Zatoun: Bridge–builder at a Crucial Time

Miriam Garfinkle

What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing selling olive oil from Palestine?

I grew up in a secular, left-wing Jewish family in Toronto. My father was prevented from entering the U.S. for various activities including his support of the Rosenbergs and founding the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the 60s. Although my parents were atheists, they very much identified culturally as Jews. I knew little of Israel from my parents, but they somehow decided to educate us by sending us to Zionist summer camps. At first we went to a more left-wing Habonim camp in Ontario. When that closed down, I was sent to a more right-wing Zionist camp. I was quite puzzled by this, but I liked the camp experience generally and stuck it out.

At camp I learned to love Israeli folk-dancing and lovely Israeli tunes. It was also my first real exposure to the Holocaust, about which my parents had told us little in detail, although my father was himself a World War II veteran who had suffered major injuries and combat shock. There was, however, some not-so-subtle “brainwashing” at camp, against which I found myself rebelling. For example, on one occasion the counsellors woke us up in the middle of the night and took us into the forest, where they had arranged for other campers to re-enact a concentration camp bunker. I instinctively reacted negatively to these techniques, finding them almost abusive, but I still felt trapped by the guilt that they were intended to elicit.

I went through these years of camp aware of my basic differences from the other campers there. I had more awareness of social justice issues, and my atheist background contrasted with that of most of the kids, who had come from some form of religious background. I found my socialist identity with the left-wing Zionists and the kibbutz movement. I also had a strong sense of the rights of Palestinians. When I was seventeen I arranged for the film The Battle of Algiers to be shown to the campers at the local theatre, and on the bus on the way to the theatre I handed out the Palestinian Manifesto which outlined Palestinian self-determination.

Even so, at the time I didn’t question my Zionist education which depicted Israel as virtually empty of indigenous people at the time of Independence in 1948. I thought nothing about the inherently discriminatory notion of a Jewish state. Indeed, a Jewish state seemed like a good idea for a people who had been so brutally persecuted in Europe.

In my late twenties, I became involved in Peace Now. I wanted peace and justice, and believed in Palestinian self-determination. I still clung to the idea of a Jewish state. I envisioned a two-state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. I wasn’t sure what to do about Jerusalem. I didn’t think about the second-class status of Arabs within Israel. Nor did I recognize the contradiction of the notion of a Jewish state with my idea that a state should be secular and non-theocratic. Meanwhile, my sister and then my father made Israel their home. My father died there in 1984, and was buried with the soldiers who had been killed from my sister’s kibbutz.

As the occupation continued, I became more and more questioning and critical of Israel’s intent, and protested its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Still, I cried when Rabin was assassinated in 1995, thinking that he was a real peacemaker. I have since learned that the Labour Government under Rabin and all subsequent governments were responsible for building thousands of units for West Bank settlers, and that the settler population between 1993 and 2000 increased by almost 100 percent, excluding East Jerusalem.

I have also since become aware of the inherently discriminatory, indeed racist, nature of Israel’s laws, and of the Nakba, the flight or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 from their land and villages, and of the increasing degradation of Israel’s society by its continuing repression of another people. I have come to realize that given the present mapping of the West Bank, a two-state solution is no longer a viable option for the Palestinians. Add to that the killings of civilians, especially in Gaza, the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon, the Wall, etc., and I can no longer celebrate Israel by folk-dancing.

