Waving a palm frond on Succot may seem like a harmless, albeit slightly strange, way of doing God's will. But an unfolding drama involving an exotic fungus and rumors of bribery and price fixing is threatening to make the fulfillment of the biblical commandment a hefty economic endeavor.
The branches, which normally cost between NIS 20 and NIS 40 each, could end up costing as much as NIS 100, and maybe more.
Palm fronds - lulavim in Hebrew - are used during the seven-day Succot holiday to perform what is written in Leviticus (24, 50): "take... branches of palm trees" together with willow branches, a citron and myrtle branches and "rejoice before the Lord your God."
But according to Meir Mizrahi, head of plants and quarantine in the Agriculture Ministry, the seemingly innocuous branches might be carrying a fungus called Bayud or some other type of pestilence that could potentially wipe out Israel's entire multi-million date industry.
"A few years back, the Bayud killed 10 million majul and barhi date trees," said Mizrahi. "Those are the two most popular trees in Israel." Fear of the Bayud, said Mizrahi, is what prompted him to block all lulav imports from Egypt, the country that supplies most of the local market's half million to 800,000 lulavim.
True, said Mizrahi, Israel has been importing lulavim from El Arish, a town in North Sinai, for the past 40 years. But this year is different; Egyptian Governor of Sinai Ahmed Abed Elchamid Muhammad has prohibited the cutting of lulavim from date trees in Sinai. These are the only lulavim that do not carry Bayud or other pests.
In contrast, lulavim from date trees outside Sinai are the ones that are liable to carry the dreaded Bayud.
As a result, more than 300,000 lulavim, all suspected of coming from date trees growing outside Sinai, are stuck in Egypt. About 120,000 of them are languishing in the heat at the Nitzana border crossing.
But last Thursday, before Mizrahi halted all lulav imports, Avi Belali, a lulav trader who was convicted in January of creating an illegal lulav cartel, and several other traders, managed to import 180,000 lulavim.
Angry importers who were not as lucky as Belali and the others and still have thousands of lulavim stuck in Egypt accused Mizrahi of collaborating with Belali to corner the market.
Jon Menashe-Pur, one of these accusers, has 32,000 lulavim stuck in Egypt and filed a complaint with Rishon Lezion police on Wednesday.
Menashe-Pur has his own history. He was Belali's partner for 17 years and convicted in January along with Belali for forming the cartel. Menashe-Pur claimed Belali bribed Mizrahi.
"How else do you explain the fact that Belali managed to get his lulavim in while everybody else's are stuck in Egypt?" asked Menashe-Pur. In parallel, Menashe-Pur and a group of lulav importers petitioned the High Court on Wednesday to free their lulavim. Many would see a court victory as a kind of Egyptian exodus for their lulavim.
Attorney Ze'ev Datzberg, who is representing the importers, said accusations against Mizrahi are nothing more than rumors. However, Datzberg believes Mizrahi could free the shipment after fumigating the lulavim aggressively.
Mizrahi, a veteran Agriculture Ministry employee, denied all charges of wrongdoing. He said the shipment of 180,000 lulavim that was allowed into Israel had all the proper permits. But these permits, which said the lulavim came from trees inside Sinai, later turned out to be forged.
Mizrahi said he discovered the permits were forged after talking to Egyptian Governor of Sinai Ahmed Abed Elchamid Muhammad. Muhammad assured Mizrahi that he personally prohibited the cutting of lulavim from date trees in Sinai on the grounds it damaged the trees. Only lulavim from outside Sinai were permitted to be exported.
Mizrahi said that fumigating the lulavim would not help.
"You have to know what type of fungi, pests and diseases need to be killed. Otherwise the treatment is ineffective. And it is impossible to discover what the lulav is carrying without knowing where it came from," he said. He also said that checking trees outside Sinai and authorizing them was impossible.
"Extensive research and laboratory tests need to be done before we can determine the type of pestilence likely to be carried by these trees," he said. "We've been trying to work together with Egypt on this matter since last year, but Egypt has been dragging its feet."
Two options remain, according to Mizrahi. First, Jordan and local date growers could fill part of the demand. However, lulavim traders said Jordan is unwilling to cooperate due to the tense political relations resulting from the Lebanese war.
Second, Egypt could be persuaded to allow the cutting of lulavim in Sinai. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon sent a letter to his Egyptian counterpart on Wednesday requesting this; Egypt has not yet responded.
Meanwhile, police are trying to track down the contraband lulavim that may be carrying the Bayud fungus. On Wednesday, police raided homes in Bnei Brak and in Moshav Segula, where Belali lives. Only a few were found.
Traders, importers and the faithful who want to do God's will are all praying for a last-minute solution. In the meantime, rumors of a shortage are already driving prices up.