Archive | March, 2013

The Men Behind the Olives in Galilee

23 Mar
Olives 1

The “Shaking” Machine at work

“It’s a blustery day,” would be something Winnie the Pooh would have said about one chilly day in Galilee last December.  I step outside my house in a hat and a windbreaker and await my ride to the fields.

Allon, a fifty-something farmer, and a longtime resident of Kfar Tavor, shows up in his truck.  “Get in,” he says.  “We’re running late.”  Ten minutes later, we arrive at a large olive grove.  The ground is heavy and soggy.  I climb onto a large tractor that makes its way to the first row of  olive trees.  It’s a race against time.  The rain will soon return, making the picking of the olives much more difficult.

Allon at the Controls

Allon at the Controls

Allon is a seasoned farmer in Galilee.  He’d also gone to California’s Central Valley to learn the latest farming methods.  He owns thousands of almond trees.  And a small vineyard.  But today he’s working as an olive-picking contractor.  He’s renting out his Italian-made equipment.

For me, who’d long thought apples, oranges, chicken breast (and olive oil) came from the supermarket, today’s a vivid reminder of how a farmer’s life  and fortune are unpredictable.  Olive oil is big business.  The olives must be picked within days or the entire year’s crop will be ruined.  The olive press facility is booked solid, operates 24/7.  There’s a time slot assigned to this one harvest.  You don’t show up, they’ll press someone else’s olives.

The farmer wheels his tractor inside the grove, unloads a stack of empty crates.  Allon goes to work.  In his hands he holds a joy-stick with levers, controls the “shaker” machine remotely.  Move one lever up and the mechanical arm of the machine snakes its way towards the tree trunk.  Toggle another lever and the clamp, the “mouth” of the machine, wraps itself around the trunk like a noose.

Loosening the olives off the branches with sticks

Loosening the olives off the branches with sticks

This is when the men show up.   Six farmhands, all foreign — Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — spread a wide tarp on the ground, at the foot of the tree.  It’s cool, the sun has lost its punch, yet the Oriental men cover their faces in scarves, bandannas, sunglasses.  I question Allon.  “They don’t want to burn their skin,” he says.  “To them, black is not good.”  He then signals them with a head nod.  The men produce long, stiff wood sticks.  They swing the sticks and whack the olive branches overhead.  Again.  Again.  And again.  That’s the first step in “loosening” the tree.  If the trees could talk, they would cry.  Whack!  The branches quiver in the wind.Olives 2

Allon smiles, exposes a wide gap in his teeth.  It’s time to bring in the big guns.  “Stay to my right,” he tells me, urging me to keep away from the long metal arm that slithers towards the tree.  He illustrates how the clamp grabs the trunk.  “It’s like sex,” he explains, motioning to how the arm glides under the tree canopy, under its “skirt.”  The sexual references don’t end there.  As the expert in the field, pun intended, he says the ideal tree trunk must have an “erection” – in other words, straight and without a bend.  “This way the clamp can get a good grip.”

He laughs.  I can’t help but laugh too.

One final toggle of the joy-stick and the show begins.  The tree begins to shake violently, as if possessed by demons.  It’s no wonder the Italian machine is called “The Tornado.”  The branches shake; they’re out-of-focus.  The noise is similar to that of a blender at full grind.  Hundreds, if not thousands of olives are released from the tree, glide in the air, and fall as casualties on the tarp below.

One tree done.  Five hundred to go.

“Why do you push the schedule to its limit?” I ask, thinking one false move, someone calls in sick, the machine breaks downs, and it’s all lost.

“It’s a calculated risk,” he says.  “We wait until the last minute because that’s when the fruit (the olives) are at their heaviest.  They’re at maximum ripeness.  And they carry maximum oil.  They WANT to fall off the trees.  We just help mother-nature.”

The men lift the edges of the tarp and push the olives — green, black, purple — to the center, and from there, to the conveyor belt.  A large air blower blows off the leaves before the olives are dumped into the crates.

