On the Knife

According to a summery Arab saying, “Fi ayam al-batikh, mafish tabikh” – “In watermelon season, no-one cooks.”  On my way home one evening from a meeting, I decided to stop at a fruit and vegetable stand on the road through Kfar Manda to buy a watermelon for the Melamed family.  My recent watermelon purchases at roadside stands have been somewhat less than successful.  Too often, the promise of “honey watermelon” or “sweet and fresh” is no more dependable than chaff in the wind, vanishing as soon as the “green outside, red inside” orb is opened.  Instead of sweet and refreshing, the flesh proves to be tart and pasty.  Sadly, even the watermelon, that symbol of summertime refreshment and innocence, can pass its prime when exposed to the mercies of a blazing Israeli summer.

The traditional solution to the problem of buying a pig in a poke (or rather, an unopened watermelon) is the rite of Al Ha-Sakin – literally “on the knife” – during which the vendor creates a “window” through which the purchaser can judge the inner depths of the watermelon.  Unlike buying mutual funds, where the risk is always borne by the investor, this rite is more akin to the tasting and approval of wine from a newly opened bottle at an expensive restaurant.  When you and the vendor agree to al ha-sakin, the responsibility for the quality of the merchandise rests upon the vendor.  According to the customs of al ha-sakin, the vendor, using a thin, sharp knife, cuts a narrow triangular wedge deep into the flesh of the watermelon and withdraws it using the tip of the knife stuck into the rind, then presents the wedge – on the knife – to the purchaser for tasting and approval.  And the most important rule is: If the watermelon is not good, the customer is under no obligation to buy.

The vendor at the rickety stand in Kfar Manda was very sure of himself when I asked to buy al ha-sakin.  “Which one do you want?” he asked.  “You choose,” I replied, “you’re the expert.”  Of course, that also meant he was responsible for picking the right watermelon and could not later claim I had simply made a bad choice.

The young vendor tapped several watermelons, listening to the dull sound echoing in their distended bellies, and eventually selected a dark, heavy watermelon.  From under the table he drew out a long, sharp knife, sliced into the watermelon, withdrew a deep, narrow wedge, and presented it to me on the tip of his knife.  I tasted it, enjoyed it, and gave my approval.

While my purchase was being bagged, I took the opportunity to dust off my rusty Arabic and catch up with the local news.  “What’s the story with the Sudanese here?” I asked, referring to the major altercation in Kfar Manda a couple of weeks earlier, between the locals and the Sudanese migrants living in the village.

One of the locals, also a customer, upon hearing my question, smiled grimly and shook her fist to signal her opinion of the relations between the local inhabitants and the so-called guests from Africa.  The young man himself was actually more understanding.  “They’re hungry… they come here looking for work… they take whatever they can get…  I feel sorry for them.”  Another young man, standing nearby, called me over and pointed out some industrial buildings set back a few hundred meters from the road.  “You see those?  Once upon a time they were chicken coops, dairy farms, factories.  Now they’re full of Sudanese.  They sleep there, all of them together, then in the morning they go out looking for work…”

With the watermelon in hand, I went back to the car deep in thought.  Israel’s treatment of migrant workers from Africa in some ways resembles the al ha-sakin test, creating a window that allows us to look deep into the heart of Israel in the twenty-first century.

First of all, the very situation reflects a great absurdity.  The State of Israel, a country that was established less than a century ago as a refuge for the remnants of the Jewish people, that was recently ranked 150 out of 158 countries on the Global Peace Index (http://www.visionofhumanity.org), that has been surrounded by enemies from the moment it was born to the present day – tiny Israel has somehow become the Promised Land and sanctuary for the miserable of Africa, who flock to its borders despite the immense difficulties of their trek.

Secondly, the migrant workers from Africa have created another link in the food chain that is the Israeli employment scene.  When Israeli Jews no longer found it prosperous and prestigious to work in agriculture, the work was taken by Palestinians.  When Palestinians were no longer permitted to work in Israel, Chinese and Thai workers came instead.  Israeli Arabs are also becoming much choosier about the work they do, and this is where the Sudanese and Eritreans come in.

Today the African laborers are employed in Kfar Manda and other Arab villages in the area, doing the work that the villagers themselves are no longer willing to do.  It is also interesting to remember, perhaps with nostalgia, the days – a mere 100 years ago – when the pioneers in the Zionist Movement fought for the right to do manual labor.  The Zionist pioneers wanted to create the “new Jew” who would live by his hands, and they struggled with the landowners for the opportunity to work the land and support themselves by the sweat of their brow.

Thirdly, the attitude of the Israeli public to the migrant workers from Africa is nourished by two polar opposites.  On the one hand, there is a deep fear of “the other” coupled with some naked bigotry and fear of their growing numbers, like KIng Pharaoh who knew not Joseph: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.’ “ (Exodus 1:9-10).  On the other hand, Israelis have a strong instinct to help and to try to find a humanitarian way to deal with the issue.  Many good people have been enlisted to the task, guided by pangs of conscience and the memories of the time, not so long ago, when it was the Jews who were the persecuted refugees, on the run and seeking asylum.

One way or another, at the height of another hot Israeli summer, Israeli society and its decision-makers have been charged with the responsibility to wrestle with yet another complex, multifaceted issue, an issue that will require a combination of determination and firmness, sensitivity and compassion, long-term vision – and a great deal of wisdom.

About the Author
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of "Son of My Land" and "Fundraising" - the 1st Hebrew book about Resource Development. Sagi can be reached at melamed.sagi@gmail.com.