My Promised Land: III The 1930s – Orange Grove 1936

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism


Ari Shavit


III: The 1930s – Orange Grove 1936

When I read the title of Chapter three, “Orange Grove 1936”, I wondered if the chapter would be a refutation, but from a Zionist critical angle, of the feature-length 2010 film documentary made by an Israeli, Eyal Sivan, “Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork”. His perspective is that of a revisionist or even anti-Zionist. The documentary was shown at many film festivals, including both the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (I saw it at the Bloor Cinema) and the Palestine Film Festival in Toronto.  The documentary purports to tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the history of the Jaffa orange, but the play in the title on the film Clockwork Orange lets any informed person know that it will not be an idyllic pastoral tale of agriculture but a story of conflict and violence, almost exclusively of Jew against Arab.

Chapter three could also be a counter-story to Adam LeBron’s 2007 historical account, City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa published by W.W. Norton. LeBron’s book was a throwback to the nineteenth century and romantic vision of Jewish families and Arab families living side by side in peace and attending one another’s weddings in a beautiful orchard landscape of greater Jaffa. It is a story of Arab and Jewish clans, such as the Chelouche Jews who arrived in Jaffa from Algeria in 1838, an era that ended almost one hundred years later when tension between Arabs and Jews erupted in the 1921 riots in Jaffa and the Jews uprooted themselves and moved to Tel Aviv. The new era of Arab-Jewish conflict replaced the old harmonious, comfortable and gentrified order.

So when I read the chapter I wanted to know how the genesis of the Jaffa orange is told. What characteristics are attributed to that orange? What was its economic history? What structures allowed and facilitated the growth in citriculture in Palestine and then Israel? What was its symbolic history? What role did “Jaffa” as a brand play? What were the key events that triggered significant changes to that history? And what happened to that other Jaffa, the Jaffa that had once been a city of 100,00 and was reduced to a small enclave of Tel Aviv?

And why 1936? It had to be because that was the year of the Arab revolt and the general strike which closed the ports of Jaffa and Haifa for six months. I was wrong about this with respect Chapter Three, but not about my supposition that the chapter would be a counterpoint to both Sivan and LeBron though neither one is referred to in the book. 

Ari begins with the genesis of the Jaffa (Shamouti) orange “discovered (my italics) in the citrus groves of Jaffa” in the mid-nineteenth century. I do not know my history well enough, but the story of the Jaffa orange, I believe, goes back even earlier than 1850, perhaps to much earlier imports from Iran or India or even as descendent of a sweet orange brought from China by Vasco de Gama. In that account, Jaffa orange groves were already plentiful in the 1700s prospering in Jaffa and its environs. Moses Montefiore in the 1830s was already impressed by the orange groves of the Jaffa region, but perhaps these were not the thick skin easily-peeled Jaffa variety.

For Ari, the orange is “large, oval and juicy.” For me, they are large, more round than oval and very sweet but not nearly as juicy as the Valencia orange used for juice. The thick skin of the Jaffa orange makes them excellent for export and is also used to suggest the character of Israelis, though Ari does not trespass on that cliché or that of the more prickly sabra. He does provide a brief account of the expansion of citriculture in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century. By 1935, “one-third of the oranges imported to Great Britain were Jaffa oranges.” (49)

Coterminous with the tale of the Jaffa orange is not the city of Jaffa as portrayed in the film documentary or in LeBron’s account, but the development of Rehovot which discovered the virtues of citrus in the 1920s. Rehovot is located fifteen miles southeast of Jaffa  on 10,600 barren dunams bought from an Ottoman feudal estate by Russian and Polish Jews. When Palestinians tell the tale, the land was already flourishing with citrus groves, though what is left out is their account is that the area given over to citrus groves in 1935 was only 2% of the total land. Further, those groves were worth more than the rest of the land put together. 20% of the population, both Jews and Arabs, 120,000 of 6000,000 altogether, directly or indirectly earned their income from citrus groves.

