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More on My Lettuce Eating Habits
and on the True Story of the Demise of Gush Katif

My recent article on Gush Katif lettuce brought in a mixed bag of comments. I actually expected more; I'm guessing more is still to come.

I found some of the messages I received quite revealing. I purposely didn't name any people or companies in my original article, mainly because I do not know who all the players are [were] and what is their relationship to one another or to the growers, and I didn't want to offend the innocent. Even today, where there seem to be many more players in the marketplace, I have no clue if these are a lot of different companies or just a few, trading under different names. Either way it doesn't matter to me for the purposes of this narrative.

What really does matter is that I am certain there was collusion at various levels within the Gush Katif hierarchy, and that people were given or at least promised pay-offs for their support. Yes, some of this is deduction, but I did see ample evidence of things that did happen. I guess, but how can one be certain -- maybe it's wishful thinking and my desire to find inherent goodness in mankind -- that many of these "people" didn't realise the full suffering the rank and file Gush residents would suffer as a result of their treachery. And many of these former residents continue to suffer even today, years later.

Rabbi Wolper likes to say that all of those, politicians, army and police, who were involved in exiling the Jews from Gaza, are all, one by one, being punished from above. That may be true -- and there many examples. But those, whom the Israeli police like to refer as the levanim -- the "white ones" -- who were involved in aiding the expulsion from within, seem to be moving up in the government and semi-government hierarchies, rewards for services rendered.

Bravo Menachem!

Kol HaCavod for calling a lettuce a lettuce.

For six years now, I've been crying out at the misnomer of this lettuce which I have been buying & consuming up to now.

However, if chemicals are indeed the way insects are being eliminated, I want nothing further to do with it. (I might mention that I always soak the lettuce thoroughly before drying & using it).

Also, you brought up a subject I've asked umpteen times: why can't we procure iceberg here? Do you know if it is available anywhere?

I'm forwarding your excellent, timely piece to the English-speaking/understanding people among from Gush Katif -- the deportees.

Is there any way this same piece could be produced in Ivrit? After all, I do believe there are many Zionist datiim out there who wouldn't want to be part of a dishonest, premeditated "deal" & who probably would also discontinue buying the chemical lettuce.

The above note quite speaks for itself. I'll just add, as I remember it, that while the "original" lettuce did not require washing, the produce I saw in the supermarket last week does suggest a good wash "in soapy water" as a precaution. So what have we gained.

I also pointed out to this correspondent that iceberg lettuce has been available in Israel for a number of years, usually as a whole, round head of lettuce. I seem to remember when I checked a few years ago that the icebergs were grown in the Haifa area. Recently I saw it originating from the Eshkol area [adjacent to Gush Katif to the east], now chopped into small pieces, packed into airtight bags, and marked "well washed and no need to clean".

This seems to be the "new" method, namely the lettuce [and cabbage] is chopped into rather small pieces, then soaked in an unspecified chemical. Could that be just pure H20? Or a perhaps stronger, unspecified solvent?

I understand some of the halakhic implications here. If one eats an "entire" insect, no matter how small, one has transgressed five Torah prohibitions. However if you eat a piece, even a big piece, of most of one animal but not the whole, you only transgress one prohibition. When shredding and chopping my lettuce and cabbage, I am also chopping up any invaders. So, should any critter have outsmarted the growers, or the washers and packers, I have reduced the potential severity of my transgression by four-fifths. And I imagine, without being a chemist or a food technician, that it is easier to dissolve, given the appropriate solvent, a small stuck-on animal part than a larger, whole one. And, in the old days, if it is so small that it is not visible to the naked eye, it is as if it is not there at all. Today, our ultra-orthodox friends, in an attempt to reveal their reverence and piety, like to check everything with a magnifying device, adding a new layer of stringency to hundreds of years of accepted tradition.

I remember immediately after the "gerush" [expulsion] someone told me to be careful about which lettuce etc I bought. They told me that there were a lot of imitations around, people trying to cash in on the famous "Gush Katif" methods, as the article states, but the original, called "Khasalat" [sic], was available, and I should tell the supermarket manager and insist on the original. The assumption was that these salad greens were still being grown by the GK farmers, who had managed to move some of the greenhouses before the destruction, and they would still get the profits. Of course, I had no way of checking this out and I accepted it at the time as fact. I do know of two cases personally in which the farmers were able to continue their businesses after the gerush. One was from Ganei Tal; he set up his greenhouses outside the Gush before the gerush (saw the handwriting on the wall, I suppose. Less faith? Less naive? Depends how you look at it.) And potato farmers (I think in Atzmona) were already renting land outside the Gush (from a moshav nearby, established for the farmers that were kicked out of Sinai) before the destruction, so they also were able to just continue afterwards.

Interesting. I really don't know how many farmers did see the "handwriting on the wall", but it seems most did not. Were they blinded by their ideology, their belief systems or were they misled by their political and commercial leadership? Were most of these leadership similarly blind to the emerging reality?

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The following is a letter I received, purportedly from a former resident of K'far Darom, and an employee of one of the Gush Katif distributors.

Since 1996, I have been working for Hasalat/Alei-Katif, the original grower of insect-free vegetables in Gush Katif. For 12 years, my family and I lived in K'far Darom where Hasalat/Alei-Katif was based. I am not a spokesman for the company. I would simply like to counter the many groundless assertions, bordering upon "lashon hara" contained in your article.

Our correspondent says that "Hasalat/Alei-Katif [was] the original "grower" of insect-free vegetables in Gush Katif". Later on we"ll see he differentiates between the growers and his company, the distributors.

I don't remember exactly when the insect free lettuce was first produced -- I couldn't find it on the web either -- but from memory it was well before my correspondent's connection with the Gush distributor. I am fairly certain that the "big promise" when the product was first announced was that there was now a method for producing bug-free green leaf vegetables without the necessitating noxious chemicals. If they were using pesticides, then what was the big deal with their "new" product?

At the time the term "organic" was not yet mainstream, and even today, organic growers do use some non-noxious, natural substances which help, in conjunction with other methods, keep predators at bay. That said, Gush Katif did put Israeli organic produce onto the world map, as it did with cherry tomatoes amongst other agricultural products. A lot of the produce from the Gush was indeed certified organic. Most of this was exported to Europe. In fact, Gush Katif was responsible for some 20% of Israel's agricultural exports. Again I don't know the intricacies, but my impression from talking to growers was that the European-bound produce was sent directly by the growers and not by the local distributors. This direct action incurred the ire of the monopoly Israeli agricultural export concern.

(1) There was no single monolithic "Gush Katif distributor," scheming to make a quick buck on the misfortunes of others. Indeed, there were a number of companies that entered the market after our company began to grow and sell kosher, insect-free green leafy vegetables. Some of the companies and their growers were in Gush Katif, some weren't. The competition between the companies was and is vigorous.

It's hard at this point in time to know all the facts. Others may have jumped into the fray in view of the Gush Katif growers' success, but because of the Gush Katif eponym, it was difficult to break into the market, and difficult to convince the ultra-orthodox rabbis to support an alternate source or brand. I am unaware of what my correspondent seems to be claiming, that multiple companies represented the Katif farmers in the local market. I believe this largely occurred after the expulsion.

And I don't believe I made a claim that the distributor was just "making a quick buck". I'm certain they worked very hard to establish their product in the market, and to then maintain its market position. Their problems started when the insects outsmarted the growers, and became a crescendo approaching the expulsion of the farmers.

(2) Our company never "went behind the backs of [our] farmers and prepared the way for [ourselves] to continue [our] lucrative trade." From day one, Hasalat/Alei-Katif, worked hand-in-hand with the farmers, developing growing methods, organizing bulk purchases of raw materials, packaging and marketing the final products. When the destruction of Gush Katif seemed imminent, our company quietly helped farmers plan their future agricultural endeavors, even as we busied ourselves with plans to keep the company going. The management never once lost sight of the responsibility they felt towards the employees and farmers who relied upon Hasalat/Alei-Katif for their livelihoods.

I am certain the first part of the above statement was true. Of course the distributor "worked hand-in-hand with the farmers, developing growing methods, organizing bulk purchases of raw materials, packaging and marketing the final products". Who would expect otherwise. I thought that perhaps the growers were the owners of the distribution entity. A co-operative would be the most ideal solution. That way no individual farmer would be left on the side-line. Everyone has the same interest in success. But the implication above is that this was not the case. Who owned the distribution companies? From my correspondent, it sounds like it wasn't the farmers.

Our correspondent claims that "our company quietly helped farmers plan their future agricultural endeavors". If so, why weren't all of the farmers set up on new farms? Why was this done quietly? To me quietly implies collusion. If the Gush was lost in the company's eyes, then say so, openly and publicly. This could have saved a lot of heartache. Were all the farmers included in this quiet approach?

(3) Our products are not organic and were never marketed as such. They do, however, undergo constant and rigorous inspection by independent, outside laboratories to ensure that the produce is well within healthy, safe, legal limits. Because our produce is exported to the United States and the European Union whose standards are often more stringent than Israel's, as well as to supermarket chains whose standards are often stricter than those of the government, we are especially careful in this regard.

I think I have already answered the non organic claim above. I would add that one of the requirements for organic produce is a certain distance from non organic produce. Insecticides spread easily in a sea breeze. How were the organic and non organic kept adequately apart?

I do note what you imply above, that no organic vegetables are coming from the current [post-Gush] producers -- and I must admit I haven't seen any marketed locally.

