Farmers fear haredi monopoly of fruit and vegetable market ahead of shmita

Farmers Association claims that power struggle could cause a sharp rise in retail produce prices.

wheat field 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
wheat field 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Farmers are concerned that a haredi power struggle to monopolize the fruit and vegetable market in the upcoming shmita [Sabbatical] year could cause growers as much as a NIS 700 million loss and result in a sharp rise in retail produce prices. Yusta Bleier, Chairman of the Farmers Association, said Wednesday that fruit and vegetable growers were "very concerned" about "aggressive marketing tactics" being pursued by certain haredi kosher supervision organizations. "Haredi kosher supervisors are trying to monopolize all the major retail chains," said Bleier, "And many local rabbis are refusing to allow fruits and vegetable that are not under haredi-run kosher supervision to be sold in their towns and cities, even when the majority of residents are not even religious." According to Orthodox Jewish law, in the upcoming shmita year - which begins on Rosh Hashana (September 13) - all farmers in Israel are to observe a complete sabbatical from working their fields. Only absolutely critical labor is permitted, and the fruits grown during the shmita year must be treated as holy. Grapes, apples, oranges and other perennial crops may be grown, but only under certain restrictions. For instance, irrigation is permitted only insomuch as it prevents the death of the trees and the loss of most of the fruit. Any additional watering is prohibited. Also, these fruits cannot be marketed commercially nor can they be exported from the land of Israel. For the purpose of shmita, the land of Israel is not identical to the borders of the modern state, but based on the limits of Jewish settlement over 2,000 years ago. For instance, anything south of Grofit, a town in the southern Negev [Arava] near Eilat, is considered outside the borders of the land of Israel, and anything grown there is exempt from shmita. As opposed to the fruit of trees, crops which are planted annually cannot be grown at all unless they are planted and begin growing before shmita year or are grown during the shmita year inside a greenhouse in a flower pot via hydroponics. These restrictions make it impossible to grow large field crops such as corn, wheat, potatoes, carrots and onions. The restrictions also forbid the farmer to make a profit on his produce. However, in Jewish legal tradition there is a solution to the restrictions of the shmita year. Known as "heiter mechira," which can be loosely translated as "the sale option," the solution entails selling Jewish-owned land in Israel to a non-Jew, preferably a citizen who is pro-Israeli such as a Druze or a patriotic Arab Israeli. Once the land is transferred to the possession of the non-Jew it loses its holiness. As a result, the land can be worked freely, and fruits and vegetables grown on this land carry no special sanctity. Jewish farmers, both secular and religious, rely on heiter mechira as an economically viable halachic solution that enables them to continue to work and market their produce. But haredi rabbinic leadership has traditionally opposed heiter mechira since it was first introduced at the end of the 19th century. The haredi rabbis scoff at the attempt to stage a fake "sale" of the land so as to permit farmers to continue to work as usual during the shmita year. Instead, haredi rabbis demand that all fruits and vegetables be bought from non-Jewish, mostly Arab, farmers inside Israel who have legally registered ownership of their land or from farmers outside Israel. Haredi leaders are also trying to put pressure on the Agriculture Ministry to increase produce imports, which would be a serious blow to local farmers. In previous shmita years, said Bleier, haredi rabbis were concerned solely with providing kosher supervision over fruits and vegetables earmarked for their own followers. "But this shmita year the haredim have become much more aggressive. They are now waging a war against heiter mechira. They are doing everything they can to block the sale of heiter mechira produce. "But we won't let them. If we need to we'll set up our own fruit and vegetable stands outside the supermarket chains and sell our own produce." In several cities local rabbis have announced that they will refuse to allow heiter mechira produce to be sold in their cities. Grocery stores will have to choose between no kosher supervision whatsoever and the stringent, haredi supervision. For instance, the rabbis of Rehovot, Petah Tikva and Herzliya have already announced they will not allow the sale of heiter mechira. Wholesalers in Herzliya have petitioned the Supreme Court to force the local rabbi to allow the sale of heiter mechira. The wholesalers argue that since the majority of Herzliya's residents are not haredi the local rabbi cannot coerce them to accept a stringent haredi kosher supervision. In Bat Yam, Ra'anana, Afula, Kfar Saba and Ashdod the chief rabbis are also opposed to the sale of heiter mechira. In Jerusalem, where there is no chief rabbi, the situation is similar. Only the more stringent kosher operations will be allowed to give supervision. Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger, a senior member of the Shmita Council in the Chief Rabbinate, said that the rabbinate's policy was to allow each local rabbi to decide for himself which kosher supervision to adopt. Rauchverger admitted that this shmita year a concerted effort was made by the rabbinate and its head, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, to reduce to a minimum the use of heiter mechira. In fact, one of the reasons Metzger received haredi support for his appointment as chief rabbi was the promise he gave to oppose heiter mechira. Instead, two rabbis - Avraham Yosef, son of Ovadia Yosef and Ze'ev Weitman, the rabbi of the Tnuva Dairy - were half-heartedly appointed by the chief rabbinate to implement heiter mechira. Bleier said that annual agricultural production in Israel was NIS 7 billion. While last shmita, the haredi market only accounted for about 6-7% of the market for agricultural goods, the demand has grown so that today they represent about 17% of the market, translating into a loss for farmers of about NIS 700m. However, the head of shmita year kosher supervision for the Edah Haredit denied his organization, which is the single largest kosher supervision apparatus catering to the haredi population, has any interest in monopolizing non haredi markets. "We are focusing solely on predominantly haredi areas such as the haredi neighborhoods in Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Modi'in Ilit, Beiter Ilit and Safed." The Edah Haredit source admitted, though, that his competitor, Efrati's Kashrut Le'mehadrin, was pursuing an aggressive campaign to expand his organization's influence beyond the haredi sphere.