Mid-May is the time when some people celebrate the anniversary of Israel's independence in 1948, while others, especially Palestinians, mourn the day as The Catastrophe.
Just one more occasion for me to shy away from political discussions that decades of experience have taught me can only end with friends and relatives, good people all, screaming at each other.
That's my sorry excuse for a resolution I've kept for years: to make sure I never became conversant on the subject so I can just beg off any debate.
I am the target demographic for Zatoun, the world's first fair trade extra virgin olive oil from Palestine, sold through grassroots and friendship-based networks and a few stores and congregations in and around Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia for the last three years.
The organization has now reached sales of 24,000 bottles, all through supporters who store cases of bottles and olive-based soaps in their garages and basements.
Robert Massoud, born in Jerusalem of Christian Palestinian parents and now living just north of Toronto, developed the project as "a people-sized initiative for those who want to make a difference" but who "throw up their hands and walk away" in despair from seemingly hopeless cycles of retaliation in the Middle East.
He's found a way to address the conflict with an olive branch.
On Thursday night (May 10), he took it to the United Jewish Peoples Order at the Winchevsky Centre on Cranbrooke in North York.
"I turned to the sale of olive oil because it's a life-giving substance that binds us together in the human experience of eating and sharing, and a symbol of life, hope and peace," he tells me. "The world today is in dire need of bridge-building. This is an invitation to walk the bridge."
In an era when food is increasingly valued as a storyteller that speaks of favourite memories, heartwarming commitment, fond hopes and deep connections, Massoud, a marketing consultant in his day job, has found the food equivalent of the thousand and one tales.
Long before today's scientific stories about healthy fats, the olive tree was portrayed as a holy and heartful gift in epics and mythologies from the dawn of Mediterranean agriculture and literature. It was the original comfort food.
Leaders, heroes and loved ones were commonly anointed with olive oil. Christ, from the Greek word for "the anointed one," brought a message of love, peace and redemption.
I've certainly done a good job of remaining studiously uninformed, if I do say so myself. I start our lengthy interview in a north Toronto hotel restaurant by asking how olive trees grow in a desert. Massoud rolls his eyes, gulps as if swallowing an imaginary Prozac pill and explains softly that the land of Palestine is very fertile and has long been home to a range of plants from Asia, Africa and Mediterranean Europe, which is why it was one of the birthplaces of world agriculture.
The picture of Palestine in your mind's eye comes from clips of confrontations by war correspondents, movies about nomadic peoples of the sand dunes and myths about deserts that only bloomed after Israel took control, he tells me.
"One of the greatest sins is to deny the story of another," he says. "Zatoun tells the story of Palestinians as people of the land, as rooted and permanent as their olive trees," many of which date back thousands of years.
This is what olive oil does, Massoud says. "People ask where it's from, who produces it. That's the beauty. It creates interest in others."
"Interesting," it happens, was one of the fave words of the famous psychotherapist Erich Fromm. It comes from the Latin for "to be in between," as in "to get right in there." Unlike curious people who remain passive and intellectual, Fromm argued in his bestselling The Revolution Of Hope, interest is based on "activeness," or "relatedness to the world."
Sales of Zatoun support about 150 farm families from the northern West Bank between Nablus and Jenin, Massoud estimates, as well as urban artisans who make olive oil soaps in Nablus, Palestine's second city and the birthplace of modern soap-making.
In general, Palestine's 12 million olive trees keep over 100,000 farm families and their urban neighbours alive, often alongside a three-times-a-day survival diet known as zatar: sesame seeds mixed with foraged sumach and wild mountain thyme gathered from the hillsides.
Massoud, who's recently returned from a harvest celebration in Palestine, says Palestinian spirits wither in urban areas occupied by Israeli troops, where people rush home to beat the sunset curfew rather than visit friends and relatives. But the harvest brings families together - they can often pick 40 kilograms of olives from one tree - and "ties them to a way of life, an identity and a history. Anything that contributes to livelihoods and gives hope contributes to peace," he says.
The sale of Palestinian olive oil also lays the basis for an export trade - about a third of what's already produced has no market outlet - that can help support the economy when peace returns, says Massoud.
The organization, which partners with the Palestine Fair Trade Association, is a virtual company (www.zatoun. com), with no staff, no warehouse and no sales accounts, and does its marketing through personal networks. A dollar from each sale goes to Project Hope, a Canadian initiative that engages youth from the war-torn land in therapeutic art. Another goes to the replanting of trees destroyed by the occupation and the construction of Israel's Wall.
But after you buy a bottle, the group urges, protest Israel's illegal uprooting of the trees. "To seize an ancient olive tree', the website says, "is like a confiscation of memory."
WHERE TO BUY ZATOUN OLIVE OIL
www.zatoun.com or these outlets. (Please check for availability.)
KARMA CO-OP 739 Palmerston (rear), 416-534-1470.
FAIR TRADE CLOTHING CO-OP 509 Bloor West, 647-436-6256.
4 LIFE NATURAL FOODS 257 Augusta, 416-591-6800.
ALTERNATIVE GROUNDS COFFEE 333 Roncesvalles, 416-534-5543.
TORONTO WOMEN'S BOOKSTORE 73 Harbord, 416-922-8744
ARABESQUE MIDDLE EASTERN FOODS 1068 College, 416-504-8146.
ORGANICS ON BLOOR, 468 Bloor West, 416-538-1333.