The orange is the icon probably most widely associated with Israel. Years ago, as director of the British Israel Chamber of Commerce, my job was to approach British businessmen and encourage them to trade with Israel.
When asked what they knew about the country, they would inevitably reply, “They sell oranges and have a first-class army.” A visitor to Israel in those early years asked a tour guide friend of mine what they did with all the oranges. He replied, “We eat what we can and we can what we can’t.”
Oranges are not indigenous to the Middle East. The sweet variety came from China, brought to Portugal by explorer Vasco De Gama and then on to the Holy Land.
The original citrus plantations were run by wealthy Arab landowners, and by 1845, exports numbered 200,000 oranges. In 1850, philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore bought plots of land and planted orange groves, and 35 years later, Baron Edmond de Rothschild planted further orchards in developing agricultural settlements such as Petah Tikva.
From these early beginnings, the production of oranges developed until it became one of Israel’s main exports, superseded only in recent years by high technology.
During the British Mandate period, oranges featured in a courageous and tragic event. Two young Jewish fighters, Meir Feinstein, 19, and Moshe Barazani, 20, were due to be hanged by the British forces on April 21, 1947.
Explosives were smuggled into the Central Jerusalem Prison where they were being detained. The other prisoners made hand grenades, which were then concealed in hollowed-out oranges.
The boys’ intention was to blow themselves up dramatically next to the hangman’s noose. At the last minute, however, they had to change their plans, as the prison rabbi stated that he intended to stand next to the boys while they awaited execution so that the last face they saw on earth would be a friendly one. As such, while in their cell, the boys gave a Bible to their British guard, Thomas Goodwin, who had been kind to them, and asked him to go outside and pray for them.
He went outside. A few minutes later, a huge explosion rocked the prison; the boys died, blowing themselves up in their cell.
Inside the Bible they had given Goodwin was a note. Part of it read: “Remember that we stood with dignity and marched with honor. It is better to die with a weapon in your hands than with hands raised in surrender.”
In 2008, Goodwin’s grandson came to Jerusalem, met with Feinstein’s family and returned the Bible to them.
The prison in question was originally a hostel for Russian women pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. It is located in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, an area containing several buildings of considerable beauty and architectural interest – and where once again, oranges featured. In 1964, the Russian government sold most of the Russian Compound to the Israeli government and were paid in oranges. It was called the “orange deal.” I had heard that it was a box of oranges, but in fact it was a rather large box – at a value of $3.5 million.
In 2012, an agreement was reached to return part of the compound to the Russians. I wonder if the Russians will feel obliged to return any of the oranges.
The writer, who lives in both London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published later this year.