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Why I don't Eat Lettuce
or The True Story of the Demise of Gush Katif

My friends are making sheva brachoth tomorrow night for the son of one of our number who was married yesterday. As is our custom, each participant brings along a portion of the meal. Jill's assignment tomorrow is to provide enough green salad for forty people. "But make sure you buy Gush Katif lettuce [and other salad vegetables] because the 'other side' considers themselves to be very religious and won't eat 'ordinary' Jewish grown Israeli vegetables.

First I must say I greatly detest this "more religious than thou" attitude in Judaism especially within the so-called religious-zionist community into which they count themselves (I am not so sure I wish to be in that number).

Second I have refused for a number of years now to buy so-called Gush Katif lettuce. Why so-called? Because more than six years have now passed since any Jewish grown produce has emerged from Gush Katif. A once thriving and fabulously successful industry, supplying vegetables to the local market and for export, was abruptly shut down, in what many still seem to believe overnight, by the Ariel Sharon Likud-led government in 2005. Entire Jewish communities and their industries were ploughed into the ground by the Jewish army.

Near Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif

What is the history of Gush Katif lettuce? Some of what I say in my answer here is based on speculation and interpolation. I would be happy for anyone to supply me with further information on this topic.

Following Menachem Begin's destruction of the Jewish towns and villages of Sinai, many of the farmers decided to remain near the area of their former homes, moving a little to the north, to Gaza. Encouraged by the same Begin Likud government, these initial settlers were joined over the years by many new residents, both from Israel and from abroad. They succeeded in establishing a number of government approved and financed settlements, nearly all subsisting on agriculture, specifically growing greenhouse market vegetables. The academic community proclaimed it would never work; the local Arabs called them "crazy Jews", because in all the years they had lived there, they were unsuccessful in growing very much. But the Jews of the Katif Bloc proved everyone wrong, and their bank balances provided the strongest confirmation.

Buoyed by their many successes, the farmers embarked on a ground-breaking project: insect-free vegetables. Insects are a problem in Jewish practice; eating one whole insect may be as 'bad' as eating five portions of pork. The farmers combined a number of techniques, including, I believe, double greenhouse doors, growing above the ground and other techniques of which I am unaware. I remember my rabbi, who also has a scientific background, excitedly announcing to our class that "we have outsmarted the bugs!"

Lettuce, especially romaine lettuce, while very popular in Israel -- I have never understood why romaine, as iceberg lettuce is cleaner, sweeter and crisper -- has always been considered problematic because insects are difficult to detect within its folds and dark colouring. Of course insects have always been a problem to Jews in their vegetables. But it would seem European Jews did not know of the humble lettuce. This is evidenced by the fact that most European [Ashkenazi] Jews consume the almost impossible to eat [in any quantity] horseradish for their Passover bitter herbs. But horseradish is the fourth [and last] preference mentioned in the Talmud's list of species to be used for bitter herbs, the first being lettuce.

And what did pious Jews do prior to the development of new bug-free growing techniques? They checked their food before preparation or eating. They seemed satisfied with this solution during the time of the Talmud, during the long diaspora, and in Israel too for many years.

But the new Gush Katif lettuce was an immediate success in Israel, especially amongst the haredi, so-called ultra-orthodox Jews. We live in a modern age, where meat comes in sanitised packages -- various fowl and animal parts bearing no relationship to the animal that once was. No one any longer soaks and salts their meat at home to kasher out the blood; a minority bake challot at home for shabbat. So too, no one wants to waste time checking their vegetables for creepy crawlies. Modern and ultra orthodoxy no longer have any spare time for such menial tasks.

Unfortunately, as my rabbi reported a couple of years later, "the bugs are smarter than the humans". Yes, all the natural techniques, while reducing the incidence of infestation, were unable to fully eliminate it. But there was by now a market, a big and growing market, expanding into export, out there, a market that demanded insect-free lettuce. [By this time lettuce had became collective name for all green vegetables, including cabbage, celery, Brussels sprouts and more.]

So how does one keep insects at bay today? With chemicals of course. Sure, Gush Katif was also known for it's organic produce, and there were farmers who continued to produce for the organic market, but I believe the great majority of the produce was non-organic, very non-organic.

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So, following that introduction, why do I not buy Gush Katif lettuce?

The first point is that of course, following Sharon's destruction, there is no Jewish produce from Gush Katif. But the marketing company, started in the bloc, by the time of the expulsion no longer needed the bloc's continued existence to service their large and growing market. Perhaps, had the ultra-orthodox cared about their fellow Jews in the Gush being thrown out of their houses and off their land, many of the former residents still suffering at the time of this writing, history could have been different. But the bulk of the haredim couldn't have cared less about the largely orthodox, though not ultra-orthodox, folk in the Gush. Katif's yeshivas, centres of high talmudic learning, were of no interest to most haredim. Their sole concern, like that of any addict, was continuing to be fed their insatiable appetite for holy lettuce. And the distributors, as opposed perhaps to the individual farmers, knew this very well. I have no evidence to support the claim, but based on my astute observaations, there was, not even for a day, a let-up in the supply of insect-free vegetables as the Gush fell into the rubble. The farmers were exiled, leaving behind fully functioning greenhouses, but the distributors, it seems, had already prepared other farmers, outside of the Gush, to continue supplying their lucrative markets. Had they made a deal with the government? Did they have information about the future, which they withheld from the Katif locals? Or was the writing so clear on the wall that only blind ideologues could choose to ignore the inevitable?