While not denying that tale, the more standard Zionist narrative is bringing agriculture back to life in barren or dessert lands. Ari’s tale fits into that trope. Further, in a pro-Palestinian tale, Jews from Arab lands lived in peace side-by-side Arabs. In Ari’s tale, Yemeni Jews live side-by-side Ashkenazi Jews in equality and mutual recognition though also with Arabs. What is left out of both stories is the alliance between both the Jewish and the Arab citrus growers in both limiting the development of new groves so as not to expand faster than export markets would permit (a de facto cartel) and in lobbying together to lower custom tariffs in Great Britain for citrus produce from Palestine.  

Further, the unity of Jews in the citrus sector was not all bliss. Jewish citrus growers fought the boycott of Arab labour instigated by the leftists and kibbutzim. The revolutionary Arab leadership in fact worked in an unintended de facto alliance with the kibbutzim and the Jewish labour unions in effectively depriving most of the 5,812 Arab labourers working on Jewish citrus groves of their jobs. If the Arab workers were not sufficiently intimidated by the Arab zealots, they were beaten by Jewish labour pickets at the entry points to citrus groves. But this is not part of Ari’s story.

According to Ari, Rehovot was perfect for citriculture given the red hamra soil with its unique mix of sand, silt and clay that both holds moisture but also drains well and allows air to reach the delicate roots. More technically, as analyzed by both the Weizmann Institute and the Faculty of Agriculture of Hebrew University established in Rehovot, the ratio of humic/fulvic acids at 3:22 is almost ideal. Further, though Ari omits this critical factor, fusarium, a pathogenic fungus ground borne disease that threaten orange trees, is much more easily controlled in such soil. The climate – not excessively hot in summer and rarely very cold in winter – was also ideal. Close to the Jaffa port, the conditions for export were also excellent. With the import of new technology from California minimizing water use, for Ari, “Rehovot was where Western know-how, Arab labor, and laissez-faire economics merged to make the Jaffa orange a world-renowned brand.” (50) What Ari does not say is that already by the 1935, Israeli agriculture was more highly mechanized than American with one tractor per 140 dunams compared to one for 145 in the USA. (In Germany it was 1 tractor for 850 dunams and in France, 1 tractor for 1,000 dunams.) Tractors were just a leading indicator of many other improvements, including cement buildings and much hardier breeds of animals and domestic fowl.

For Palestinians, and in the documentary, more primitive Arab agriculture was even better. (See Mark LeVine (2005) Overthrowing geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948, University of California Press. LeVine argues that a comparative study of expenditures relative to yield suggests that Arab growers were more cost-efficient than Jewish growers, though Jewish growers invested more capital in technology and improvements.) However, agricultural economists considered the fellaheen small farmer with his primitive instruments as barely able to survive even if he did not carry the burden of landlords, moneylenders, tax collectors and merchants demanding payment. After 25% went to costs, almost 50% of income went to moneylenders, “rents”, tax collectors and heads of villages. However, it is true that the Arab citrus farmers were relatively prosperous and were invaluable in teaching Jews how to grow and cultivate citrus trees. The brand was already established and the Zionists effectively appropriated it just as they did the lands of Jaffa when the Arabs fled or the Jews pushed the Arabs out in the 1948 war.

But that was to come later. “In Rehovot of the early 1930s, the optimal conditions of Palestine met the benign aspirations of modern Zionism.” For the Arabs, the tale was of land purchases indifferent to the needs of the landless peasants, appropriation and expropriation without compensation built on a solid base established by Arab Palestinians. Though Jewish land ownership did not have quite the same vicious history as the development of Arab estates and the “clearances”, nevertheless, up to 4,000 Arab cultivating families lost their land through Jewish land “purchases”. Zionists claimed they were compensated. According to the Johnson-Crosbie Report, they were, receiving an average of almost 40 pounds per family. However, after payment of their debts, they were left with only 13 pounds. Not quite the horrific tale of the anti-Zionists but also not the benign tale told by omission of Zionists, including Ari.

