A Hummus without People for a People without Hummus

In the fall, I wrote a post about why I support boycotting Israeli goods at the Park Slope Food Coop. Since then, I’ve read many articles about the campaign. Including this one, which refers to the shared passion within the Park Slope Food Coop and the state of Israel, for “hummus and couscous.”  And a blog post in which the author opposes boycott, demanding “more hummus, please” – exhibiting an interest in expanding the cuisine they can consume, and no concern for who it’s being taken from.

This casual reference to such historic and common Arab foods, without acknowledging them as such, relates to a much larger process that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time- unabashed Israeli and Jewish-American appropriation of Arab foods.

This can also be seen within the description of a class that took place at the Coop last night about Jewish foods from around the world, in which the (unacknowledged) politically charged inclusion of hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh is par for the course in these kinds of multicultural Jewish food programs.  I wrote the chef inviting her to consider the bigger context her class will be taking place in and hoping she will be open to making the connections between good food and good politics:

I am writing to reach out from one social justice conscious cook to another. We know that food is inherently cultural, inherently political. As people who have studied and immersed ourselves in the amazingly rich and diverse range of cuisines developed by Jews living in different parts of the world, we can actually use hummus as an important opportunity to open up dialogue about how Jews live amongst and are influenced by other cultures…that there are foods and lands (i.e. Israel/Palestine) that do not belong exclusively to us, and we can give respect to Arab cultural contributions to the world.

She didn’t respond.

This issue goes way back, of course- before Chickpea, Mimi’s Hummus, or The Hummus Place all popped up in NYC…

A large part of the creation of a Jewish state was the rejection of the “weak” culture of Jews living in exile and the attempt to create a native Israeli culture, a culture that was not European. This project has involved the expropriation of many aspects of Palestinian culture as well as Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) cultures. Traditional Middle Eastern foods like falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber-tomato salad have been appropriated and presented as typically Israeli foods, with no acknowledgement of the origins of these foods.(much like the state itself and the treatment of the towns and buildings Israelis now reside in).

Student Exhibit at University of Maryland Global Communities

The fascination that the early Jewish settlers in Palestine had with the native Arab population’s agriculture, clothing, and food is apparent in the literary and artistic representations of these Zionist settlers- wearing kuffiyehs, eating olives and Arabic bread- associating themselves with agricultural work and Mediterranean ways of life far from the shtetl back in Europe.

Yael Raviv has analyzed how the falafel became a perfect icon of Israeli national culture because it came to represent a proud, ethnically mixed society rooted in that area of the world. Claiming a traditional and common food of the Middle East was a part of claiming the historic connection and ownership of that land that Israel asserts for itself.  

Political scientist Ahmad Sa’di nails this process for what it is. He observes how the local herbs Palestinians use for cooking and healing, such as Za’atar, have “become a part of an Israeli ‘nativist’ approach…Palestinian culture has thus become a pool from which Israelis pick and choose in order to build an ‘authentic’ Israeli culture.”

In thinking about this piece, I solicited the opinion of my dear friend and fellow Big Ceci contributor, Zein El-Amine, who was born and raised in Lebanon.  I wanted to hear what he has to say as someone whose culture is being breached by this culinary cooptation.

Here is what Zein shared with me:

Many years ago I noticed an increase of the acquisition of unquestionably Arab foods by Israelis and American Zionists.  I noticed this in restaurants where foods such as Fattoush and tabbouleh, distinctly Arab salads, were being referred to as Israeli Salads. In the same period a comedic short film was released mocking the falafel wars between Israelis and Palestinians.  American liberals thought it was funny how something as “silly” as Falafel would be a point of contention. This is consistent with the liberal “balanced” view that gives equates the morality of the cultural domination of an occupier with that of the Arab resistance to the acquisition of its culture.

In the case of Hummus, a food with a long, well documented history of being part of Arab culture, Zionists have not even bothered to change its Arab name to claim as their own.  The word Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic. The actual name for Hummus in most Arab countries is Hummus Bi Tahini which means chickpeas with tahini, to distinguish it from plain chickpeas (note to the colonizers: tahini comes from the Arabic word Tahana, “that which is ground,” because it is made from ground sesame seed.)

