Preventing the Next Lulav Panic

The Great Lulav Scare of 5766 has passed. In the end, it appears that there were more or less lulavim for everyone. On Erev Succos, lulavim were in plentiful supply in Flatbush, and at something close to the prices from previous years.

Of course, most of us did not have the courage to wait to Erev Succos to obtain our dalet minim, especially with persistent reports that there would be a dramatic shortage of lulavim in the air. As a consequence, most Jews paid far more for their lulavim than in past years, and the cost of standard sets of dalet minim was considerably higher than last year. Prices in excess of $80 for a lulav were not unheard of.

Given that the threatened shortage never materialized, it is tempting to dismiss all the rumors of an impending shortage as the product of a deliberate campaign by unscrupulous importers of lulavim to drive up the price. And, in fact, there is plenty of evidence of shenanigans in this year’s lulav market.

At the same time, the scare headlines were not figments of an overactive imagination. That the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry had decided to drastically limit the cutting of palm branches is a fact. Already last year, the rosh kollel from whom I purchase my lulavim told me that he had great difficulty bringing his lulavim into Israel because of a new Egyptian Agricultural Ministry edict banning the cutting of palm branches as harmful to the productivity of the date trees.

Egypt is estimated to supply up to 700,000 lulavim worldwide annually. The imposition of any such ban, or even a substantial reduction in the numbers of lulavim being cut and exported from Egypt, would have led to a severe shortage in both Israel and the United States. The ones to profit from that situation would be those who managed to obtain from the Egyptian authorities, by legal means or otherwise, special permits to cut and export large numbers of lulavim. Such permits would give them a monopoly share of the market.

The last minute supply of large numbers of lulavim to the markets in the United States and Israel did not result from mere happenstance. It was, in part, the result of intense efforts by Abba Cohen, the director of the Washington D.C. office of Agudath Israel of America, Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice-President of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and others to bring pressure to bear on Egypt to waive its ban on the cutting of lulavim.

In a telephone interview, Hoenlein described how both the White House and key staffers at the National Security Council had shown a keen interest in helping to solve the problem, as soon as he brought it to their attention. The U.S. Ambassador to Egypt was also helpful.

Among elected officials, Gary Ackerman, a congressman representing Queens and the North Shore of Nassau County, deserves special mention. As the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, Ackerman could count on the attention of Egyptian officials. Senator Joseph Lieberman also promised to get involved.

The last minute lobbying blitz resulted in an Egyptian agreement to allow the export of at least 100,000 lulavim, and perhaps many more. In addition, the expressions of concern by the American Jewish community also resulted in the Israeli Foreign Ministry getting actively involved.

Unfortunately, the last minute interest shown by the Israeli Foreign Ministry was in sharp contrast to the Israeli government’s previous matter-of-fact stance on the issue. This past summer my lulav supplier made numerous calls to various Israeli officials in the Agricultural Ministry and the embassy in Cairo to find out about the status of discussions between Israeli representatives and Egyptian representatives over the Egyptian ban. His repeated requests for information went unheeded.

That failure to respond had serious consequences. Had clarification of the Egyptian policy been obtained earlier, it would have been possible to move much earlier to pressure the Egyptians to rescind their ban on cutting, in whole or part, which, in turn, would have helped reduce panic in the lulav market.

EVEN TODAY, with Succos behind us, no one seems to have a clear handle on what took place this year. As one person close to the action told me, “No one knows the truth. Every time you peel away one layer, another layer appears.”

The first order of business is a thoroughgoing investigation and post-mortem of this year’s lulav scare. Clarity about the past is crucial to prevent a recurrence of this year’s panic. Lack of information and uncertainty provides too many temptations to the unscrupulous to sow fear and then reap huge profits.

For starters, it is important to ascertain what is the precise Egyptian Agricultural Ministry policy on the cutting of palm branches. No one with whom I spoke seemed to know this basic piece of information.

Next it is crucial to know what exactly happened on the ground in Egypt this year. What exceptions were made to the official policy? Were they made at upper levels or lower levels of the Egyptian bureaucracy? Were they the product of diplomatic pressure from the United States or old-fashioned Middle Eastern baksheesh? What were the specific interventions of U.S. politicians and officials, and what was the Egyptian response?

Ongoing discussions with the Egyptians are crucial. Their fears about damage to date trees from the cutting of their palm branches cannot be dismissed out of hand. But there are likely ways to alleviate the bulk of these fears. Obviously the Egyptian farmers who have been allowing their trees to be harvested for palm branches for the last two decades have concluded that the profit to be made from the sale of the branches of the tree more than offsets any losses from a decline in date production. These issues need to be explored openly by agricultural experts in Egypt, Israel, and the United States.

Finally, it is important to ascertain the ways, if any, in which the market was distorted this year. Were false rumors circulated, were Israeli customs officials manipulated in ways that allowed certain suppliers to gain an unfair advantage, etc.?

Only when such an investigation has been conducted can we prepare for next year long in advance of Succos and avoid a repeat of this year’s wild market.

This article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine, November 3, 2005

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