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

November 9, 2022 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

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.

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