I first encountered Zatoun, the fair trade olive oil from Palestine, when I met Robert Massoud at a demonstration against the Iraq war in the spring of 2004. Robert had just bottled 1,500 bottles of extra virgin olive oil from Palestine to sell in Canada, and he gave me a pamphlet about it called Zatoun, which means “olive” in Arabic. I bought a bottle and then began telling people about it. Soon I became a “friendly depot,” selling bottles from my home. I became one of the most enthusiastic salespeople and an active board member of Zatoun, a non-profit Toronto-based project which sells fair-trade Palestinian olive oil from the West Bank. The oil comes from a farmers’ co-op called the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, which operates all over the northern portion of the West Bank. Each bottle costs 15 dollars: five dollars goes to the farmers and one dollar goes to Project Hope, an amazing grassroots educational program for children and youth in Nablus in the West Bank. Another dollar goes to a project overseen by the co-op called Trees for Life, to replant olive trees, so many of which have been destroyed by Israeli forces to build the Wall, by settlers, or in the act of home demolitions. (Last year enough money was raised by Zatoun sales and individual donations to Trees for Life to plant over 10,000 seedlings.) The rest covers the cost of bottling, labeling, pamphlets and shipping. Bottling and labeling is now done in the West Bank, which translates to much-needed work for people there. Zatoun now also sells olive oil soap made in the traditional way by a collective of women.

Robert, himself a Palestinian-Canadian, was born in Jerusalem and came to Canada when he was six years old. He also had his own learning path about the truth of the experience of his people. For example, for a long time he didn’t believe that there had been a massacre at Deir Yassin, or that at most it was exaggerated. He could not believe that Jews would ever do such a thing. He knows now that these truths were kept from him and that his own history was denied him by mainstream history. Robert was honoured with the YMCA World Peace Award in November 2004 for the Zatoun initiative. Robert is not paid for his work for Zatoun, which operates strictly on a volunteer basis. (This may have to change as the orders increase. We are now up to shipments of 15,000 bottles, and are thinking of increasing this to at least 20,000 with the next shipment.)

Olive trees and olive oil are the most important elements of the Palestinian economy, both traditionally and currently. They are also at the heart of the cultural legacy of art, poetry, songs, dance and cuisine. Olive trees have the unique ability to regenerate after they reach their life expectancy of about 200 years. The oil from Palestine is of exceptional quality and the taste is fresher and more unrefined, for example, than the olive oils one buys from Italy or Spain.

The people you meet selling Zatoun can be quite remarkable. We get orders from all over Canada and the U.S. Someone from the UK ordered Zatoun to give to friends for their wedding in New Orleans. Zatoun gives people the opportunity to invest in an economy which is struggling for its survival. Supporting that economy gives people a chance to have some quality of life, to give them hope for themselves and their children. More and more people are not only buying Zatoun, but want to get involved. When a shipment arrives, a crew of enthusiastic volunteers gathers just north of Toronto, to do some of the packing and labeling of the soap. It’s a nice collection of people — Palestinians, Jews and others — working together to help do something positive in an otherwise bleak situation. Zatoun is a bridger for many kinds of people interested in human rights and human dignity. The olive harvest in Palestine is also a bridger, bringing Palestinians, Jews and internationals together for a common purpose to help protect the farmers at a crucial period.

I have come to realize that the only hope for the people of the Middle East is to actually embrace each other’s culture. Recently I was at a feast organized by Kathy, a Moroccan Jew and a friend of mine. It marked the breaking of the fast of Ramadan together with the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast. Kathy has a strong vision and remembrance of coexistence of Jews and Arabs sharing their culture from her experience in Morocco. It was a wonderful feast, with Zatoun displayed prominently on the table.

There is a song in Hebrew called “Machar” which means “Tomorrow”. It speaks of how one day Israel will sell its oranges all over the world and Middle East. My hope is that this region will exist for all its people, and that Palestinian olive oil will be exported all over the world and that the people there will live in peace and prosper. And I will dance the hora and the debka in celebration.

(To learn more about Zatoun please visit the website

Miriam Garfinkle is a medical doctor who works at an inner city community health centre and at an immigrant women’s health centre in Toronto. She has been involved in various peace initiatives in Toronto, including the displaying of the Middle East Peace Quilt in 2001 at the Winchevsky Centre.

Related Topics: Fair TradeFarming/Farm EconomyOlive OilOlive TreesOccupied TerritoriesPalestineWest Bank

This article is also available in Farsi.