These Oriental men replaced the Arab men of yesteryear.  The men are “imported” to Israel.  Allon is their caretaker.  The men are under a work contract for a few years.  When done, they’ll return home with the money they’d saved.  In the meantime, Allon provides them with shelter (bungalows in a nearby village), medical care, and wages.  A Thai man calls out to the Chinese man in Hebrew: “Bring the crates over here!”

Hebrew is the one thing that unites them!

Each crate contains 900 pounds of olives (400 KG)

Each crate contains 900 pounds of olives (400 KG)

Within two days Allon and his crew will have picked the olives off the five hundred trees.  They will turn bare.  The fruit will be hauled to the olive press in an Arab village.  After four nights of pressing and squeezing, the fruit will surrender its juices and produce the finest olive oil.

See you at the market.

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com or BN.com.

Is that Big Brother in your Pocket?

8 Mar

Your neighbor’s raking in millions and you’re struggling to come up with mortgage or rent money.  You drive to work in a beat-up Volkswagen and your boss pulls into his reserved parking space with a shiny BMW.bmw

I ask you: Is that fair?

The handyman who fixed your toilet last month just got back from a week’s vacation in Italy.  Sorry, you can’t step into the elevator with him because it’s taken up with his three Gucci suitcases.

You’re fuming.  You kick the elevator door.  You’re mad.  But then what?

If you’re in Israel, don’t get mad.  Get even.

How?

If you suspect the neighbor, the boss, the handyman is not paying his fair share of taxes — just snitch on him to the authorities and watch him boil in hot (olive) oil.

This is all thanks to Israel’s Tax Authority and its  latest initiative to raise 20 billion shekels (5 billion dollars) in uncollected taxes over the next four years.  Israel, a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean country, wants to model its moral code, according to its fiance minister, after the “honest” countries of Northern Europe (Sweden, Norway).

Good luck.

This tax-collection drive is the latest wrinkle in today’s “share the burden” phenomenon.  The scenario goes something like this:  The Middle Class is being wrongfully squeezed.  It shares the majority of the burden; it pays more in income tax, serves in the military while the well-connected, the Orthodox Jews, and the Arabs get a free ride.

It’s time to level the playing field.

"Justice Hotline"

“Justice Hotline”

The informants are encouraged to call the “Justice Hotline” anonymously and report the cheaters.  Since the “Justice Hotline” was first launched a few weeks ago, thousands of calls came pouring in.  The informants rat on plumbers, repairmen who give a small discount in exchange for getting cash.  No receipts, no invoices, thank-you-very-much.  They snitch on cab drivers who don’t care to turn on the meter.  They inform of dentists who drill a hole in your tooth and in your pocket, of piano teachers who sing all the way to the bank, of  landlords who act like lords, of math tutors who add their own numbers.

Cheaters unable to sleep at night are counting sheep.  And Shekels.

Big Brother is watching.

Greed and jealousy are what drives most calls.  It’s neighbor against neighbor.  Family members who have a score to settle.  On a recent news program the 5 staff members sitting at the Tax Authority switchboard were overwhelmed with calls.

Opponents are quick to criticize the campaign.  “It will collect pennies on the dollar,” they say, while the Fat Cats, Israel’s multi-national corporations (Teva, Osem, etc) use the loopholes to pay little or no taxes.  They say it’s all a smoke screen to divert attention from other pressing problems: housing, education, the political stalemate.

In a sense, the government has turned the average Yossi into its tax-collector.

How?

The original 1.0 Version has been upgraded.

Informants that come forward and identify themselves can share in the loot.  If the tax-evader is found guilty and is told to pay up, the snitcher collects 15% of the total.

Ka-Ching!  Ka-Ching!  Cash registers are ringing from Galilee to Tel-Aviv to Eilat.

It’s doubtful the taxman will be able to collect the monies they’re projecting.  If anything, it’s a powerful deterrent.  People might think twice before they settle for cash only.

Recently hundreds of private tutors received a text message on their cell-phones.  It warned them to report ALL transactions, or else.  It later turned out to be a clever hoax.

Or was it?

As for me, I plan to wire my few Shekels to Switzerland.  After all, it’s pretty close to Northern Europe.

Below is a campaign from the Tax Authority to all citizens to do their “civic duty” for the benefit of all.

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com or BN.com.