In February, the Washington Post published a broadside attack on Israeli food by the Palestinian food writer Reem Kassis. Kassis did not object to the flavors, textures, or aromas of Israeli food but to the very idea that it exists at all. Her piece might be the most visible example of this bizarre food fight targeting Israel. But it’s hardly the first one.
A few years ago, for example, after television food-show host Rachel Ray wrote about her “Israeli nite” dinner of hummus, eggplant, and other Middle Eastern dips, pollster James Zogby responded on Twitter with hashtags of fury: “Damn it @rachaelray. This is cultural #genocide. It’s not #Israeli food.”
Likewise, in 2017, when Conan O’Brien made the mistake of describing shakshuka as “Israeli,” he was accosted on camera by anti-Israel activists who insisted that the eggs-and-tomato dish is really Palestinian. (It isn’t. As Libyan food writer Sara Elmusrati has explained, Sephardic Jews brought the dish from its original home in North Africa to Israel, where it’s been “showcased in a way it has never been in the Maghreb states.”)
Kassis’s piece in the Washington Post uses more measured tones in an attempt to explain the angry reactions to a straightforward phrase. “As it is for many Palestinians, the term ‘Israeli cuisine’ is hard for me to swallow,” she writes.
After being introduced to an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia that serves Levantine food, she explains, her eyes were opened to the gravity of the problem:
It’s not that I am opposed to the idea or can’t tolerate cultural diversity and fusion. To the contrary, I know full well that our Palestinian cuisine, like every other, is a byproduct of evolution and diffusion. In fact, the concept of national cuisine is a relatively recent construct, appearing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries following the rise of the nation-state.
But cultural diffusion is different from cultural appropriation. Diffusion is the result of people from different cultures living in close quarters and interacting with or learning from one another. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, relies on exploitation and consequent erasure, followed by the willful denying of those actions. Food, after all, is an expression of history, culture, and tradition. By this token, presenting dishes of Palestinian provenance as “Israeli” not only denies the Palestinian contribution to Israeli cuisine, but it erases our very history and existence.
Israeli food is bad, in other words, because Israelis are bad. Those who talk about, celebrate, and serve the cuisine aim to exploit and erase Palestinians. And to suggest otherwise isn’t just disagreement, it is “willful denial.” The evidence of all this bad faith? Well, Kassis just knows it.
There is some irony to her comments. One doesn’t often encounter Israeli food writers who deny the existence of, and confront references to, Palestinian food. On the contrary, Kassis herself cites “leading Israeli food scholars” and “many Israeli academics and food writers” who give Palestinian food its due. Israelis in general refer to their chopped salad as “Arab salad,” she acknowledges while making a particular point, never mind that it undermines her central argument about nefarious Israeli appropriation.
Even the anecdote about the Philadelphia restaurant raises questions. The most prominent Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, Michael Solomonov’s Zahav, matches Kassis’s description of being “newly opened” shortly after she moved to the city. And Solomonov, a James Beard Award–winning Israeli chef, doesn’t hesitate to highlight the Palestinian connection to the food he makes. In the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, for example, he freely acknowledges that many Israeli foods have Palestinian-Arab roots. (Kassis should know this. She’s friends with Solomonov.)
The denial and erasure, rather, tend to go in the opposite direction. The delegitimization of Israeli food is a predictable outgrowth of a broader campaign to denigrate Israel itself and to deny the culture and humanity of its Jewish citizens. We can look to campus for some typical examples: “The only Israeli food that they eat is the blood of the Palestinian people,” wrote a Kent State student who later headed the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. (This, of course, is a reprise of the blood libel that cost so many Jewish lives in Europe.)
Similar slurs come from higher up the ivory tower. “Israeli food, you Zionist occupiers and thieves? It [is] as Israeli as Apple pie is Arabic,” mused California State professor Asad Abukhalil.
Although this language sounds more extreme than anything Kassis wrote, she suggests in her Post article that the same sentiment—the view that Jews in Israel are thieves—drives her reflux upon hearing the phrase Israeli food: “First the land, now the food and culture?” The verb and actor are missing from the sentence, but they are understood. It is the Jews who returned to their ancestral home and who stole Palestinian land and food.
Aside from the unhealthy rage that often accompanies these arguments, what’s wrong with the claim that there is no such thing as Israeli food?
Most plainly, there’s the matter of basic geography. If you take a map and highlight locales where hummus has long been a staple, you’d end up with florescent yellow across Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza; and also Jaffa, Tiberias, Abu Ghosh, Akko, and Daliyat al-Karmel—towns and cities in Israel. Try as some might to scrub it away, Israel remains on the map of the Middle East.
