Park your tanks and tractors, Shmita is coming!

The army is out of money and, soon, so will we be. The government has ordered to put down your weapons and your ploughs. To park your tanks and your tractors.

After weeks of budget crisis in all areas of the government forcing even the military to cut back, our reserves aren’t the only ones taking a year off next year.

Allow me to explain…

Every seventh year,  Jewish law requires the observance of the ‘Shmita’ year. The Sabbatical year falls every seven years on an agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel.

During Shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and ALL agricultural activity, including ploughing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden by Jewish law. The only cultivation techniques allowed today are those that only serve to prevent the fields from ruining. Additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed ownerless and may be picked by anyone.

Whilst the farmers abandon their fields for a year, Israel must import its produce from elsewhere which subsequently introduces price hikes and shortages nationwide.

Ok, fine, we can deal with a small price hike for a year, right?

Not exactly… Whether you observe this law or not, you have to foot the bill for it and the government, on behalf of you, the taxpayer, has agreed to allocate a colossal $28.8 million to the Religious Ministry for the observance of this Sabbatical year.

$28.8MILLION. Lets break it down…..

The Religious Services Ministry will spread 100 million shekels among various projects, including supporting Jewish farmers who have decommissioned their land (45 million), subsidies for non-Jewish farmers to build greenhouses (7 million) and for those who do not work their fruit trees (20 million).

Much of this will also go to the development of hydroponic farms, the modern loophole of many religious farming communities as the plants are not actually connected to the soil.

A further 11.5 million shekels ($3.31 million) will be directed towards educating and training agriculturalists for the Shmita year.

2 million shekels ($600,000) will go to nationwide Shmita educational programs.

2 million shekels to organize the Hakhel ceremony, which will be held at the end of the Shmita year at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The necessity to make sure that the farmers will be able to continue growing after the Shmita year, and be compensated for the loss of a year’s harvest,  is totally understandable. Both for religious reasons, as a Jewish country, and agricultural ones.

What isn’t acceptable is that almost half the money is not for the direct reimbursement of the farmers but to help them buy new technology to update their farms, educational programming and a whopping 2 million shekel ceremony at the end.

The Israeli taxpayer will not only have to endure costly legumes for a year but from Rosh Hashanah they will also have to foot the bill for teaching the nation all about the special year, regardless of your religious affiliations, as well as helping the farmers build new technology.

Something  doesn’t add up: On the one hand, we are experiencing high food prices, and on the other we also are required to give huge subsidies to the agricultural sector.

Have we forgotten the days of the tent cities protesting the government’s insistence on putting the farmer before the consumer? Why then, when the agriculture industry only represents 2.6% of the GDP and 6% of the work force, are there still such costly policies on the consumer?

Israel produces 95% of its own food requirements and the total export of agricultural fresh produce and processed food has almost doubled from $1.2 billion in 2003 to $2.4b. in 2012. Agricultural exports have increased over the past 20 years by 3% annually, growing at a faster pace than any other sector of the economy.

Make no mistake, the farmers are NOT in dire straits, ARE making healthy returns and ARE growing steadily every year.

It is they who should be paying for their new hydroponic farming technology and greenhouses not I.

This announcement, though, may not be one of a continued farmer favouritism. At least not for the secular farmers.

Recently, growers, that suffered after last winter’s light rainfall, were only given a tenth of what they received the last time there was a drought (10 million). It would be wise then for those hit by drought to declare themselves religious and take a year off next year.

The Chief Rabbinate has successfully  pushed forward an absurd and costly bill regardless of how hard it hits the people and quite frankly more accountability and responsibility should be taken to prevent unnecessary additions to the budget when in times of financial constraints.

The typical Israeli household’s monthly budget for food is NIS 2,251 or 16.1% of its total expenditures. The poorest households spend relatively more on food totalling 22.2% of their total budget. They will be most hit by this. Twice. One for the price hikes and another in millions of  shekels of Shmita programming.

If you thought all was lost, that next year we will be poor and militarily defenceless, there is a saving grace. For some.

The rabbis have kindly announced the permission to consume marijuana during the Shmita year as it is grown for medical purposes and not for food. At least the farmers will have something to do all day. They should invite the reservists to join them.

About the Author
Born in NY, raised in London and moved to Israel in 2006/7, Daniel has recently completed his undergraduate degree in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the IDC, Herzliya, specializing in Counter Terrorism and Conflict Resolution. Daniel served in the IDF in Golani 51 during Operation Cast Lead, has worked for the Jewish Agency, IDFWO and is currently an Intern Research Analyst at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism. Daniel is also a fellow of the Leaders for Israel, Public Diplomacy and Leadership Fellowship. Twitter: dmendelsohn99