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.

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