Israel has gone to great lengths to claim hummus, at one point breaking the world record for the biggest batch of hummus.  The Lebanese were disgusted at this brazen incursion on Arab culture and answered by breaking the Israeli record and in turn breaking record batches for several Arab and Lebanese dishes that were being claimed by Israel.

To any Arab and any person of conscience, this attempt to occupy Arab food is the same as the occupation of land and displacement of people. Just as there was the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land,” Israel is trying to now claim a food without people for a people without food.  I do not say this to denigrate the rich Jewish culture that can be tapped to establish an identity, on the contrary, the question becomes: if you have such a rich culture then why are you taking such desperate measures to claim foreign foods (Palestinian in this case) as your own?  And the answer is quite simply that the folks who are engaged in such a project know that in order to complete the colonial project of ethnic cleansing, you need to dilute the identity of the people that you are displacing.

13 thoughts on “A Hummus without People for a People without Hummus

  1. This is a great article Ora and Zein! Hopefully groups like More Hummus, Please can read this, take a step back, and truly look at the implications of what they’re so vehemently fighting for.

  2. When does adopting cultural elements from your environment become appropriation?
    There is no denying that the Zionist project involves the disenfranchisement of Palestinians and the deletion of their history, Hummus is probably the worst example of this process. If there was ever an intention of convincing the Jews that Hummus is an Israeli invention, it only succeeded among the North American Jews.
    Israelis all know well that Hummus is Arab. For example, when the most popular news source in Israel published a list of the top ten Hummus places (http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-1114288,FF.html), half are Arab and most of the others have names that try to pretend they are Arab.

  3. agree with apatir above. there is no question of the real zionist violence, appropriation and historical and contemporary exclusion of palestinians from what is currently called Israel. however for you to say there is a rich cultural jewish heritage to be “tapped” puts you in the same exact nativist category, assuming that cap-c Culture exists eternally, as if some pool that can be sipped from and replenished. culture never has been and never will be one thing, it will always be mutating, full of violence, omissions, loves and both ethical and unethical appropriation (this term, of the 1990s multicultural movmt, is itself super political). if you really want your argument to be more sound, focus on the class, race and gender components of who is making these products RIGHT NOW rather than appealing to an unchanging romantic ideal of the Jew and the Palestinian – thats exactly what zionism and all ideologies based on race say.

  4. Interesting article, Ora. I wonder if there’s fruitful comparative lessons to be learned from examining any potential food politics in Greek & Turkish foods in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution.

    In the case of music, for example, the genre of rembetika, Greek ‘blues’ if you like, originated from Istanbul and was carried west to Greece by Ottoman Greeks as the empire collapsed. Rembetika, in its older forms, sounds very ‘asian’, with many minor keys, and using asian stringed instruments. It was the music of displacement, workers, and hasish dens. Over the years of the Hellenisation of independent Greece, particularly during the military dictatorship, rembetika was ‘westernised’, the minor keys purged, and the composition shifted to major keys performed via the piano.

    Anyway, hope you’re well. Look forward to reading more!

    • Rembetika originated from the western coast of Anatolia, especially from the area around Izmir. Istanbul and the Greek-Orthodox population there in the last period of the
      Ottoman Empire did not have the social milieu to support such a musical genre. Rembetika sounding very ´asian’ – that is interesting, but what do you mean? No problem if you mean ´anatolian’, but Asia extends to India, to Indonesia, to China and Japan, and I can assure you, there is nothing Chinese to hear in rembetika songs 🙂 If the minor keys is your argument, try to listen to the music of the Greek Orthodox Church or the way an imam recites Quranic verses in eastern Mediterranean societies.

  5. Dear oh dear. No one is stealing any food from the Arabs. The Middle East is home to many different peoples, not just Arabs. Arabs did not invent the chickpea and do not have a monopoly on it. I live in the UK and I can grow chickpeas without paying royalties to the Arabs. The practice of crushing seeds into paste is very old and predates the Arabs, but if they have a patent on crushing chickpeas then they should take their case to court.

    See here for more details: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hvhez5d4Zoc

  6. Pingback: Good post: “A hummus without people for a people without hummus” « Kan Zaman…

  7. Pingback: Jerusalem: A study in purpose, pleasure, politics, & perspective | The Big Ceci

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