Take Apartheid Off the Menu


Sweets & tear gas. Hebron. photo credit Lazar Simeonov

It’s not very complicated. It’s simply wrong.

Yesterday, The Fat Radish, a trendy New York City restaurant which prides itself on sourcing the best possible ingredients from local farms and supporting sustainable farming, cooked a dinner in a “celebrity favorite” restaurant in Tel Aviv as part of the Round Tables culinary show. This initiative is sponsored by Israeli government ministries, the Tel Aviv Municipality and businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. It is part of a PR ploy to bring international prestige to Israel’s culinary scene.

A self-proclaimed “farm-to-table” kitchen participating in an event supporting the Israeli government as it actively prevents Palestinian farms from getting food to Palestinian tables, or any food from getting to Palestinian kitchens for that matter, is simply wrong. It renders all of their claims around supporting and valuing sustainable food null and void.

Israel’s destruction of Palestinian lives, homes, farms, and kitchens is not sustainable. And neither is supporting it. On the website for this event, sponsored by American Express, Phil Winser, chef and co-owner of The Fat Radish, when asked what he thinks is the next “Big Thing” in the culinary world, answers: Getting healthy food to people all over the world.

I often wonder how committed restaurateurs and chefs running expensive food establishments are when they say things like this. Not because I don’t think they want that to be true, but because of how radically resources would have to be redistributed to make our food system equal and sustainable, thus changing the nature of the kinds of elite restaurants they’re making a living off of. However, in this context, the hypocrisy and racism of Winser’s seemingly altruistic hopes are even more stark. Really Winser? Like ALL the people ALL over the world? Including the Palestinian refugees shut out from the land on which your restaurant pop-up stands this week?

I have personally stood at a checkpoint manned by young, disrespectful Israeli soldiers preventing a Palestinian farmer from getting to his mango and avocado trees, which he had to beg their permission to reach because Israel had built a wall between his village and his farmland.

I have walked through the shops in Palestinian refugee camps, recognizing the un-accidental resemblance to bodegas in Bushwick or Red Hook, the shelves only stocked with packaged, processed food from Israeli and European companies. Why? It’s simple–Palestinian products can’t get through the checkpoints and Palestinian refugees are literally a captive market.

Israel’s PR machine and its supporters have used so many different angles, people, and political “hot topics” to try to convince the world that their brutal and egregiously undemocratic, intensely racist society is doing the right thing, or not doing anything at all. Their current attempt, the Round Tables culinary show, is particularly upsetting to me for two reasons.

1) I make food for a living, here in Brooklyn, often inspired by the flavors and ingredients I learned in Palestine. I am amongst MANY chefs in NYC who benefit from increased access to the spices, cheeses, oils, olives, grains, recipes, and flavor profiles of Arab and North African cuisines… while the communities to which these foods belong remain less appreciated and visible.

2) Food is a crucial element of the system of oppression employed by Israel. I have written about Israeli Jewish cooptation of Palestinian foods before. There is also the fact that an indigenous agricultural people was displaced from their lands and now throughout much of Palestine is deliberately, in the most calculated of ways, denied access to their traditional foods.

Over 130 civil society groups wrote to the restaurant chefs participating in this initiative, calling on them to cancel their participation in this initiative whitewashing Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. So far none of these chefs have taken the step to align their standards for their food with their standards for how societies treat people.

The timing is absurd. These well-respected chefs from around the world are literally lending a hand as attacks on Palestinians have reached shocking and unprecedented levels. Spokespeople for the BDS Movement have offered us the perfect language to describe this project: tasteless.

These famous chefs are visiting fancy restaurants in Tel Aviv and hosting fancy dinners to prove to the world…what? That Israelis have intense and embarrassing inequity in their society just like we do here? That they are just as capable as we are of wining and dining while just several miles away (or even just in the back of the house), people are struggling to stay alive, feed their families, be granted full citizenship?

Sadly, there is nothing special about Israel’s apartheid system. It’s been done before, and it takes place in other forms elsewhere. The only thing that is special is how much effort people put into justifying it and dressing it up, protecting it from any critique, hiding its crimes and rejecting the idea that this state should be held to the human rights standards we all like to think we’re holding everyone else to.

The Fat Radish team refused to put their knives where their mouths are and insisted on participating in this initiative, even though they were asked to cancel their participation.

So I will be boycotting their restaurants here in NYC, which include Leadbelly Oysters and The East Pole Kitchen & Bar. You can tweet them and tell them you’re doing the same: @thefatradish.

You can also look here for the other upcoming dinner events taking place throughout this week and tweet at the restaurants in Rome, Barcelona, London, and elsewhere.

Maybe one day soon our culinary community will start valuing Palestinian lives as much as we value za’atar, falafel, and hummus.