While LeBron looks nostalgically back with his tale, Shavit looks forward. The particular story Ari tells is of an English-Jewish transplant who came with his English wife and used his father-in-law’s money to buy and plant an orange grove in 1931. For citriculture requires capital since the trees take 4-7 years to develop before a cash crop can be picked and sold. That farmer had to locate water, employ both Jewish and Arab labour – in contrast to kibbutzim – and clear the land of poisonous weeds and then carefully graft Shamouti branches onto lemon rootstock that had been planted earlier. It required disciplined hard work and experience to ensure the pruning was just right and fertilization was of precisely the correct amount.  Ari tells this tale very well.

When the newly planted orchard was ready with fruit that could be picked and exported, Zionism had also come to fruition in Palestine. For, given the events in Germany, Jewish resettlement in Palestine is no longer just a dream; it is a necessity.  “Only a Jewish state in Palestine can save the lives of the millions who are about to die” and the justice of the Jewish plight far outweighed the incidental injustice to the Arab peasant farmers at the time. In fact, in Ari’s account, Jewish farm owners treated the Arab farm laborers better than the Arab landowners, though he offers no evidence to back up this standard claim and this is opposite to the theme of both Sivan’s film or LeBron’s history.

T. Cliff in Chapter IX of his book, The Problem of the Middle East on “The Agrarian Question in Palestine” describes the privatization of communal land and the usurpation of fellaheen rights where Arab tenant farmers became agricultural laborers. Further, the imported and developed Jewish technology helped the Arab landowners to improve their yields. Beneficent Zionism at its best! “So the Zionists of Rehovot can still believe that the clash between the two peoples is avoidable. They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable (my italics) tragedy”(53) But if an honest examination had been made of the suffering of Arab peasants as a result of both Arab landowners and Jewish settlements, instead of the myth of Jewish settlement benefitting the Arab working class, the roots of the 1936-8 revolt and the subsequent conflict would have already been clear.

Nature, not politics, intervenes to create and foretell disaster for the society around. In a tragedy like King Lear, the deeper cause is because humanity defied the laws of nature. In Ari’s account, it is because the settlers ignored the laws of ethnic relations and the competition for sovereignty and self-determination. The heat wave of April 1935 with its dry desert winds wracked havoc on the delicate orange blossoms, whether Jewish or Arab. Unlike King Lear, the settlers and the older farmers fight back to save their crops.

But the portent of disaster remained and is echoed in Europe. Albert Dreyfus dies. The Nazis begin to impose and enforce their new racist laws. While the Jews of Europe are about to be decimated, the second Maccabiah Games are held in Palestine. and the citrus crop is record-breaking. In the midst of the Great Depression, Rehovot is thriving. By 1936, Rehovot had a population of 9,000. The Anglo-Palestine Bank opened a branch and the young town is blessed with science, finance, industry, culture, sorts as well as a thriving agricultural economy.

But true to the Shakespearian tragic trope, the signs all around are ominous. The Jews and Arab owner honour and respect one another and the Arab workers appreciate the fairness of their Jewish employers. The population of the Arab villages around, such as Zarnuga, also double. But both societies are blind to the ominous signs that thirteen years later, Zarmuga will be gone. For Arab society is also breeding fanatical religious leaders like Izz Abd al-Kader Mustafa ad-Din al-Kassam devoted to both the Koran and the Arab poor making him a heroic figure in the Arab world. In 1930, he began planning the Arab revolution, beginning by breeding secret small cells  and periodic attacks that killed Jews and their children. For Jews were not just settling. To this terrorist, Jews were stealing Arab land that was the Arab exclusive inheritance. In October 1935, a broken barrel in the port revealed that guns and ammunition were being imported. It was in Rehovot, that al-Kassam gave his last fiery speech and called on the Arabs to rise up in jihad before he fled and was caught and killed by the British.