But, the food-fighters might object, those towns only became Israeli after 1948, when the modern State of Israel was established. Previously they were part of Palestine. Indeed, what had been known as Canaan, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Judaea, Syria Palaestina, Southern Syria, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Beirut Vilayet was officially dubbed, when the British took control of the land in the First World War, Palestine.
The whole while, though, the land was known by its Jewish inhabitants as Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. Aware of this, the British High Commissioner of Palestine included the Hebrew letters Aleph and Yud—“a recognized abbreviation of the Hebrew name ‘Eretz Israel,’” he explained—on Palestinian coins and stamps as part of the Hebrew designation for the territory. Even Arab geographers of yore referred to the environs of Israel’s southern desert as “Tih Bani Isra’il,” or Land of the Wandering of the Children of Israel.
At any rate, previous territorial names, such as Palestine, don’t tend to matter much at the dinner table. One can safely talk of Bolivian food without fear of attack by those who insist we use South Peru (the country’s earlier moniker) instead of Bolivia (a name that, unlike Israel, has European roots). It’s okay to order Thai instead of Siamese, Ethiopian instead of Abyssinian, and Korean instead of Samhan. In the same manner, there’s nothing wrong with describing regional foods from within the borders of the State of Israel as Israeli food.
That should be the end of the story. But the food-fighters offer a further objection: Israel is the Jewish state; Jews aren’t legitimate sons and daughters of that land; and Arabs, the true custodians of hummus, don’t view their identity as tied to the term Israel.
This amounts to just more erasure. Firstly, much of the country’s non-Jewish Arab-speaking population does use “Israel” or “Israeli” when self-identifying. According to a 2019 poll by sociologist Sammi Smooha, for example, 27 percent of that population, or about 500,000 Arab citizens of Israel, call themselves Israeli Arab, Israeli Palestinian, or just Israeli. An additional 46 percent include “in Israel” as part of their Arab or Palestinian identity.
Moreover, when Kassis and others insist on calling Middle Eastern food “Arab,” they ignore the many non-Arab minorities in the region who are counted among hummus’s guardians, whether Samaritan, Coptic, Assyrian, Armenian, or other.
And it is one particular “other” that really sticks in the craw of critics. The paramount act of erasure by those opposed to Israeli food—and the entire point of their protest—is the argument that Jews are alien to the region, usurping colonists from afar who have no business regarding hummus as part of their culture. It is the Cal State professor’s “Zionist thieves” narrative.
The history of the Jewish people tells a different story. Throughout the multiethnic Middle East, Jews ate and made hummus for as long as anyone has. If you search for the world’s earliest known published hummus recipe, for example, you’d find it in 13th-century Egypt. There, you’d also find a prominent demographic minority of Jews—the ancestors of so many Egyptian Jews who took the short voyage east to Israel.
In her article, though, Kassis deftly dodges this reality, arguing that Jews from the Arab world, or Mizrahi Jews, are not to be associated with Near Eastern food:
Some might counter that Mizrahi Jews brought these dishes to Israel. But hummus and falafel were not part of the culinary repertoire of most Mizrahi Jews before their immigration in the 1950s, as they were generally eaten in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine, rather than in North Africa, Yemen, and Iraq, from where most Mizrahi immigrants hailed.
Just like that, she snips the roots of a hundred thousand Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese Jews. And for what? To deny their connection to processed legumes. Jewish roots in the Levant, it seems, are an inconvenient reminder that Jews have been part of the “Arab world” even longer than the Arab world was Arab.
But the main target of the food-fighters isn’t those roots in Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq. It’s the taproot—the place that unites Jews across the Middle East with one another and with Jews worldwide. It is the Jewish relationship to the Holy Land, specifically, that offends.
And so it may pain James Zogby and Asad Abukhalil to hear that hummus was not merely the food of so many Jews from Arab countries who fled to Israel in the past century, but also a likely favorite of generations of Jews who never left Zion—those who managed to remain for thousands of years, despite massacre after massacre and expulsion after expulsion.
In the abridged version of Jewish history, we learn that Jews made their home in Israel for thousands of years, were expelled, lived in exile for another 2,000 years, then returned. Although that describes the trajectory of many, it is a half-truth. To the extent they could, Jews clung on to their homeland just as any people would in the realm of their ancestors and holy places.
Roughly 2,600 years ago, then, when the Babylonians conquered ancient Israel and exiled the Jews, most of the Jewish community stayed behind. It was only 50 years later that a new foreign conqueror, Cyrus of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and facilitated the return home of many of those in exile.
The Jews were still there a few hundred years later when Alexander the Great appeared and were still there when his empire disintegrated. They remained in Israel to live out the Hanukkah story, a revolt by an indigenous people against foreign rulers. And they remained to revolt, twice more, against the subsequent Roman invaders. The first Jewish defeat was marked by an arch in Rome depicting the menorah and other Jewish spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem; the second included the massacre of rebels, the infamous exile, and the renaming of Judea to Syria Palaestina.
