Herzog, Stern condemn IDF rabbinate for using imported produce during sabbatical

Military rabbinate says only using small amount of non-Israel fruits and vegetables.

September 21, 2014 18:02
3 minute read.
farmer with grapes

farmer with grapes . (photo credit: courtesy)


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The supply of fruit and vegetables to the IDF during the upcoming shmita, or sabbatical, year, continued to generate political waves on Sunday, with head of the opposition and Labor Party chairman MK Isaac Herzog heavily criticizing a decision by the IDF Rabbinate to use imported produce instead of fruit and vegetables produced in Israel under a leniency of Jewish law called heter mechira.

The military rabbinate insisted, however, that it would be utilizing heter mechira produce and would import only a small amount of fruit and vegetables.

The heter mechira is a leniency within Jewish law whereby agricultural land is temporarily sold to a non-Jew, thereby allowing fruit and vegetables to be grown and consumed in the sabbatical year, despite the general prohibitions on working the land in this year laid out by Jewish law.

Heter mechira is a cornerstone of the national-religious community’s Zionist ideology since it allowed Jewish farmers and agricultural settlements in the pre-state period to remain financially viable and is still critical today for this purpose.

Rabbinic opinion in the haredi world largely opposes the heter mechira system, however, and haredi rabbis insist that the land be allowed to lie fallow, and that produce from other sources be utilized in order to abide by the laws of the sabbatical year.

According to the IDF military rabbinate, although it has decided not to use heter mechira produce for the first half of the year, it will be using it for the second half of the year.

The military rabbinate said that in the first half of the year it would use a variety of solutions other than heter mechira, which are nevertheless derived from Israeli producers but still conform to Jewish law guidelines on the sabbatical year.

This, it said, would promote unity in the army by allowing haredi soldiers serving in the army, who do not eat heter mechira produce, to eat together with their non-haredi comrades.

Methods for producing Israeli, non-heter mechira fruit and vegetables include using produce grown the year before the shmita that is easy to store without rotting, such as potatoes and carrots; the otzar beit din system whereby a local rabbinical court acts as a proxy for the farmer to harvest fruit and vegetables that were already growing before the sabbatical year and are only harvested after it begins.

These supplies generally run out after the first six months of the sabbatical year, however, and the military rabbinate said that it fully intends to use produce from the heter mechira system after this period.

Haredi soldiers will then be provided with prepared meals produced outside of IDF kitchens along with imported vegetables.

The IDF Rabbinate insisted that even in the first half of the sabbatical year, it would use “Jewish produce alone,” and would use “non-Jewish” produce or imported produce only if there is a shortage from one of the other Jewish sources.

But Herzog called the decision “a severe blow to Israeli agriculture.”

In a letter to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Herzog said that the IDF had always relied on heter mechira and called on him to intervene.

“This type of decision needs to be based on social and economic perspectives, the good of Israeli society, preference for local produce and the advancement of Israeli agriculture,” Herzog wrote in his letter to Ya’alon.

He added that if the decision is not altered, the Labor Party would fight against it “through all parliamentary and public means.”

In addition to Herzog, MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua also heavily criticized the decision, calling it “another stage in the surrender of the national-religious community to the haredi framework that does not believe in the values of ‘Torah va’Avoda’ [Torah and labor, an early slogan of the religious Zionist movement].”

He continued, saying that the decision amounts to a “denial of our ability to establish an independent Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel,” and is based on “attitudes from the Jewish exile that do not take into account that we have returned to our land in order to establish a Jewish state which includes proud workers of the land.”

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