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Egypt's petty palm embargo

A decision by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to ban all sales of palm fronds to Israel shortly before the Jewish holiday of Sukkot was, at the least, not very neighborly.

October 11, 2011|By Yitzchok Adlerstein

As trade embargoes go, this one probably won't make it into the history books. It won't have much impact on the economy or create shortages of critical goods. But a decision by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to ban all sales of palm fronds to Israel this year was, at the least, not very neighborly.

Wednesday at sundown marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, an autumn celebration of God's providence and bounty. Part of the celebration involves gathering four plants, including a date palm branch or lulav, which is used during a prayer and other parts of a religious service.

For many years, Egyptians and Israelis alike have benefited from the yearly trade in the coveted tree branches. Egypt had an abundance of palm fronds and Israel was happy to pay for them. The arrangement worked so well that Egypt became the world's largest supplier of Sukkot palm branches. Before the surprise announcement of the export ban, which included not only Israel but Jewish communities around the world, it was estimated that Jews would purchase 1.4 million branches from Egypt this season. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that in the past, Egypt supplied about 40% of Israel's Sukkot palms.

The announcement, which came just weeks before the holiday, was timed to leave Jews in the lurch on a holiday in which, historically, Jews used to bring offerings to the temple in Jerusalem on behalf of all the other nations of the world.

In the United States, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) jumped into the fray with an urgent plea to the Egyptians to reconsider. They remained as unmoved as the Sphinx.

But the Grinch, if you'll recall, wasn't able to stop Christmas, and the Egyptians won't be able to stop Sukkot either. Somehow, in the space of just a few days, enough of the sought-after greens were located in Israel, Spain and elsewhere. Now that the frond-buying season is fully upon us, no shortages are being reported.

And Egypt's obstinacy has been a boon for farmers elsewhere in the world. Gus Nunez, a date grower in California and Arizona, isn't complaining. His workers harvested 25,000 to 30,000 fronds, which were snapped up quickly. The only people who lost out in the end are the Egyptian farmers who had counted on the revenue and were denied the opportunity to sell their fronds.

In his letter to Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, Berman wrote: "In light of the recent tensions between Egypt and Israel, there is a widespread perception that the reported ban on lulav exports was imposed for purely political reasons," he wrote. "I sincerely hope this is not the case."

But it's hard to account for this kind of behavior on Egypt's part in any other way. Only hatred and spite could move a government to act so irrationally and counterproductively.

There also may be an element of wanting to deflect the attention of the masses from the growing problems confronting Egypt. A scapegoat is always good for a little distraction, and Israel is a country Egyptians are always happy to blame, as we saw last month when protesters from Tahrir Square launched a violent attack on the Israeli Embassy.

Still, why would Egyptians want to prevent their date farmers from making a little extra money?

Unfortunately, there is more hatred of Jews in the Arab world than there is oil. Hatred is spewed and propagated in mosques, in media and by governments. This hatred and demonizing of Jews is the single greatest obstacle to peace. It makes impossible the kind of trust and confidence that is essential to good relations between neighboring nations. And it is a primary reason many Israelis don't believe a Palestinian state is viable.

The Grinch who tried to steal Sukkot has been stopped in his tracks, but so has progress on bringing cooperation, peace and understanding to a troubled region. Maybe the Egyptians scored some points with the masses. Peace? Bah! Humbug!

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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