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The End of the Jaffa Orange Highlights Israel Economic Shift

Agricultural exports have plunged as tech and pharma thrive.

Idan Zehavi in the orchard planted by his grandfather.

Idan Zehavi in the orchard planted by his grandfather.

Photographer: Amir Levy for Bloomberg Businessweek

Almost two centuries ago, Ottoman farmers in what’s now Israel began cultivating a new citrus variety, a sweet-but-tart-and-juicy delicacy called the Jaffa orange—named after the historic port city adjacent to today’s Tel Aviv. Exports surged as gourmands across the Middle East and Europe fell in love with the fruit, and the Rothschild family made citrus plantations the economic foundation of their efforts to create a home for Jews in the region. When refugees flocked to the area in the early 20th century, they quickly saw the potential of the Jaffa orange to fund the state they dreamed of building.

But in recent years, the fruit has fallen on hard times. Since peaking in the early 1980s at 1.8 million tons a year, Israeli citrus production has dropped almost 75%. That decline highlights Israel’s shift away from its socialist, agrarian roots and its emergence as a tech powerhouse. With a strengthening currency making exports less competitive and scarce water supplies raising the cost of cultivation, oranges—and many other crops—are no longer worth the effort. Agriculture has fallen to 2% of goods exports, from a peak above 40% in the 1950s, as the plains and gentle hills around Tel Aviv have been bulldozed to make way for malls, apartment blocks, and office parks for growing ranks of software coders and pharmaceutical researchers. “Land here in the center of Israel is so expensive, most of the orchards were cut down,” third-generation orange grower Idan Zehavi says in the grove first planted by his grandfather.