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.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

Back in July, I rushed back from visiting friends in Toronto, driving all day long to come straight to the Park Slope Food Coop general membership meeting.  Why would I do such a torturous thing? Because a call for a membership-wide referendum on boycotting Israeli goods was on the agenda and needed support.

Since I was 18 years old, I have been organizing in solidarity with Palestinians struggling for self-determination.  However, after a bike accident last summer, I stepped back for some rest and reflection.  A central part of my healing and refueling over this past year has been nurturing my passion for growing, making, serving, and eating good food.  In fact, I finally rejoined the Coop last fall after spending two years too overwhelmed by school, work, and organizing to do my work shifts.  Thus, participating in the Coop conversation around boycotting Israeli goods felt like the least I could do to connect my renewed commitment to local and sustainable food practices to my commitment to freedom and justice in Palestine.

Connecting the dots

I joined the Park Slope Food Coop because I am dedicated to an ethical food system shaped by cooperative economics and environmental justice.  There is no true enjoyment of gourmet and organic food that is separate from a larger process of creative and transformative community-building.  So although it is a huge challenge for me to do my work shifts every month, I am committed to the Coop because it is a way to reduce my participation in the industrial food system which destroys the planet, relies on exploited resources and labor, and produces often toxic food.  According to the mission statement, the Coop is “an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business.”

But then here I was at this meeting, listening to many of my fellow Coop members claim that we shouldn’t even be allowed to vote on de-shelving Israeli goods because it would be divisive, too political, and would disrupt business as usual. As if buying Israeli goods is not a political act; as if any food production or purchasing is anything but political.  The deeply political nature of food production is the whole reason why this institution exists in the first place!

Repeatedly hearing the concern that our cheap and calm organic food source could be disrupted by potential conflict due to issues far across the ocean was disturbing.  It speaks to the unfortunate reality that apparently, many members of the Coop do not believe in an ethical and just food system but rather are more passionate about great prices on organic produce that would cost them $2 more at Whole Foods (thank goodness there’s one being built in Gowanus, Brooklyn now, in case the organizing for de-shelving Israeli goods in accordance with our values of democracy and freedom gets too stressful for shoppers).

Whose voices count?

In addition to these self-absorbed shoppers, there were also horrifying displays of explicit racism. Zionist Jews responded to the call for a referendum (in which they would be free to vote according to their own beliefs) by going off on shrill tirades about Palestinians being terrorists. Their claim was that they would be driven away from the Coop if Israeli goods were de-shelved.  The experience and needs of Palestinian members of the Coop (or other Arabs impacted by Israeli occupation and aggression) were blatantly being devalued.  Zionist Jewish members’ beliefs and desires were deemed more important and asserted as the status quo.  The discourse in that meeting invisibilized Palestinians, Jews committed to justice, and other Coop members committed to ending ALL forms of domination and exploitation throughout the world.

Palestine: Captive Market

When I was in the West Bank, it occurred to me that agriculture and food were serious sites of oppression experienced by Palestinians.  In the 1940s and 50s, during the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinian farmers and farm workers were driven off their land into refugee camps and have never been allowed to return home.  As these over-populated, under-resourced camps have grown and become the permanent residence of these now landless communities, their residents have been forced to purchase food from the small stores they have access to.

These stores, very similar to the corner stores of poor neighborhoods in New York City, carry mostly packaged and processed foods, the opposite of the traditional foods these communities used to produce and consume when they lived on their own land.  And these packaged products are mostly Israeli (and sometimes European). Why? Because Israel controls the checkpoints through which the products must travel to get to these stores.  So even if the little stores may be Palestinian-owned, the companies profiting off this captive market are Israeli and European.  Meanwhile, the farmers who have managed to stay on their land are often prevented from getting their fresh, local produce through Israeli military checkpoints to the markets that Palestinians in cities and camps shop in.

In addition to Israeli state-sponsored destruction of Palestinian olive trees, fundamentalist, armed Israeli settlers frequently attack and destroy Palestinian orchards and fields or channel the sewage and chemical waste from their settlements and factories into Palestinian village agricultural land.  When I reflected on this system, I realized that it is classic colonialism and capitalism, working hand in hand – pushing people off their land so they are not able to be self-sufficient and are forced to work in factories and buy processed foods produced by large corporations.  We see this system playing out in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and on and on and on…

Why boycott?

Well, the simple answer is because if I want local, seasonal produce, Palestinians should be able to get their local, seasonal produce and Israel’s occupation prevents this. Also…boycotting Israeli products is a common sense strategy – a way for average citizens like you and me to use a nonviolent economic organizing tool to put pressure on otherwise unaccountable governments and corporations.  There is absolutely no legitimate opposition to boycotting Israeli goods in a socially and environmentally conscious institution such as the Coop. If Coop members believe, as I do, that the pleasure of good food must be rooted in a commitment to our communities and the planet, then deshelving Israeli goods at our Coop is a key element of working towards the world we want to live in.

A recipe

Supporting Palestinian farmers and artisanal food producers is an exciting and important way to support the preservation of traditional Palestinian food ways.  Recently a friend brought me some za’atar from Jenin (in the West Bank) and I used this tangy, green spice blend in an impromptu yogurt sauce served over roasted fairytale eggplant from Bodhitree Farm:

Za’atar Date Yogurt Sauce

Take half a container of Greek-style yogurt and mix it thoroughly with 1 tablespoon of zaatar, 1.5 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, 1.5-2 tablespoons of date molasses, 1-2 cloves of crushed garlic, salt and pepper to taste.  Of course taste this to make sure it suits you – add more of anything if you want, or more yogurt if one of the ingredients is too strong.

Roasted fairytale or baby eggplant

Cut each eggplant in half.

Lay them side by side, face up, on a baking sheet.

Mix a little bowl of olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and crushed garlic.

Use a pastry brush to baste the open faces of the eggplant halves with this mixture.

Place in oven at 375 degrees. After about 15 minutes, take them out and baste them again if they look like they’re getting a bit dry.

When they’ve browned and are sizzling and you can sink a fork in them and they’re nice and soft and melty, take them out. Sprinkle fresh chopped parsley over them and arrange them on a platter around a bowl of the yogurt sauce.

Served with heirloom tomatoes, sauteed chard, and halloumi cheese and markouk bread from D’vine Taste