BDS bulletin: Reappropriating hummus for justice

BDS bulletin: Reappropriating hummus for justice

7 min read
26 March, 2019
Israel has long appropriated Palestinian cuisine and Arab dishes, rebranding them as its own to efface the culture of the lands it occupies. But Palestinians are fighting back, and winning.
Israel appropriates Palestinian food and calls it its own [AFP]

Food is very political, but many do not know it.

For some time now, ethically minded people have sought to ensure that everything in their daily life, as well as being healthy and whole, should be fairly sourced and traded, environmentally sustainable and unharmful to sentient life, human or animal. That nothing they consume should come at the expense of someone else's well-being or very survival.

While a lot of the sentiment about food sourcing and ethics is fuelling culture wars, there is a lot of merit to the adage: You are what you eat - wholesome or rotten.

The harm food can cause can take on unbearably sinister forms, enabling oppression, human rights abuses, settler-colonialism and historical revisionism aimed at effacing a native people's identity. And people who care about where their food comes from and what it does to life and habitats should care just as much about what role food plays in human rights abuses in the context of war, occupation and apartheid.

Perhaps one of the most notorious and ongoing examples in the world today involves Israel's manipulation of food to further the oppression of Palestinians under occupation and blockade.

Read more:'Israeli' hummus is theft, not appropriation

Israel dishes out its poisonous cookery in more ways than one, and in steadily progressing steps of insidiousness.

First, Israel, a state built largely by Jewish immigrants and refugees from Europe from scratch atop the ruins of the long-standing nation of Palestine, directly appropriates the cuisine of the Palestinians, the native people of that land.

Now this is not to say that Israel has no cuisine of its own. And if you're a Jewish immigrant or descendant of Jewish immigrants originally from an Arab nation, then Arab cuisine is part of your heritage as an Arab Jew - very few people use this term today, but there was once a time when one could be called both Jewish and Arab.

The problem is taking that heritage from Palestinians and Arabs, then rebranding as Israeli.

While the practice is often met with ridicule and laughter from Arabs when they read something like "Israeli hummus", "Israeli falafel", "Israeli fattoush", "Israeli shawarma" and now recently even "Israeli zaatar", the appropriation is very serious and inseparable from Israel's propaganda.

For Israel, this appropriation kills two birds with one stone: Efface any notion that Palestinians whom they have conquered and colonised are a native people of that land with their own ancient culture, cuisine, and history; and invent a history for the modern state of Israel even if through sheer fabrication.

"Cuisine is a marker of people's identity just like language and traditions," Palestinian chef Sufian Mustafa told The New Arab. Mustafa is the food historian behind the 'Taste of Jerusalem' initiative, and he has prepared a study on the likely history of hummus and falafel.

Far from being Israeli, a young state created in 1948, first mentions of hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini), he chronicles, could be traced back to 12th century Aleppo, in a book by Ibn al-Adim (1192-1262), an Arab diplomat, biographer and historian.

As for falafel, which Israelis claim is a modern food invented by Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century, Chef Mustafa says it most likely originates sometime between the 18th and 19th century as a street food inspired by the long-standing Arab Kebbeh dishes and similar dishes found in Yemen, East Africa and India.

Imperialistic and warmongering nations have long used food as a weapon

Food as a weapon of war

But Israel uses food warfare in a much more direct manner than linguistic gaslighting.

Imperialistic and warmongering nations have long used food as a weapon. The Syrian regime is known to lay siege to entire counties starving them of food and medicine, while Saudi Arabia has not only blockaded Qatar and Yemen cutting off their food supply, but even deliberately used airstrikes on farms to engineer a famine in rebel-held areas of Yemen.

During the embargo of Iraq, US-engineered sanctions and the scandalous "oil-for-food" programme may have killed half a million children from malnutrition. And we don't need to dig deeper into history to understand that food has always been an instrument of oppression.

Back to Israel: In November, an open letter by 85 chefs, food writers and food experts published by the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement targeting Israel put a glaring spotlight on Israeli food oppression against the Palestinians.

Lobbying - successfully - a number of international chefs to withdraw from an Israeli culinary event, they wrote: "While Israel hosts international chefs in Tel Aviv for Round Tables, the Israeli military will be counting the calories allowed into Gaza only 40 miles away, keeping the entire population on a state-sanctioned starvation diet. Palestinians' farmlands will continue to be expropriated for illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank; their homes and olive orchards demolished; and traditional Palestinian foods, including falafel, hummus, tahini, and zaatar, will continue to be claimed and marketed as Israeli.

"This continues on while Palestinian residents within Israel are treated as second-class citizens, a status reaffirmed legally by the recently passed Nation State Law."

If you think it's ridiculous wait until you hear this: Apparently, the famed Palestinian knafeh sweet is 'Israeli cheesecake with shredded filo'

The curious case of 'Israeli couscous'

Thanks to such efforts of culinary resistance by Palestinians and BDS supporters, Israel's slight of plate is barely fooling anyone worth their salt and pepper. Testifying to this, liberal minded Israeli chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi who co-wrote his cookbook with Palestinian chef Sammi Tamimi, today avoid appropriating Palestinian food, seeking a middle ground of fusion and collaboration.

"I'm not anti-Israeli, not anti-Jew, not anti-anything, just anti-misinformation. I think to label makloubeh and sayyadiyeh - dishes that actually mean something in Arabic and are historically from Palestine, from Arabs - to be presented and cooked and sold as Israeli is offensive and frightening," Palestinian-British chef Joudie Kalla said in a 2017 interview. "It's the deletion of a culture and people."

Kalla is author of one of the most seminal works reasserting the "Palestinian-ness" of her homeland's food, Palestine on a Plate.

More recently, in her book Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen, Yasmin Khan went further, writing something that is more than a recipe book: It is a chronicle of origins of several famed dishes from Palestine and stories about resistance in the kitchen, for example about how the Israeli blockade of Gaza affects availability of ingredients and how Gazan cooks made do.

"It is impossible to talk about Palestinian cuisine, Khan learned, without acknowledging the effects of the Israeli occupation," as a Guardian review puts it.

Although not a Palestinian herself, Khan has a history of advocacy for human rights in Palestine, through which she travelled extensively as part of her work, earning her the respect of a number of Palestinian chefs such as Rawia Bishara and Reem Assil.

Fervent Zionists have noticed. Writing for Algemeiner, Ira Stoll, an American pro-Israel columnist, assailed liberal media in the West, including The New York Times, for allegedly supporting BDS and rushing to the defence of Palestinian cuisine.

In the column, he railed against the Times for daring to publish an "adoring feature, beginning on the section front and continuing to a full page inside the section, about (the same) Yasmin Khan". His beef with her? That she supports the BDS movement, as if that's a crime self-evidently deserving of censorship by the newspaper.

But perhaps most tellingly, Stoll attacked the Times for omitting to mention "Israeli couscous" in a recipe in the food section, calling it instead "pearl couscous".

You heard that right, the North African staple is apparently Israeli. But Stoll was referring to Ptitim, a type of toasted pasta shaped like rice grains, little balls, or multiple other shapes developed in Israel in the 1950s when rice was scarce. And typical of Zionism's appropriation of everything it touches, Israelis have since rebranded it as "pearl couscous", "Jerusalem couscous", or "Israeli couscous".

If you think it's ridiculous wait until you hear this: Apparently, the famed Palestinian knafeh sweet is "Israeli cheesecake with shredded filo".

Need a bucket yet?

The BDS Bulletin is a new regular feature brought to you by The New Arab. To receive The BDS Bulletin in your email each week, sign up here.

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter: @kareemios