A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sukkot Shenanigans

Sukkot, the week long Jewish festival of the fall harvest season, begins at sundown tonight. An ancient feast clearly harvest related (one Old Testament term is "Feast of the Ingathering"), Sukkot takes its name from the sukkot or "booths," (singular sukkah), reed or bamboo huts set up, traditionally to reflect the houses Israel lived in during the 40 years of wandering. The huts are built and meals are taken in them during the week, and some sleep in them. As one of the festivals when Israel was expected to go to Jerusalem, it is also referred to several times in the New Testament, as the "Feast of Booths" or "Feast of Tabernacles" depending on the translation.

First off, let me wish a happy holiday to my Jewish readers during the coming week. Khag Sameach.

This year, however, Sukkot has gotten embroiled in the whole aftermath of Arab Spring and worsening Egyptian-Israeli relations. Celebrations of Sukkot center around the ritual use of four "species" based on Leviticus 23:40: the lulav, the frond of the date palm (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and other high-churchy Christians should picture what you carry on Palm Sunday), along with the myrtle and willow and the etrog, a specific type of citron fruit. Since the peace with Egypt Israel has imported a great many of its lulavs from Sinai.

For reasons not entirely clear, but probably politically motivated, Egypt banned the export of palm fronds from Sinai, not just to Israel but to Jewish communities in the diaspora. Apparently both Israeli and American Jews had become dependent on Sinai lulavs. With the export ban (vaguely defended as having something to do with blight or protectionism, but suspiciously timed), Israel arranged to replace the 700,000 or so lulavs imported from Egypt with Jordanian, West Bank, or other sources. They even decided to authorize imports from Gaza, but Hamas nixed that.

This being the Middle East, several utterly predictable things ensued:
  • US Congressman Howard Berman of California (Democrat from Los Angeles and a Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee) sought political capital by protesting the ban to Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and received the press he presumably expected
  • Reports began to appear of extensive lulav smuggling from Egypt into Israel via Jordan, and abroad. Haaretz reported that "According to one of the traders in New York, a senior official in Cairo received $100,000 to aid in smuggling the palm fronds outside of Egypt." But wait: didn't the Revolution do away with corruption? 
Speaking of lulavs and holidays, I might as well conclude with this YouTube video of "The Sukkot Shake," in which Israelis shake their lulavs. (Hat tip to Joshua Teitelbaum for the link.)

Enjoy the holiday.

No comments: