Sales of award-winning olive oil worldwide helped empower 300 Arab women
By Coco Cresswell
In 1996 Hadas Lahav, a Jewish Israeli social activist, had a vision: a future of Arab-Israeli coexistence. That same year, through co-founding Sindyanna of Galilee, a female-led social enterprise producing olive oil and other local products, she began to put this dream into practice.
Situated in Israel’s north, the company adopts a ground-up approach to enforce positive change in the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Middle East’s most complex crisis dating back to before 1948. Revenue which Sindyanna generates from selling local products, including it’s award-winning extra virgin olive oil which is sold worldwide, is reinvested back into the community, whether in the form of jobs and education for Arab women, or development of sustainable agriculture, or the promotion of collaborative opportunities between Arabs and Israelis.
Coco Cresswell caught up with Hadas to learn more about her mission, and below are her written responses.
CC: How has Sindyanna of Galilee grown?
HL: We began as a small start-up selling local products (particularly olive oil) in Majd al Krum, an Arab village in upper Galilee. We’ve grown overtime both professionally and economically. In 2005, we moved to the industrial area of Kafr Kanna. As of today, Sindyanna of Galilee is the only certified Fair-Trade olive oil producer in Israel that operates among the country’s Arab population. This brings deep functional expertise and a practical approach, enabling us to build capabilities and deliver real impact.
CC: In what ways has Sindyanna of Galilee helped promote Arab-Israeli coexistence?
HL: Sindyanna of Galilee actively promotes the concepts of ‘social business’ and fair trade in Israel. We achieve this by selling Arab producers’ olive oil and other premium products in the international marketplace according to fair trade principles, and then channeling our profits back into the provision of education for Arab women.
The work we do aims to bridge cultural divides, encourage sustainable agriculture, and support organic farming.
We believe that our multiple international awards prove the possibility of peace and solidarity in the Middle East. Our work as a cohort of Arab and Jewish women is the ultimate response to the recent violence, war, and destruction of Gaza that we have lately experienced. The women of Sindyanna are truly agents of change. Their effort is an example of how we can build back our society on fairer foundations.
CC: How do you see Sindyanna of Galilee’s support to both Arab and Israeli women continuing in the future?
HL: We believe that the message of Sindyanna will become stronger and receive more support from our local community as well as the global one. As the COVID-19 pandemic taught us, the thing our world needs more is solidarity, which is the DNA and the RNA of our organization. In the future, we shall thrive to expand our activity to more sustainable agriculture and green environmental projects such as the hydroponic one. There are so many opportunities to grow and become more influential, but at the end of the day, it depends on you and me!
CC: In what way is Sindyanna of Galilee different from other organizations?
HL: Sindyanna stands out from other Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Israel because it has managed to combine an economic model with a unique social and political message.
Our Jewish Arab composition is a sign of our vision, which is to work toward an egalitarian and just society where the interests of all citizens are being cared for. This is also embedded in our fair trade identity: we work to level the disadvantaged Arab economy in Israel with its Jewish counterpart. We are against taking the relation of these two economies as a Zero-Sum Game, meaning that if one wins the other loses: that works against everyone. It nourishes feelings of bitterness that eventually translate into violence.
CC: How many jobs have Sindyanna help create since 1996? Tell us more about the educational services you provide?
HL: Arab women’s employment is a chief strategic objective of Sindyanna of Galilee. Employment is the best long-range tool against personal and communal poverty. Sindyanna took it upon themselves to approach housewives and to introduce them to skills that they can easily receive employment in, such as hydroponic agriculture, catering, and basketry weaving. Three hundred women have been professionally trained by Sindyanna and are now independent. Some of them have even started courses for other women and children in clubs and schools. Nine hundred others, having made the first step of leaving the house to participate in the course, have gained the courage to continue their education and seek jobs.
CC: What have been the greatest challenges that Sindyanna has faced?
HL: The greatest challenge that we face as a non-profit is continuing our goal to become good olive oil producers. Olive oil production is not a simple process. Equally, the women we employ come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and often have little to no professional experience in olive oil manufacturing. When we started Sindyanna, we decided that we would help all Arab and Israeli women, regardless of the extent of their education. Therefore, empowering them and teaching them how to make good quality products is a huge challenge for us – it takes a lot of awareness and investment to get to where we are today!
CC: Are there any plans for expansion in the products you provide?
HL: We always want to expand and develop our products. We look for local products that are produced locally in the Arab communities but will be attractive to the foreign market. Right now, we are looking to sell carob syrup, honey, halva, table olives, and tahini. A huge determinant in what we make is import costs. Due to globalization, Israeli and Palestinian farmers producing key ingredients, such as the sesame seeds needed for tahini, have been outcompeted by international firms. Therefore, although we produce plenty of products locally, cost still remains an important factor.
CC: How many farmers do you buy olives from? How has this number changed since 1996? What does that say about farmers’ notion of co-existence between Arabs and Israelis?
HL: In 1996, we started with a small group of farmers in Deir Hanna, northern Israel. Now, we purchase olives from 15 large groups of farmers who represent approximately 100 small families. The growing involvement in local communities suggests that more and more people want a future where everyone’s rights are respected. We cannot wait for politicians to find a magical solution. It doesn’t make sense that a Palestinian and an Israeli can live side by side and only one is given an identity card and freedom of movement. The Arab and Israeli women that we help at Sindyanna are only going to continue fighting for coexistence from the ground up.
CC: Has there been any negative reaction or response to the work you do? If so, can you tell us one of these responses and how you reacted to it?
HL: So far, Sindyanna has been appreciated by everyone for what we are trying to do. We have found that some Arab women’s families are resistant to the fact that their daughters and wives are working and considered as employees. However, I think a crucial aspect of the support we receive is because we take a very careful approach to the situation: we spend time carefully explaining what our dream is, meaning that even if certain people do not agree, they admire our work regardless.