Though the expulsion of Jews opened the book on Jewish life in Europe, it didn’t close the book on Jewish life in Israel. We know, for example, that for centuries after the Roman victory, Jewish communities thrived in and around northern Israel. Today, we can still find the remains of their towns and synagogues. Arab villagers who subsequently resettled one of those Jewish towns named their new village Yehudiya, a reference to the Jews who, they fully understood, preceded them.
From those homes in the north, Jews again revolted in the year 351. In 572, they joined a Samaritan revolt. In 613, they fought off the Byzantines.
After Muhammad’s armies came to Israel from Arabia, thousands of Jews still lived there. In the 10th century, for example, an Arab geographer wrote of their flourishing in Jerusalem—“Everywhere the Christians and the Jews have the upper hand”—working as tanners and dyers and moneychangers. It is easy to imagine a chickpea being smashed after a long day at work.
Around the year 1000, letters written by Egyptian Jews referred to Jewish towns dotting the land of Israel. The residents of those towns joined forces with Muslims to fight yet another round of European invaders, the Crusaders.
Each of these revolts was followed by massacres of Jews in their homeland that devastated the community. But those who survived still managed to keep a foothold on the land—sometimes a smaller one and sometimes a larger one, as fortunes dictated.
Meanwhile, Jews living in exile returned. Among the notable examples, the famed poet Yehuda Halevi arrived in the Land of Israel from Spain in 1141. Many of those who developed the Kabbalah, the branch of Jewish mysticism, were Jews who moved from Spain to the city of Tzfat in the 1500s. In the mid-18th century, the Arab leader Zahir al-Omar welcomed Jews back to Tiberias, another of their holy cities. About 100 years later, Jews became the largest religious group in Jerusalem, a city from which they were barred for centuries.
None of this is to suggest that medieval Palestine was the demographic center of Judaism. Vast numbers of Jews lived in exile in Spain, Poland, and Iraq, for example, as the population of the Holy Land dwindled during much of the second millennium. Still, to those who decry Israeli hummus, we can confidently point out that Jews and hummus do share the same homeland.
We might also remind them that it’s no coincidence that Israel is, again today, home to the largest concentration of Jews in the world—Jews who are there not as “colonists,” as anti-Israel activists like to claim, but as an indigenous people who continuously maintained their ethnic, cultural, and religious links to the land, even from afar.
Evidence of those links abound in Jewish rites. When Jews pray, they face Jerusalem, a city mentioned repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible and prayer books. They observe Tisha b’Av, a holiday about the Temple in Jerusalem. They mark Sukkoth, one of three ancient festivals during which Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple. And they celebrate Hanukkah every year by lighting a candelabra designed to look like the menorah from the Temple. Over the past 2,000 years, that same Jerusalemite design has decorated synagogues in Jericho, Jewish tombs in Rome, and Hebrew Bibles in France.
The timing of those holidays is based on an ancient Middle Eastern calendar, not a Western one. The songs commemorating them are sung in Hebrew, a language Jews never discarded, regardless of where they were forced to settle.
In medieval Spain, for example, Yehuda Halevi wrote not in Spanish, but in Hebrew. In one of his poems, he described his longing for the homeland he had never seen: “My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West. So how can I even taste what I eat? How can it give me pleasure?” Perhaps he regained his appetite when he sojourned in Egypt with the Jewish community there en route to Jerusalem. It was right around that time and place, recall, that the earliest known hummus recipe was published.
The conviction that the Land of Israel is the Jewish home stayed with Jews through the darkest periods of their history. In 1945, President Harry Truman sent an envoy to displaced-persons camps that housed Holocaust survivors. The envoy reported back that Jews “want to be evacuated to Palestine now, just as other national groups are being repatriated to their homes.”
And still today, polls indicate that most Jews see their Jewishness as a matter of ancestry and culture, even more than religion. A vast majority of American Jews feel that a thriving State of Israel is vital to the future of the Jewish people. An overwhelming majority of British Jews, 93 percent, say that Israel plays a role in their Jewish identity.
The connection between Jews and their homeland, then, is reflected in the genes of Jews everywhere, in the footsteps of the Jewish community that remained and returned, and in the hearts of Jewish poets who, like Yehuda Halevi, dream of Zion.
It is past time for Israel’s critics to accept that the relationship can be found, too, in Jewish stomachs. Or they can continue banging on the table. But it will remain the case that Israel is on the map; that Israeli towns, like Palestinian ones, are celebrated for Levantine cuisine; that Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jewish, are weaned on that food; and that Jews, whether Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, are not strangers in the land of their forefathers.
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