The orange is the icon probably most widely associated with Israel. Years ago as Director of the British Israel Chamber of Commerce my job was to approach British businessman and encourage them to trade with Israel. When asked what they knew about the country they would inevitably reply, “They sell oranges and have a first class army”. A visitor to Israel in those early years asked a tour guide friend of mine what they did with all the oranges. He replied, “We eat what we can and we can what we can’t”.
Oranges are not indigenous to the Middle East. The sweet variety came from China, brought to Portugal by the explorer Vasco De Gama and then on to the Holy Land.
The original citrus plantations were run by wealthy Arab landowners and by 1845 exports numbered 200,000 oranges. In 1850 the philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore bought plots of land and planted orange groves and 35 years later Baron Edmond de Rothschild planted further orchards in the developing agricultural settlements such as Petah Tikva. From these early beginnings the production of oranges developed until it became one of Israel’s main exports, superseded only in recent years by high technology.
During the British Mandate period oranges featured in a courageous and tragic event. Two young Jewish fighters, Meir Feinstein (19) and Moshe Barazani (20yrs) were due to be hanged by the British forces on April 21st 1947. Explosives were smuggled into the Central Jerusalem Prison where they were being detained. Hand grenades were made by the other prisoners and were concealed in hollowed out oranges.
The boys’ intention was to blow themselves up dramatically next to the hangman’s noose. At the last minute, however, their plans had to be changed as the prison Rabbi stated that he intended to stand next to the boys whilst they awaited execution, so that the last face they would see on earth would be a friendly one. In this event, whilst in their cell, the boys gave a bible to their British guard, Thomas Goodwin who had been kind to them, and asked him to leave and go outside to pray for them.
Prison cell, Jerusalem.
He went outside. A few minutes later the prison was rocked with a huge explosion and the boys died blowing themselves up in their cell. Inside the bible given to Goodwin was a note – part of it read “Remember that we stood with dignity and marched with honour. It is better to die with a weapon in your hands than with hands raised in surrender”. In 2008 Goodwin’s grandson came to Jerusalem, met with Feinstein’s family and returned the bible to them.
The prison in question was originally a hostel for Russian women pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. It is located in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, an area containing several buildings of considerable beauty and architectural interest. Once again oranges featured.
In 1964 the Russian Government sold most of the Russian Compound to the Israel Government and were paid in oranges. It was called the ‘orange deal’. I had heard that it was a box of oranges, but in fact it was a rather large box – to the value of $3.5million.