The Jaffa orange, also Shamouti orange, is a sweet, almost seedless orange variety with a tough skin that makes it particularly suitable for export. Developed by Arab farmers in the mid-19th century, the variety takes its name from the city of Jaffa where it was first produced for export. A symbol of production and Jewish-Arab cooperation in Mandatory Palestine, the orange was and still is the primary citrus export for the city. One of three main varieties of oranges grown in the Middle East, the Jaffa orange is also cultivated in Cyprus, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.
Jaffa oranges, also known as shamouti, are practically seedless, with a flavour that has been described as "excellent" and "sweet and fine." The two other main orange varieties cultivated in the region are the navel orange and the bitter orange; the latter is grown in Iran for its peel. The Jaffa orange is distinguished by its oval shape and thick peel, which is deep orange in color and normally very easy to remove from the fruit. Its tough skin makes it "especially suitable for export". As it produces very little juice and has a tendency towards delayed bitterness, it is unsuitable for juice production, although it does store well.
These oranges are very cold-tolerant, allowing them to grow outside of the subtropical regions normally associated with growing oranges. Jaffa oranges are susceptible to Alternaria, a type of fungus, and are prone to alternate bearing.
Located at the crossroads between Africa, western Asia, and Europe, Arab farmers produced a number of commodities for export via imperial and global distribution networks throughout the late Islamic period (1200–1900 CE). Among these were soap, sugar, barley, oranges, and cotton. Though cotton left its mark throughout the region, the only commodity, that remains a symbol of production in Israel is the Jaffa orange.
The Jaffa orange was a new variety developed by Arab farmers after emerging in the mid-19th century as a mutation on a tree of the Baladi variety near Jaffa. While the sour orange (C. Aurantium) was brought westward from China and India by Arab traders, who probably introduced it to Sicily and Spain, the Jaffa orange was developed from the sweet orange (C. sinensis) which was brought from China to the Mediterranean region by Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, in 1498.
After the Crimean War (1853–56), the most important innovation in local agriculture was the rapid expansion in citrus cultivation. Foremost among the varieties cultivated was the Jaffa (Shamouti) orange, and mention of it being exported to Europe first appears in British consular reports in the 1850s. One factor cited in the growth of the export market was the development of steam ships in the first half of the 19th century, which enabled the export of oranges to the European markets in days rather than weeks. Another reason cited for the growth of the industry was the relative lack of European control over the cultivation of oranges compared to cotton, formerly a primary commodity crop of the land of Israel, but outpaced by the Jaffa orange.
Exports grew from 200,000 oranges in 1845 to 38 million oranges by 1870. The citrus plantations of this time were primarily owned by wealthy Arab merchants and notables, rather than small farmers, as the fruits required large capital investments with no yield for several years. Fruits carrying the "Jaffa orange" label were first marketed by Sarona, a German Templer colony established in 1871. An 1872 account of Jaffa by a European traveller notes that, "Surrounding Jaffa are the orange gardens for which it is justly extolled, and which are a considerable source of wealth to the owners. The annual value of fruits grown in Jaffa was said to be 10,000 pounds." In the 1880s, an American grower, H.S. Sanford, tried to cultivate the Jaffa orange in Florida.
The prosperity of the orange industry brought increased European interest and involvement in the development of Jaffa. In 1902, a study of the growth of the orange industry by Zionist officials outlined the different Arab owners and their primary export markets as England, Turkey, Egypt and Austria-Hungary. While Arab cultivation methods were considered "primitive," an in-depth study of the financial expenditure involved reveals that they were ultimately more cost-efficient than the Zionist-European enterprises that followed them some two decades later.
"The cultivation of the orange, introduced by the Arabs before the commencement of Jewish settlement, has developed to a very great extent in consequence of that settlement. There is no doubt that the pitch of perfection to which the technique of plantation and cultivation of the orange and grape-fruit have been brought in Palestine is due to the scientific methods of the Jewish agriculturist."
Partnerships in growing and exporting these oranges was an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation despite rising political tensions.
At the end of 1928, Jews owned 30,000 dunams of the country's 60,000 dunams of orange orchards. Whereas before World War I, the price of a dunam of land in a fruitful orange grove was 50-75 pounds sterling, by 1929, the same groves were selling for 150-200 pounds sterling.
By 1939, Jewish and Arab orange orchards in Palestine covered 75,000 acres (300 km2), employed over 100,000 workers, and their produce was a primary export. During World War II (1939–1945) citrus-growing declined, but recovered after the war with the vigorous assistance of the British Mandate authorities.
Jaffa oranges are harvested in Israel, the West Bank, and the Palestinian Territories between November and March, with the marketing season beginning in September and extending through until April. More than half the annual crop is exported, and Israel is a main provider of other citrus fruits to the European Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jaffa oranges became emblems of the Israeli state. A general decline in the importance of agriculture to the Israeli economy, extreme limits on available water resources, and the reliance on migrant laborers has reduced productivity. Overshadowed by manufacturing industries, such as diamonds and precision instruments, Israel nonetheless continues to export a large number of citrus fruits to Europe. It is therefore often targeted by BDS groups as an Israeli export (see also Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
In 1978, Israeli-grown Jaffa oranges sold in the Netherlands were poisoned with mercury in a purported effort to sabotage Israel's economy. Four Dutch children were hospitalized after eating the oranges. The governments of Netherlands and Germany received letters from a group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Army Palestinian Commando, claiming responsibility for the sabotage, although the PLO claimed it had never heard of the group. Small, silver-colored globules of mercury were found inside the fruit. The incidents began a spate of copy-cat poisonings and hoaxes, mostly of fruit from other countries. An investigation by Ehud Sprinzak and Ely Karmon concluded that the culprits of the original contaminations were most likely German sympathizers of the Palestinian cause.
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