Evidence exists of collusion between some of the Gush Katif leaders and the government: the cynical use of a prayer meeting to quickly clear Neve Dekalim, the action of a so-called leading Zionist rabbi in Kfar Darom, the quick exit to a new location of one of the local yeshivot, are well known to some, though largely ignored, even by the religious-zionist community who accepted the expulsion as the will of their god -- I say their god, because they, like the unltra-orthodox, have cast the Almighty into their own image.

An ideological blindness prevailed amongst many in the Gush during those last days, both amongst the veteran residents as well as amongst many of their supporters who had streamed into the Gush over the weeks and months preceeding the final demise. Unfortunately this total lack of foresight was fuelled by some leading clergy and by some of those who were assumed to be the faithful leaders of the settlement movement. In the last few days of the Gush, people begged the farmers to use their tractors to plough up the Gush roads, in effort to, dare I say this, do what Roosevelt refused to do in Europe, to prevent the government-sent buses from moving around the Katif roads, rounding up Jews for transportation into hotel camps inside Israel-proper. Deaf to all pleas, not even one farmer raised his shuffle, each apparently believing divine intervention would save their livelihoods and their homes at the twelfth hour.

At that point of frustration I left the Gush, never to return. Less than a week later, these wonderful, God-fearing and believing farmers were homeless, mortgages still to pay, no land to work, unemployed and many unemployable, their markets grabbed up by greedy farmers from other parts of Israel, who were all the time awaiting in the wings.

I note that much of the insect-free salad vegetables available today is grown in the sandy soil of the Eshkol region, adjacent to the former Gush Katif. A number of companies are packaging vegetables from this area, though it is not easy to determine whether these are straw companies or there is now real competition in the bug-free market. All of these brands seem to display the Badatz Eida Haredith ultra orthodox kosher approbation as well as that of the local rabbinate (as required by law). Even a number of years after the fall of the Gush I noticed approbations from former Gush rabbis, who by now held no official state rabbinic posts, their region of administration having been removed from the map of Israel by the Israeli government. Of course using [ex=]Gush rabbis was a "neat" and legal way of mentioning "Gush Katif" on the packaging.

Every seventh year, during the Sh'mitta or sabbatical year, it is forbidden, by Torah injunction, to work land in Israel. I won't here go into rabbinic solutions for feeding a country of over six million people during this fallow year, but I will say there are a number of opinions on what is permitted and not permitted.

Fruit and vegetables, produced in one of the permitted fashions during this year, are imbued with a special status known as k'dushath sh'vi'ith, the holiness of the seventh. With this holiness comes special rules on how the produce may be consumed.

There is an debate, going back as far as the mishna, on whether the produce of a non-Jew bears this intrinsic holiness or whether it is equivalent to imported produce from outside of Israel. Everyone agrees that a non-Jew may farm his own land in Israel. Many hold that his produce has no holiness what-so-ever. Thus one of the solutions to allow the continuation of farming is to sell land to a non-Jew for the entire year. Others, like the Hazon Ish, believe that even produce grown by a gentile within the Land of Israel must be tithed and retains the same holiness as if it were grown by a Jew in Israel. The haredim do not accept as valid a "temporary sale of land to non-Jews. Not worrying about dirt and disease, nor being fooled by local Arabs who have been known to supplement Jewish produce with their own, the haredim love to buy Arab produce during the seventh year. Those living in Bnei Brak follow the Hazon Ish's ruling regarding the holiness of the non-Jewish produce of the seventh year, whereas those in other parts of the country do not treat the produce as holy in any way.

Three years ago, in the first shmitta since the destruction, the so-called Gush Katif distributors did not want to lose their, by now, even more lucrative insect-free, chemical laden industry during the fallow year. Apparently they taught some Arabs their farming methods, marking the packaging with the words, "Non-Jewish Produce". The haredim understood this meant Arab and bug-free at the same time, so they were happy to continue their purchasing customs. However, the religious-zionist community was not to keen to purchase Arab produce, preferring other, perhaps more difficult and expensive, solutions to the shmitta.

How to maintain a hold on both markets? The distributors, or perhaps their advertising agents, hit on a brilliant marketing ploy -- labelling the produce as "seventh year holy according to the opinion of the Hazon Ish". In other words, people who do not understand the intricacies of the Hazon Ish's position on the status of non-Jewish produce, were purposely misled into believing that the produce was proably Jewish, grown within allowable parameters, and bug-free at the same time. After all there was long list of rabbinic approbations of all colours on the packages. The haredim, who purposely didn't want Jewish produce during this year, knew how to read the coded language.

In summary, there are three reasons I will not buy what has become to be known as Gush Katif lettuce, though the words "Gush Katif" do not appear on the wrapping:

  1. I believe, though I have no proof, that the Gush Katif distributor went behind the backs of their farmers and prepared the way for themselves to continue their lucrative trade,
  2. I believe their produce is as far away from organic as is feasibly possible, and probably just within the allowable legal limits of contamination, and
  3. I believe the distributor was dishonest in his marketing during the last sabbatical year.

While there was an obvious monopoly on the "Gush Katif" name as long as that place existed outside of combined imaginations, there cannot be a monopoly on insect-free veggies produced elsewhere. Other companies may have jumped into the bug-free fray to accompany the original Gush-based concern in the marketplace. But, like "hoover", everyone loves the Gush Katif eponym.

So tonight, don't expect to see me eating the lettuce salad, even if it was prepared by my wife.

Postscript: In response to a number of correspondents, I wrote a follow-up piece to this original article.

Menachem Kuchar, 5th September, 2011    

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