'Israeli' hummus is theft, not appropriation

'Israeli' hummus is theft, not appropriation
6 min read

Steven Salaita

04 September, 2017
Comment: Referencing Arab defensiveness about traditional dishes without mentioning colonisation or ethnic cleansing is a whitewash, writes Steven Salaita.
'No good liberal supports piracy' writes Salaita [AFP]
Nothing can produce meaningless disagreement more effectively than the phrase "cultural appropriation".

It doesn't take much for a local conflagration about costume or cuisine to become a national story, which quickly becomes a pretext for sanctimonious pundits to ridicule spoiled millennials and oversensitive people of colour.

Rarely does anything get done in the debate; antagonists recite shabby arguments with the consistency of a midwestern interstate. Corporate media curate the squabbling as a sideshow to meatier issues of capitalism and colonisation. It's probably time to retire the phrase. 

We shouldn't stop critiquing race and representation, though. Much of the bickering about cultural appropriation arises from disparities of language and meaning, something especially true when the topic is food. The public debate, as arbitrated by high-traffic sites, is crude and sensational. As a result, certain misunderstandings predominate.

Too many think-pieces prattle on about the inherent multinationalism of all dishes, even those seen as sacrosanct (for instance, Italian pasta actually being Chinese or Irish potatoes as New World imports.)  

In reality, the idea that people cannot enjoy foreign delicacies or transcend an atavistic notion of cultural belonging isn't common. While some unfortunately argue for a kind of gastronomic nationalism, opposition to food appropriation is more complex (whether or not that opposition is justified depends on the specifics of the situation).

The complexity often gets lost in rhetorical coarseness, a problem exacerbated by the rigid connotations of terms like "appropriation".
The problem isn't who cooks or eats, but who controls the branding and profitability of the food
The problem isn't who cooks or eats, but who controls the branding and profitability of the food. Cuisine isn't merely an ethnic signifier; it is likewise a valuable commodity.  

When celebrity chefs put a gourmet spin on peasant dishes, it can feel like a kind of cultural bastardisation, a feeling made worse by longstanding experiences of racism and dispossession.

Food politics isn't about personal choice; it is an antagonistic ritual of production and consumption. Huge economies are attached to branding the exotic and the authentic; in a system of limited resources, conflict over these abstract but tangible assets shouldn't be surprising.

Yet pundits insist on reducing complicated socio-economic (and rhetorical) phenomena to personal ignorance and intolerance, a lazy approach too many editors reward. Take a recent New York Times op-ed by Bari Weiss, which tries to offer a rational intervention but manages only to recite platitudes and clichés (complete with a pointless, ahistorical reference to Martin Luther King, Jr, the indignant white person's favorite gambit).
Read more: A moral case against normalisation with Israel
Of greatest interest is Weiss' discussion of Palestinian cuisine. She writes:

"Consider the simple act of eating a meal in an era of cultural purity. This weekend I had dinner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, cooked by a Palestinian who was raised in Israel where her brother served in Parliament. Yet her restaurant is billed as Lebanese. And she accents her traditional dishes with herbs - cilantro, basil - that would never be found on a plate in the Levant. But if proponents of cultural purity had their way, I'd have spent the evening cordoned on the Upper West Side watching "Yentl" and eating gefilte fish."

Weiss is either spectacularly clueless or brazenly dishonest. She implies - for her piece is filled with malice dressed up as commonsensical incredulity - that "online hordes" (Palestinians, presumably) would be enraged that a Jew patronised Tanoreen, a Middle Eastern restaurant.  

(Ignore Weiss' petty and passive-aggressive suggestion that Tanoreen chef, Rawia Bishara, appropriates Lebanese cuisine.)

Weiss knows, or should know, that the controversy about Israel's appropriation of Palestinian food - most infamously its claim to hummus, a lucrative product in Europe and North America - has nothing to do with Jews eating Arabic food. In fact, it has nothing to do with Jews at all. That ludicrous idea is possible only because Zionists aggressively conflate Jewishness with Israel. 

The controversy about Israel's appropriation of Palestinian food has nothing to do with Jews eating Arabic food

Instead, it has everything to do with a deliberate, decades-old programme to disappear Palestinians. Referencing Arab defensiveness about traditional dishes without mentioning colonisation or ethnic cleansing is a whitewash.

Weiss provides a textbook example of liberal Zionist disdain presenting as multicultural devotion. Palestinians are well familiar with that hustle. 

We don't need to rely on intuition to arrive at this conclusion. Weiss clues us in by sneaking Israel into the equation. Chef Bishara's brother, after all, served in the Knesset, which introduces an Israeli stake into Weiss' dining choices, but is otherwise a trivial piece of information. It might have been useful for Weiss to mention that for years Israel persecuted the brother, Azmi, before expelling him from the country.

When Zionists (or their oblivious collaborators) claim Arabic food as Israeli, it's not a paragon of intercultural harmony but the studious destruction of Palestinian culture. We can mitigate ambiguity by avoiding the word "appropriation," which doesn't adequately capture the dynamics of Israel's voracious appetite for anything that can be marked "Indigenous," which it needs to shore up an ever-tenuous sense of legitimacy.

"Theft" is more accurate. It is also rhetorically superior. Discourses of modernity exalt cultural interchange, but no good liberal supports piracy.

We should remember that while chefs, shopkeepers, and propagandists validate the theft, the main culprit is the Israeli government, which brands falafel the 'national snack'

We should remember that while chefs, shopkeepers, and propagandists validate the theft, the main culprit is the Israeli government, which brands falafel the "national snack" and advertises a plethora of Levantine dishes as authentically Israeli in tacky Brand Israel campaigns.

State involvement in the pilfer of Palestinian food illustrates that we shouldn't reduce the issue to individual consumption. It's a systematic effort to validate settler colonisation.

It's no shock, then, that Palestinians and their neighbours get salty whenever hearing the phrase "Israeli hummus." Using Arabic food as a symbol of Zionist identity hands over the day-to-day victuals of the native to the coloniser. It's a project of erasure, a portent of nonexistence, a promise of genocide.

No state that destroys olive groves and poisons the environment has a right to claim the objects of sustenance harvested for centuries by other people. 

I've never met a Palestinian who is angered by a non-Arab consuming Levantine food. In fact, the vast majority are delighted when outsiders partake of the culture.

Palestinians, like their Lebanese, Jordanian, and Syrian neighbours, are damn proud of their food (all four groups argue among themselves, along with Greeks and Turks, about the regional provenance of certain dishes - Israel is a nonfactor in those arguments, which long predate Theodor Herzl's birthday).  

The problem arises when somebody calls that food "Israeli".

The main argument for "Israeli" food is that Jews prepared and ate staple dishes in Iraq, Morocco, Yemen and Palestine. This is indisputable. The rootedness of Jews in the Arab World should be acknowledged, studied, and celebrated.  

But those Jews weren't eating Israeli food. To say so actually demeans Mizrahi history by suggesting an inability to partake of their own national and cultural milieus, another example of Zionism demanding a narrow sense of identity.

Such is to be expected of an ideology defined by a rapacious appetite for other people's possessions. "Israeli" couscous, hummus, falafel, shawarma, fattoush, mjuddera, and knafeh, like the state forever aggregating glory from deception, is merely a rawboned fantasy nourished by a gluttonous diet of empty calories. 

Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  Follow him on Twitter: @stevesalaita 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.