Some Israelis seeking pure olive oil for their menorahs are being scammed

Posted

JERUSALEM (JTA)  – In a supermarket here, Ohad David made a beeline for the most expensive olive oil in the store.

He took three bottles of the award-winning Midnight Coratina brand, which goes for about $3 per ounce. It has “medium potency, green fruitiness and a green-leaf, grassy bouquet,” according to its description on the website of Ptora, the boutique olive oil factory that makes it.

But David, a 40-year-old insurance agent and father of five, did not buy the oil for its taste.

Like thousands of Orthodox Jewish consumers who buy premium olive oil ahead of Hanukkah, David purchased $160 of the stuff only to burn it in a menorah.

Observant Israelis increasingly like to use olive oil in their hanukkiah, or menorah, instead of wax candles because of its significance in the holiday’s story. Hanukkah is a celebration of how the Maccabees, after defeating the Greeks, were able to light the hanukkiah in the temple in Jerusalem for eight days with a one-day supply of oil –believed to be of the olive variety.

“Using olive oil for Hanukkah candles is not required by halakhah [Jewish law], but in our communities everybody does it,” David said.

Those who do so want only 100% pure olive oil to use in their menorahs – and that has become more expensive in Israel over time because of tariffs on imports and the rising demand.

In response, some producers dilute their olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils, without disclosing all of the ingredients, and lure consumers in with lower prices. The product can still be considered Kosher, but it is unacceptable for the observant Jews who want only pure olive oil in their menorahs.

“The temptation to deceive customers is tremendous,” Rabbi Moshe Biegel, an expert on Israel’s Kosher certification industry, wrote in a 2020 essay on the olive-oil sector in Israel.

Israeli authorities perform inspections on dozens of brands each year around Hanukkah, and often find that oil advertised as pure contains up to 50% canola or soy oil. But, despite fines and naming the offenders online, the phenomenon persists.

For David and others in his community, the solution is to stick to boutique brands, no matter the cost.

“You know there’s no monkey business because to them it’s a matter of pride, so there’s a high level of transparency and trust,” David said.

He said he discovered Ptora during a family trip to the northern Negev desert, where the factory and groves are located, about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Like many boutique olive factories in Israel, Ptora offers tours and tastings to increase their brand recognition.

“The place is magical,” Hani Ashkenazi, owner of the Jerusalem Olive Oil factory, said about the Ptora groves. He is technically a competitor, but the two companies cooperate on some projects to leverage their respective strengths.

The olive is a national symbol tied closely to the country’s broader agricultural history – it is even depicted in the official emblem of Israel.

In 2019, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture found that Israeli olive oil was on average double the price of its European counterparts, costing about 9 euros (roughly $10) in Israel per liter compared to 5 euros throughout much of the European Union. Israel employs a protectionist customs policy meant to level the playing field for local producers.

Both production and demand are rising steadily in Israel, a 2020 report from the ministry shows. About 30,000 tons of olive oil are sold in Israel annually, of which about 12,000 are imported. In comparison, the average annual production between 1990 to 2010 was 5,000 tons. The average for the past decade has been 16,000 tons annually.

(For comparison, Egypt, with a land area 47 times that of Israel’s, produces about 20,000 tons of olive oil annually. Italy produces about 340,000 tons annually, and the biggest producer is Spain, providing about 1.7 million tons annually, or half of the world’s