Jews, Arabs join forces to promote Israeli olive oil

Moghira Younis (left) and Adi Naali, Israeli experts on olive oil, gave 11 presentations during their recent week-long visit to the GTA.     [Barbara Silverstein photo]

People shopping for high-quality olive oil may one day skip the Italian and Spanish varieties and reach for the Israeli brands.

The creation of an international market for its product is a distant goal of the Israeli Olive Board, according to its emissary, Adi Naali, who recently spoke to a gathering of some 50 people at an olive oil tasting event at the Toronto home of Robert and Galya Sarner.

Naali, the manager of the Israeli Olive Board, and his colleague, Moghira Younis, an adviser on olives, figs, grapes and pomegranates at the Ministry of Agriculture, spent an intensive week in the GTA teaching people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds about Israel’s burgeoning olive oil industry.

Naali and Younis gave 11 presentations – eight on college and university campuses and three geared to the Jewish community.

The olive oil tasting at the Sarner home  was co-hosted by Galya Sarner, director of the Israeli-Canadian Project at the Schwartz-Reisman Centre, and Donna Holbook, national executive director of the Canadian branch of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ). It was sponsored by Hillel of Greater Toronto and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs  of UJA Federation.

Participants were treated to a sumptuous spread of hummus, cheese platters, and bowls of olive oil with French bread and crackers for dipping.

Later, they sipped shot glasses filled with some of Israel’s finest olive oils, while Naali instructed them on how to distinguish high-quality extra virgin olive oil, which is cold pressed, from the cheaper, chemically processed oils. “A high quality oil should smell fruity,” he said. “The more bitter and spicier taste, the better the olive oil.”

Naali advised people to be cautious when buying olive oil, because a lot of extra virgin olive oil sold is adulterated with cheaper chemically processed oils.

He also spoke about the necessity of boosting olive oil consumption in Israel. About two litres per capita are consumed annually, which, he said, is low in comparison to Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain, where the consumption rate is 26 and 15 litres per capita respectively.

Younis discussed some of the modern methods of olive cultivation, noting that each machine now used to harvest the olive trees replaces 260 workers.

He said one of the most innovative aspects of growing olives is the successful irrigation of the Negev. The desert is now blooming with olive groves that are irrigated with salt water.

Younis also told the group about his contribution to helping Arab Israeli women become economically independent. He is advising Sindyanna, an Arab women’s co-operative based in the Galilee that is supported by both Arab and Jewish Israelis, on the cultivation of the Oasis Solidarity Organic Olive Grove in Wadi Arra, the village where he grew up.

The olive oil presentations and workshops were timed to coincide with Israeli Apartheid Week (March 3 to 11 this year), said Shirin Ezekiel, associate executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto. She explained that the relationship between Younis, an Arab Israeli, and Naali, who is Jewish, exemplifies the collegiality that exists between these two groups. “Part of the idea behind the presentations was to highlight the collaboration between Jews and Arabs within Israel.”

Younis and Naali spoke at York University, University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and Seneca, Centennial and Humber colleges. The majority of the participants there were not Jewish, Ezekiel said.

Ezekiel said the students were particularly interested in the cultivation of the olives. “They were very excited about the olive trees growing in the desert. They thought it could be a model for other countries.”