 100 dunams of land at the town’s northern edge, next to where the Weizmann Institute of Science is situated today.

Minkov had a modern approach. He sunk a deep well and connected it to a a pump. He spread his trees out and laid tracks for a small train. He dug a large irrigation pool between the trees. All of this survived and contemporary visitors to the Minkov Citrus Orchard Museum look at them in amazement. Carmit Rapaport, the director of the museum on behalf of the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel, explains that the immigrants from the Second Aliyah period (1904-1914) found work, food and lodgings here. She calls the famous poet Rachel Bluwstein “my love” and describes how Rachel worked in the Minkov orchard in 1910, the year Rapaport calls the “happiest in her life.”

The pool at the Minkov grove, Rehovot, Israel, January 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Every year, 30,000 school children visit the Minkov Orchard Museum to learn about the legacy of Israeli citrus growing. They tour the farm, which is surrounded by a wall, with an impressive stone gate with a Star of David above the entrance.

The visitors see the deep well, the irrigation pool – S. Yizhar wrote about swimming in it in his story “The Swimming Pool” – the aqueduct, packing house, stables, and the orchard keeper’s house. Large swathes of land surround the site, still waiting for a developer – the orchard’s bitter enemy. In the park next to the buildings are a few dozen citrus trees laden with fruit. Rapaport encouraged me to pick a few Shamouti oranges, the famous Jaffa variety. Picking the fruit from the tree, peeling them and the taste all reminded me of my childhood in a way that no picture album could ever do.

The best type in the world

Questions about the death of the orange (as the name of a new song by popular singer Rona Kenan has it) make Hai Binyamini’s blood boil. Binyamini, the head of the Israel Citrus Growers Association declares loudly that, “the citrus industry is alive and well.” The industry may suffer from a number of problems, but it is possible to solve them – and even demanded by reality, he says.

During a lengthy interview with Haaretz, Binyamini explained how to solve them: Although Israel once had as much as 400,000 dunams of citrus orchards under cultivation, today, it still has 180,000 dunams in production, and they provide a living for tens of thousands of people. Forty percent of these orchards are south of Ashkelon, with another third in the center of the country and about a quarter in the north. Today, 80 percent of citrus groves are irrigated with recycled water, and if this water is not used for this purpose it would go to waste. A third of Israeli citrus production is for export, a third for the local market and a third goes to industry, mostly for juice.

An installation at the Minkov Citrus Orchard Museum, Rehovot, Israel, January 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

According to Binyamini, the main challenge faced by Israel is competition with Egyptian and Spanish exporters. In addition, the fall in the value of the Russian ruble and the decline in exports to Russia mean that the local market is flooded, causing prices to plummet.

The global market has changed since the era of the Shamouti, Binyamini says, and the local industry is pinning its hopes on the development of new orange varieties. He draws encouragement from a new cultivar (a strain), Ori, which he says is “the best in the world.” Binyamini says the Ori is sweet, flavorful and seedless. He also takes heart from rising sales numbers for red grapefruit in China, Japan and South Korea. The local juice industry is also thriving. “The current situation reminds me of something the Red Queen said in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’: ‘My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.’”

Seeing a tree in California

And perhaps the future of the orange in the Israeli context is actually in California. Barak Hachamov and Israel Talpaz are, together with Guy Morgenstern, the founders of SeeTree, a Tel Aviv-based startup that is developing what they call “an intelligence network for trees.” Talpaz, the company’s CEO, served in Israeli intelligence for 30 years. His father, Prof. Hovav Talpaz, worked at Israel’s Volcani Agricultural Research Institute and at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, in Rehovot.

“An experienced agronomist who looks at a tree can identify the problems that it has, but citrus growers in California and Brazil have millions of trees spread over enormous expanses, and they suffer from a critical shortage of information,” says Hachamov, who has co-founded numerous high-tech companies, speaking by phone from the United States. “There are orchards of 600,000 dunams,” three times the combined area of all of Israel’s citrus groves. “SeeTree will be able to gather advanced information for them about the health of a single tree using purpose-built drones, sensors on the ground and teams of experts. Each tree will have a ‘medical records file’ that can be used to diagnose problems.”

High-tech doesn’t generally deal with cultural icons. What made you choose oranges?

“Oranges have been badly hit by a serious disease known as citrus greening, which happily for us has not yet affected groves in Israel. The crop yield in Florida fell by 80 percent over the past decade as a result of the disease. Our information will help farmers to manage this type of crisis with the help of early monitoring and by limiting the spread of the disease.”

SeeTree promotional videoCredit: SeeTree

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