It's nice to know that Israel allows more noxious chemicals on produce than does Europe or the U.S. But I would hazard a guess that the produce contains [close to] what is allowed by law. In addition to the insecticides, we need to include the solvents used to clean off the residual after chopping insect pieces. I must say I am pleased to hear from you that Israeli supermarket chains are "often stricter than . . . the government [criterion]".

(4) During the sabbatical year, we offered our customers a number of halakhically acceptable alternatives. We offered produce grown on tables above ground. This is seen by many as the best option, as it avoids the question of whether produce grown by non-Jews is exempt from the laws of the sabbatical year. However, there are some communities that are suspicious of this method, and prefer to buy produce grown on land owned by non-Jews. For these customers, we offered produce grown on land owned by non-Jews. Our packaging indicated the status of the product therein; and produce grown on non-Jewish land was labelled "Non-Jewish Produce" with a warning that followers of the Hazon Ish should treat the produce with the same care that one would treat other sabbatical year produce. This was not a marketing ploy; it was a labelling requirement demanded by our customers and their rabbis who followed the rulings of the Hazon Ish.

Well I guess we just differ on what we may call "halakhically acceptable alternatives", at least in a philosophical sense. I for one do not choose to live against my belief system. Supporting the brothers of those who replaced you in Gush Katif perhaps gives you a nice warm feeling inside. But not me. There are many other choices to purchasing the produce of non-Jews living in Israel. You have stated one, but there are others. For some reason I have not yet fathomed, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis always lean to the non-Jewish solution.

Based on my perhaps limited observances during the last sabbatical year, the first since the fall of the Gush, the largest offering was not "produce grown on tables above ground" which I naively expected it to be. And I commend your exquisite use of language -- what a euphemism -- "some communities that are suspicious of this method"! Suspicious?

"It was a labelling requirement demanded by our customers and their rabbis who followed the rulings of the Hazon Ish". I'm sorry but this is simply untrue. Everyone who lives in Bnei Brak knows full well that the custom there is to treat non-Jewish produce with the sanctity of the seventh year. And all haredim elsewhere know they don't have to, many perhaps don't even know the position of the Hazon Ish. They don't need to know, as the customs are well established now after many decades. Labelling a product as "non--Jewish farmers" or whatever you like is sufficient for each of these two groups to know what they have do with their leftovers. The Hazon Ish labelling is deceiving, and I don't recall it having been used by anyone during previous sabbatical years.

And the truth is that for the first part of the year, all produce was labelled "grown by non-Jews". It was only later in the year that produce appeared with labelling stating, "seventh year holy according to the opinion of the Hazon Ish", with no mention as to the nature of the grower!

To sum up, and so that you don't think it's just me that is making these claims, I found a very interesting article on our topic. I quote one paragraph below -- you can follow the link if you wish.

"In honor of Passover, the rabbinate sent 22 brands of 'bug-free' lettuce and celery to a laboratory to check for insects. Unfortunately they did not publish the laboratory results, only this recommendation:

  • 4 types 'should be soaked in soapy water as directed on the package'
  • 11 types 'must be soaked in soapy water'
  • 7 types 'must be soaked in soapy water and checked leaf by leaf'"

The above site does not name the companies. But another does. Here they are, as of Pesach 2010. I wonder if these are in any way related to one another:

Should soak in soapy water and follow instructions on package:
    Birkat Katif
    Cohen Mann Farm
    Alei Habesor

Must be soaked in soapy water before use:
    Glatt Alim
    Yevulei HaNegev
    Yarok mehaKfar
    Yarok min HaTeva
    Meitav Haaretz
    Marina Glatt
    Alei Bodek
    Alim Yerukim
    Alim Nekiim
    Katif BaGolan
    Katif Haaretz HaTova

Soak in soapy water and check each leaf separately again the sun:
    Birkat David
    Y. Yevulei Katif
    Yevulei Lachish
    YKM (Yerek Katif Mehadrin)
    MS Katif
    Alei Hasharon
    Tenuvot Haaretz

The Rabbinate states that none of the above should be taken to mean that any of the companies listed should be avoided.

I was at the local supermarket earlier day. Two observations: First, the "bugless" romaine lettuce I picked up was labelled "Arab Lettuce" -- not in reference to the grower, but rather to the type of lettuce within. And secondly, I bought a package of super clean, supposedly bug-free silverbeet for my evening stir-fry. Badatz and other excellent rabbinic certifications. And four big navy and white stickers all around the bag saying, "This product MUST washed before use". Thanks for the warning chaps!

Postscript, two weeks on: I just saw a poster, reminding people, around Yom Kippur time, to remember their expelled brothers and sisters from Gush Katif. One of the statistics quoted on the notice -- I have no way of verifying the accuracy of the statement -- is that "only 49 of the 380 farmers of Gush Katif have received alternate farming land".

My correspondent sent the following reply to this post. I have decided not to comment. I believe I've made the point which I wanted.

Menachem Kuchar, 20th September, 2011    

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