The costs were too little. The signs seemed too insignificant to read. Everything appeared to go back to normal. Nature seems to cooperate. Though thirteen days of rain seemed to threaten the crop, once again the growers escaped the possible natural disaster. But in their joy and relief, they are closed off to natural omens and the 1936 Arab general strike and revolt that is coming. The Arab and the Jewish leadership are on different tracks moving in different directions.

But the Jews are more together than ever before. “Things feel right about the Rehovot of 1936. There is a balance between the revolution of Zionism and the evolution with which it is carried out. There is a balance between the need to grow fast and the determination to grow slowly. Both the social democrats of the working class and the liberals of the landowning class agree that step-by-step development is the way to grow. Both want Zionism to be rooted in the land and to grow from it gradually and naturally. There is no talk of taking the land by force. In their different ways they all want Zionism to be a natural identity-building process. They want to merge the healing of a people with the cultivation of the land. In March 1936, there is nothing totalitarian about Rehovot.” (65)

Two streams were flowing in Jewish Palestine quite independently of the Arabs. One was hard, collectivist, self-sacrificing, revolutionary with its own Robespierre for a leader. The other was liberal, humane, pragmatic, moderate and balanced with far more tributaries. The first was planted in the soil separate from but adjacent to Arabs. The second was planted in the orange groves. In 1928, only 60,000 dunams were under cultivation, half Arab and half Jewish. In 1935, the ratio was the same, 50/50 and Arab and Jewish groves criss-crossed one another, but the area under cultivation had increased fivefold. The 300,000 dunams of citrus groves were by far the most profitable part of agriculture in Palestine. In another five years, the quantity of exports would double again.

“There is hope in the land. And the colony of Rehovot is a living testament that the Jews were right to end their two millennia of wandering in the Plains of Judea. They were right to come here and build a home and plant a tree and put down roots. Creating something from nothing. Creating this green ocean of orange groves that whispers peace and plenty and home.” (68)

I skipped the page. The next chapter is Masada 1942. But what happened to 1936? Where is the account of the Arab strike the shut down the ports of Haifa and Jaffa for months on end? Where is the account of the Arab revolt? Where is the discussion of the Jaffa orange that, if you cannot export it whole, is virtually useless as a juice orange because you get so little juice and too much bulk. And, in any case, unlike the valencia, it does not stay sweet but the juice becomes bitter like that of the smaller baladi orange, the third variety available in Palestine.

Ari leaves out several strands of this bitterness. Ari mentions but does not emphasize – the continuing reliance on foreign capital investment in agriculture in Palestine so that Jewish farmers of all kinds were freed up from reliance on usurious moneylenders. More significantly, the Zionists had a buy Jewish policy even when eggs  and tomatoes sold for twice the price in the mid-1930s as the equivalent products from Arab farmers. One further note needs to be made. Chapter two and three were about two streams of agriculture. However, even in the mid-1930s, a relatively small percentage of Jews were employed in agriculture in Palestine (73,000 of 376,000). Palestine was already an urban landscape and the roots of Israel cannot be traced simply to either the collectivist or cooperative farms or the more liberal capitalist owners of citrus groves. However, it required war for the Jewish settlers to usurp the Jaffa brand and reduce the city of Jaffa, the cultural centre of Arab Palestine, to a pocket of just 3,000 Arabs from almost 90,000, and annex the remnant to the upstart city of Tel Aviv. In Jaffa district that had been 47% Arab and 39% Jewish, an overwhelmingly Jewish metropolis was left. Of the 720,000 Arab refugees, 15% were from the Jaffa district.

But we are ahead of the story. Chapter 4 entitled Masada 1942 sets the stage for the militarization of Jewish Palestine. And it does so, not by starting with Masada in 142 but with the Arab revolt 1936-1938.


Sunday: The Arab Revolt and the forging of the two streams of agriculture (socialist and bourgeois) into a single military Zionist culture.