Clifford M. J. Felig

The looming Jewish boycott of Israel

Jews of the Diaspora, eat your fruit and veggies, even if they were grown in Israel during the Sabbatical year

There has been a lot of publicity in recent months about the BDS movement directed against Israel – organized groups calling for a boycott of Israeli products, universities, and sometimes even individuals, as a means of protesting Israel policies. Israelis and supporters of Israel of all political stripes have opposed this movement, as unfairly singling out Israel for criticism. The magnitude of the threat that Israelis see from this movement was highlighted in the recent speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the annual AIPAC convention in Washington. Netanyahu referred to the movement as anti-Semitic, and said that “the boycotters should be boycotted.”

Many supporters of Israel will be surprised to learn, however, that another “boycott” of Israeli agricultural products will begin in approximately six months, this time led by Jewish groups who have traditionally served as the backbone for Israeli support in the Diaspora. This Jewish boycott is part of the Shmittah, or sabbatical year.

During this period, many kosher certification organizations outside of Israel, upon whom Israeli agricultural producers depend for marketing kosher products such as wines and fresh produce, will refuse to extend their certification to Israeli products.

Shmittah is a Biblical commandment to rest the fields on every seventh year and cease organized harvesting or benefiting from produce. The law appears several times in the Torah:

You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard” (Leviticus, 25:3-4).

As later interpreted by the Rabbis, Shmittah includes a number of prohibitions, including working the soil, engaging in commerce with fruits and vegetables that grow during the seventh year, and exporting these products from the Land of Israel. The Shmittah commandments affect only produce grown in the Land of Israel, and the next Shmittah will begin this year on Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.

Throughout most of the centuries following the end of the Second Temple era, as Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel dwindled, the laws of Shmittah did not have much relevance for most Jews. Very few Jews lived in Israel, and those who did generally did not engage in agriculture. Jews continued to keep track of the Shmittah years on their calendar, and studied the laws applicable to the Shmittah year, but the laws themselves had little practical effect on their lives.

This situation changed dramatically when the Zionist movement took hold in the late nineteenth century and Jewish settlers began arriving in Palestine. Their commercial activity tended to focus on agriculture, particularly vineyards and winemaking, and the Shmittah year suddenly became very relevant.

In 1889, as the first Shmittah year since the Jewish return to Palestine was approaching, Jewish settlers sought a way to address the Shmittah restrictions. These communities were on very weak financial footing, and ceasing their operations for an entire year would have endangered their continued existence. They appealed to various rabbis, and a solution was proposed based on a sixteenth-century ruling by Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, or Code of Jewish Law, that the Shmittah restrictions do not apply to land in Israel owned by non-Jews.

Accordingly, the rabbis suggested a legal loophole whereby the Jewish settlers would sell their land to non-Jews for the duration of the Shmittah year, and thereby exempt the land from the Shmittah restrictions. In fact, this was not a new idea – a Rabbi named Mordechai Rubio had proposed a similar solution for a Jew living in Hebron in the late eighteenth century. The matter was brought before Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, a Lithuanian scholar and one of the leading rulers of his day on matters of Jewish law, and he gave his endorsement to the plan. The sale of the land for purposes of exempting it from the Shmittah restrictions became known as the Heter Mekhira, or Sale Exemption.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which was created in 1921 during the British Mandate era, endorsed the Heter Mekhira under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Since then, the Chief Rabbinate has continued to implement the Heter Mekhira every seven years. While the economic situation of Jews in the Land of Israel has improved significantly since the original Rabbinic ruling in 1889, modern agriculture cannot survive under conditions requiring it to halt production for one in every seven years. Rabbis who identify with the religious Zionist movement, in particular, have been sensitive to the needs of Israeli farmers and continue to endorse the Heter Mekhira. The לosher certification bodies of nearly all Israeli municipalities accept agricultural produce grown in the seventh year on the basis of the Heter Mekhira, as does the Chief Rabbinate.

Who doesn’t support the Heter Mekhira? Not surprisingly, non-Zionist rabbis in Israel, identified with the Haredi community, have generally been skeptical about the validity of the land sale as a way to avoid the Shmittah restrictions. In addition, and more surprisingly, some of the leading Kosher certification organizations in the Diaspora, including many who claim to be strongly supportive of Israel on other matters, have also joined in this opposition. One wonders why these Diaspora rabbis have taken such an intransigent stand in direct opposition to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate – especially in light of the deference that Diaspora rabbis have shown to the Chief Rabbinate on other issues, such as conversions. Ironically, other Shmittah prohibitions that are not limited to residents of the land of Israel, such as the requirement to forgive debts and loans that are outstanding in the seventh year, have been worked around with legal fictions accepted universally by rabbis in Israel and the Diaspora.

Unless the Rabbis change their views in the next few months, when the Shmittah year starts this coming September, the mainstream Diaspora kosher certification organizations, and the observant Jews who rely on their rulings, will effectively begin a 12-month boycott of Israeli agricultural products. While this boycott is not motivated by malice towards Israel – the results are the same as the BDS-inspired boycott. Products grown by Jews in Israel, including wines made from grapes harvested during the Shmittah year, will be off-limits on many Jewish tables and in their synagogues, all due to the failure of the leading Diaspora rabbis to adopt the view of the Israeli Rabbinate on this key issue.

With six months to go until the beginning of the Shmittah year, now is the time for Jewish leaders, and particularly those rabbis who identify with the Zionist cause, to speak out in support of Israeli agriculture and endorse the Kosher status of Israeli products grown in the Shmittah year. More than 20 percent of Israeli agricultural products are designed for export, and the loss of these markets would deal a fatal blow to many Israeli producers. Diaspora Jews, and their leaders, can show their support for this key Israeli economic sector by giving their full support to the Heter Mekhira.

About the Author
Clifford M. J. Felig is an attorney who practices law in Israel.
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