Joint Arab-Jewish business venture signals hope for peace
When Bay Area entrepreneur Bashir Anastas received a message seeking support for an agricultural cooperative in the West Bank, he knew there was a way he could help.
The message had come in the form of an email from Ta’ayush, an Arab-Jewish partnership organization in Israel working for peace and civil equality through nonviolent direct action. They were urging community activists and organizers in the Bay Area to purchase Palestinian olive oil. This was in 2000, at a time when Palestinian farmers were suffering from a prohibition of the sale of Palestinian olive oil within Israeli-occupied territory.
“Olive farming in Palestine occurs in orchards, frequently on rugged terrain that requires extensive manual labor,” Anastas says. “The harvest is typically biennial, meaning one year it is plentiful and the next is poor. And yet, olive oil accounts for about one third of the country’s agricultural economy, so many of these families completely depend on this industry.”
Purchasing olive oil from Palestine was no small undertaking. Anastas, along with several members of the local community, decided to buy a batch and import a test shipment. Various peace and justice groups in the Bay Area came together to help with marketing and distribution. Three shipments were successfully made that year, with an all-volunteer crew. A few of the individuals involved, including Anastas, decided to create a business venture from this, aiming to bring in olive oil on a regular basis and for the organization to become self-sustaining. To this end, in 2003 they created Holy Land Olive Oil.
“We knew that this would be a challenging undertaking because of the way the occupation affects every aspect of life in Palestine,” says Anastas. “This not only includes the harassment the farmers experience while cultivating and harvesting their olives, but also the restrictions on movement that complicate getting the olives to press. Transporting the oil out of the West Bank to Israeli ports and eventually to the U.S. is also subject to unexpected delays and difficulties.”
However, despite these obstacles, Holy Land Olive Oil persevered and has become the first company in the United States to proudly display a “Product of Palestine” label. The company purchases olive oil through the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a nonprofit institution dedicated to helping farmers, as well as other various small agricultural co-ops, in the Ramallah and Salfit regions of the West Bank. The three primary cultivars that Holy Land Olive Oil imports—Souri, Nabali/Baladi and Barnea (or “K18”)—come from the northern West Bank region, where the poverty rate is close to 40 percent and where conditions on the ground, such as the Israeli separation barrier, severely impact life.
The olive oil passes through an agricultural relief committee to a shipping agent in Ramallah, and then to a forwarder in Ramat Gan in Israel, before the oil is sent abroad to the United States. Anastas buys the olive oil for 30 percent above market rate from the farmers because prices are so depressed in the area that the standard market rates aren’t fair trade.
“We feel it is important to support farmer co-ops in these difficult times. Paying more for the oil from the co-ops enables us to get a higher quality oil, have better quality control measures by buying directly at the press, and allows fair wages to be paid to the farmers at a time when market prices are depressed because of prevailing conditions,” Anastas says.
The result has been effective, both in helping to support Palestine’s struggling olive oil industry, as well as in bringing an aromatic and flavorful product to a new continent of consumers. In the United States, olive oils sold in supermarkets are often blended and bland in order to appeal to American palates. They’re usually labelled as “light,” referring more to their flavor and not to any caloric content.
“Even for the non-expert, the difference between American and Palestinian olive oil is immediately noticeable. Newly pressed Mediterranean olive oil has some of the strongest flavors you’ll encounter,” says Anastas. “Palestinian olive oil is characterized by a distinct personality, robust aroma, and flavors of fresh fruit. It has a peppery bite and delicious hint of bitterness that disappears as the oil ages over time.”
When Anastas and his colleagues started Holy Land Olive Oil, there were no other companies importing Palestinian olive oil. Today, there are many. And while more competition in business isn’t often desired, in this case it means a greater infrastructure and support system for farmers. In the beginning, Anastas would need to travel to the country and speak to each individual farmer one by one. Now, there’s a community and the farmers are more aware of the requirements of the market.
“My hope is that people better understand the genesis and impact that the products they use have on the world, either good or bad,” says Anastas. “People can choose products that are more local and more sustainable, that leave a smaller impact and that produce less carbon. To be more conscientious of our consumption.”