The Rich Past, and Promising Future, of the Middle East’s Date

If there’s one thing that unifies the people who live in the area stretching from Morocco to India, writes Matti Friedman, it is their appreciation for the fruit of the date palm:

Long before refrigeration, dried dates could keep for years, making them invaluable for travelers across seas and deserts. They can be turned into honey by boiling and straining the fruit; in fact, the biblical phrase “land of milk and honey” refers to honey from dates, not bees. They can also be fermented into liquor, like the date wine enjoyed by ancient Babylonians, according to the historian Herodotus. The tree itself was a source of fiber for ropes and baskets, fronds for shelter and shade and columns for construction. That led one rabbi to remark at least 1,500 years ago, long before environmentalism was cool, “This date palm—no part of it is wasted.”

“A righteous person will flower like a date palm,” goes the verse in Psalms, one explanation being that the date palm, like the righteous, grows straight and sustains others with its fruit. A scientifically minded rabbi in 12th-century Yemen, Netanel al-Fayyumi, explained that just as the pinnacle of the animal kingdom is people, and the pinnacle of the human species is prophets, the pinnacle of the plant kingdom, according to God’s design, is this tree. “And among the plants,” wrote the rabbi, “He created the most honorable species, which is the date.”

And perhaps even more than Iran, it might be the threat posed to the crop by the red palm weevil that will bring Israelis and Arabs together:

The enemy is at the gates, and this is what brought me to Abu Dhabi, the scene of the International Date Palm Conference. . . . Of particular interest at the conference was the presence of a few Israelis, which would have been hard to imagine a few years ago, before the American-engineered agreements known as the Abraham Accords inaugurated official ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. If we understand the date palm as a unifier in a divided part of the world, dates offer an obvious field of cooperation. A weevil sensor manufactured by an Israeli company, for example, has already been drilled into thousands of trees in the UAE and Morocco, as well as in Arab countries that won’t trade directly with Israel but purchase the sensors through a third party. The sensor picks up the vibrations of weevil larvae and sends a warning to an app installed on the farmer’s smartphone.

Read more at Smithsonian

More about: Hebrew Bible, Israeli agriculture, Israeli technology, Judaism, Middle East, United Arab Emirates


Saudi Arabia Should Open Its Doors to Israeli—and Palestinian—Pilgrims

On the evening of June 26 the annual period of the Hajj begins, during which Muslims from all over the world visit Mecca and perform prescribed religious rituals. Because of the de-jure state of war between Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state, Israeli Muslim pilgrims—who usually number about 6,000—must take a circuitous (and often costly) route via a third country. The same is true for Palestinians. Mark Dubowitz and Tzvi Kahn, writing in the Saudi paper Arab News, urge Riyadh to reconsider its policy:

[I]f the kingdom now withholds consent for direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia, it would be a setback for those normalization efforts, not merely a continuation of the status quo. It is hard to see what the Saudis would gain from that.

One way to support the arrangement would be to include Palestinians in the deal. Israel might also consider earmarking its southern Ramon Airport for the flights. After all, Ramon is significantly closer to the kingdom than Ben-Gurion Airport, making for cheaper routes. Its seclusion from Israeli population centers would also help Israeli efforts to monitor outgoing passengers and incoming flights for security purposes.

A pilot program that ran between August and October proved promising, with dozens of Palestinians from the West Bank traveling back and forth from Ramon to Cyprus and Turkey. This program proceeded over the objections of the Palestinian Authority, which fears being sidelined by such accommodations. Jordan, too, has reason to be concerned about the loss of Palestinian passenger dinars at Amman’s airports.

But Palestinians deserve easier travel. Since Israel is willing to be magnanimous in this regard, Saudi Arabia can certainly follow suit by allowing Ramon to be the springboard for direct Hajj flights for Palestinian and Israeli Muslims alike. And that would be a net positive for efforts to normalize ties between [Jerusalem] and Riyadh.

Read more at Arab News

More about: Israel-Arab relations, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Saudi Arabia