Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Israel Accused of 'Hummus-Washing' Its Theft of Palestinian Culture

I know, I know, I've written about hummus before, about how much I love it, that while growing up in Ramat-Gan and New York we ate it all the time, that my Jerusalem-born father used to sneak out of his mother's Poilishe-kitchen so that he could buy some delicious Arab food from the street-vendors... His favorite breakfast consisted of foul (fava beans) with tomatoes and onions and lots of lemon. Sometimes my mother made majadra (spicy lentils and rice) and, of course, times when falafel was available were treated like celebrations. The list of what we considered Israeli food was endless but, you see, all that time we were stealing Palestine's culture. 

No stone, no artifact, is left unturned when it comes to undermining Israel's place in the Middle East. It starts by denying Jewish connection to the land, claiming that Jerusalem is solely an Arab and Islamic city, that the ‘alleged Temple’ never existed and so on. But those concepts are too grand, too abstract. What better way to keep the Palestinian 'street' focused on grievance than to accuse Israel of having stolen everything, right down to hummus and ‘the falafel ball’.

According to Electronic Intifada, "Zionism’s cultural appropriation of indigenous Palestinian folklore and cuisine – such as hummus, falafel and maftoul – as “Israeli” has long irked Palestinians, especially when these same cultural products are used in international propaganda and marketing efforts which deny Palestinians’ rights and history." In other words hummus-washing the dirt off their grubby little hands.

In a PA TV interview about an international couscous festival in Italy, Majdulin Salameh, a PA Minister of Tourism, claimed that,Israel steals Palestinian foods like couscous and markets them as Israeli:

"PA TV host: "Let’s talk about the plan for Palestinian participation in this international [couscous] festival, and about the importance of couscous as a popular Palestinian heritage dish, and the theft of this dish by Israel, to the extent that one year it [Israel] participated in this festival and won, [presenting] couscous as an Israeli dish...Couscous, like the other popular dishes and heritage foods, and even the Palestinian debka [dance], has been stolen and marketed as Israeli. What is your role, in the Ministry of Tourism, in stopping these attempts and the Israeli theft?"

"Majdulin Salameh: "Our presence [at the festival] in and of itself is a form of struggle and resistance against the entire manner of the Israeli side in stealing our heritage. Not only with couscous but, as you mentioned, there are things that they try to take and to attribute to themselves, such as other popular Palestinian foods, like humus, falafel, embroidery. Lots of things. This is our task as the Ministry of Tourism: we are present at all international forums where it is possible that there will be a threat or a danger to the Palestinian heritage, which will be marketed as Israeli heritage rather than as Palestinian."

And it’s partially true insofar as Israel has been trade and market-savvy. As Julian Kossoff writes in the Telegraph, Israeli entrepreneurs helped introduce falafel to European and American palates but their initiative angered Arabs and their anti-Zionist sidekicks, who claimed they had stolen it (there's also a parallel row over hummus.)" 

For example, a writer on Mondoweiss is apoplectic to find that gourmet magazines such as Saveur and Bon Apetit identify certain dishes as Israeli. Here’s a description from Saveur that really raises anti-Zionist hackles:

"Pulsating with the energy of contemporary Israel's vibrant dining culture," the restaurant (Zahav) is owned by chef Michael Solomonov, who was born in Tel Aviv. Solomonov makes a hummus with "tahini and olive oil, [which] seems all the more velvety in contrast with the tangle of crisp hen of the woods mushrooms on top," Gabriella Gershenson writes.” (It is noteworthy that a commentor on Mondoweiss attributed the glorifying review to the Saveur critic’s obvious Jewishness.)

That’s a bit like accusing Greek restaurants for claiming baklava, a favorite dessert in Lebanese, Turkish and other Mediterranean restaurants. Or dismissing Chez Panniss for appropriating Porc sur la braise.

Kossoff makes the most important point in all of this: The anti-Israel activists' puerile playground whine that "Israel stole all the falafels" would be funny if it didn't represent a denial of Jewish history – that of the Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern Jews, who have always eaten falafel.

“In the aftermath of the foundation of the State of Israel, Jews living in Arab nations were targeted in revenge.  However, it was Israel that was to have the last laugh as a million Middle Eastern Jews sought sanctuary there and became the country's demographic – and culinary - backbone. Falafel came to the new country with these ancient communities from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, and was immediately popular.

“In those early years, life in Israel was threadbare and a "meal" of falafel and hummus in pitta bread, eaten from a street corner stand, was the high point of a stroll on a warm Mediterranean evening. Cheap, tasty and neutral when it comes to Jewish dietary laws, the falafel became an iconic part of Israeli cuisine and is often referred to as a national dish.” 

Yet something I find very interesting is that descriptions of authentic Palestinian food are so similar (identical?) to foods in other parts of the Arab world. In an oral history project a group of young 'student-anthropologists' from a Lebanese refugee camp, with the support of Columbia University's Center for Palestine Studies, interviewed elderly refugees from the original 'generation of Palestine' in order to record memories of how life was before Israel.

Memories of foods prepared for various occasions included kibbe, majadra, stuffed grape leaves, cabbage and zucchini, stuffed leg of lamb, etc. All utterly delicious dishes but hardly unique to 'Palestine'. After all, the original 'generation' came for surrounding countries and only needed to have lived in 'Palestine' for two years prior to 1948 in order to be counted as refugees by UNRWA. This is not to belittle the oral history effort or the preservation of memory, but how sad is it that the original refugees and their descendants have lived in Lebanon in conditions described by Palestinian journalist Rami George Khouri as Apartheid, unable to rise above desperate poverty and discrimination and consequently only allowed to dream of their culinary past.