Arabs and Israelis Are Fighting a Common Enemy: The Red Palm Weevil

February 11, 2021 | 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).

While much has been made of how the threat of an ascendant and bellicose Iran has fostered better relations between Israel and several Arab states, there are other shared dangers these former foes can best fight together. Among them is a species of weevil that attacks date palms, which has caused much destruction to Levantine agriculture in the past decade. Matti Friedman recently traveled to the United Arab Emirates—home to some 40 million date palms—in the company of a representative of an Israeli firm that produces high-tech sensors for detecting the pest. He describes the exuberant atmosphere of the journey to a country long closed to Israelis, through the airspace of another country, Saudi Arabia, long closed to their planes:

The novelty, and a brief break from pandemic travel restrictions, was enough to generate 30 flights a day and a minor Hebrew pop hit, [which begins with the Hebrew/Arabic word meaning “Let’s go!”]: “Yalla bye, I’m going to Dubai, not Miami or Hawaii.” The four people sitting closest to me on the plane were in the kitchen-appliance business and had a few meetings set up with potential customers. None of this was imaginable a few months ago. The atmosphere was festive, though tempered by having all the flight attendants in hazmat suits. It felt like a group outing with a giddy Semitic plague ward.

The founder of the company that builds the sensors—who, like many of Israel’s high-tech entrepreneurs, brings with him valuable experience from his IDF service—is the child of parents from Morocco, and, when he visited that country, bonded with a border agent over their shared connection to the city of Fez:

In that personal anecdote is a story of reconnection, one that’s missed if these new accords are analyzed solely through the lens of American policy and the Iranian threat. Jews have always been around this region, farming and trading like everyone else, and it’s not the past few months of renewed contact that are the anomaly, but the past seven decades of isolation.

David Ibn Maimon, brother of Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher who lived in Cairo, was on a business trip not far from Dubai when he was lost at sea in the 12th century. Some of the 6th-century Jews around Arabia in the time of Mohammad were date farmers. The capital city of another date-palm power, Iraq, was about one-third Jewish into the 1940s. Most of those people’s descendants are now Israelis.

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