Soon after I arrived in Philadelphia to start my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt homesick for my family, our way of life and of course, our food. Those jars and bags became a lifeline, the first time I came face to face with how much of our identities, memories and family history food can hold.
I saw the flip side when friends suggested we try a newly opened Israeli restaurant. Its menu rotated around the dishes of my youth: hummus, tabbouleh and freekeh (the green wheat my family would spend days every spring picking, sorting and smoking). I was comforted to eat freekeh that tasted exactly like my mother’s. But I was also frustrated to see the best Palestinian dish I had tasted since arriving in the United States being served at an Israeli restaurant — with no mention given to its origin, nor the origin of most other dishes on the menu, many of which I recognized as the iconic meals of my childhood.
As it is for many Palestinians, the term “Israeli cuisine” is hard for me to swallow. It’s not that I am opposed to the idea or can’t tolerate cultural diversity and fusion. To the contrary, I know full well that our Palestinian cuisine, like every other, is a byproduct of evolution and diffusion. In fact, the concept of national cuisine is a relatively recent construct, appearing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries following the rise of the nation-state.
But cultural diffusion is different from cultural appropriation. Diffusion is the result of people from different cultures living in close quarters and interacting with or learning from one another. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, relies on exploitation and consequent erasure, followed by the willful denying of those actions. Food, after all, is an expression of history, culture and tradition. By this token, presenting dishes of Palestinian provenance as “Israeli” not only denies the Palestinian contribution to Israeli cuisine, but it erases our very history and existence.
When I reflect on my formative years and the values I hold close to my heart, it seems inevitable that I would leave a career in the corporate world for a life in the kitchen, culminating in my 2017 cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” In 2014, after I gave birth to my first daughter in London, I was surrounded by a growing number of Israeli restaurants that often ignored the Palestinian origins of the variety of Arab dishes they served. I was already concerned about raising my daughter away from her homeland and the culture that had given me a sense of rootedness in this increasingly transient world. Suddenly, the desire to capture the history and traditions of Palestinian cuisine for her seemed more urgent.
The history of the Levant — at a crossroads of trade, history and geography — is marked by countless forces shaping its cuisine, thus making it difficult to delineate the origins of every dish. Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians all enjoy similar foods. These groups playfully spar about who makes the best hummus or the right way to make tabbouleh, but few are vested in deeply debating who originated the dishes. The debates are decidedly more heated, though, when they involve Israel, for food becomes a proxy for the political conflict and the decades-long occupation.
In an effort to create a state for the Jewish people and a new Jewish identity in historic Palestine in the early to mid-20th century, food was one item used to achieve a sense of Israeli nationalism. The Jewish immigrants shifted from the rich Eastern European food of their original countries toward a healthier diet rich in local ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products. An emphasis on the connection to the land is probably one reason the humble Palestinian street foods — hummus, falafel, za’atar and ka’ak — attracted the new Jewish population more so than such elaborate jewels of Palestinian cooking as msakhan, maftool, maqlubeh and mansaf.
Some might counter that Mizrahi Jews brought these dishes to Israel. But hummus and falafel were not part of the culinary repertoire of most Mizrahi Jews before their immigration in the 1950s, as they were generally eaten in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine, rather than in North Africa, Yemen and Iraq, from where most Mizrahi immigrants hailed.
Other skeptics may claim that the food of Israel is a mishmash of cultures just like the immigrants making up the country. Indeed, dishes were brought to Israel from North Africa (shakshuka), Eastern Europe (schnitzel), Iraq (amba) and the Balkans (kebabs and burekas). But if a Jew from Japan were to immigrate to Israel and start making sushi in a restaurant, would sushi become Israeli?
By and large, the dishes that make up the Israeli “national food” repertoire (hummus, falafel, msabaha, baba ghanoush, knafeh) were learned from the Palestinian population, as leading Israeli food scholars such as Ronald Ranta, Yonatan Mendel, Dafna Hirsch and Ilan Baron have agreed after extensive research.
I have encountered arguments that these dishes have evolved from the intersection of immigrant cultures in Israel: Falafel is served with amba, hummus is topped with a thousand-and-one different toppings, schnitzel is now made of chicken and eaten in a pita, ka’ak al quds (Jerusalem sesame bagels) are used to make toasted sandwiches, and so on. Dubbing these dishes Israeli in name does not erase the origin of their components or that most of them still come inside or alongside a Palestinian culinary artifact. The irony, though, is that the newly constructed Israeli food culture prides itself on being a byproduct of many influences and immigrant forces while failing to highlight the most important influence — that of the local Palestinian food culture.
In many restaurants and cookbooks, Israelis have no problem including such items as “Yemeni schug,” “Iraqi sabich” or “Tunisian salad.” But the absence of the word “Palestinian” from their menus and books is a glaring omission. As many Israeli academics and food writers themselves have pointed out, the word “Palestinian” is still considered by many Israelis as a threat to their existence.
One of the most striking examples is the “Israeli salad,” a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and olive oil, which after 1948 made its way into the Israeli kitchen through the kibbutz mess halls, where it was adopted from the Palestinian farmers. Israeli food writer Gil Hovav even said, “This salad that we call an Israeli salad, actually it’s an Arab salad, a Palestinian salad.” Nonetheless, restaurants, magazines and blogs here in the West refer to this salad as “Israeli.” Ironically, in Israel, people call it salat aravi, or “Arab salad.”
For Palestinians, whose national identity is constantly undermined without an independent state, constructs other than geography become vital to a sense of rootedness and identity. Food for Palestinians becomes a way to reclaim our country, if not geographically, at least psychologically and emotionally. It is a tangible proxy with which to discuss larger issues on the ground. That’s why referencing traditional dishes adopted from Palestinians as Israeli without regard to their origin is seen as adding insult to injury: First the land, now the food and culture?
Today, as I research the history of food for my next cookbook, about the evolving and cross- cultural foods of the Middle East, I cannot ignore a stark reality: Beneath the veneer of enmity and indifference shown by many Jewish Israelis to Arab Palestinians, there is an ambivalent sense of admiration and emulation, which for sociopolitical reasons has been denied by Israelis. Therein lies the seed of hope. If that seed is to take root, however, and we are to reach a lasting peace between our two peoples, it will come not just through Israel’s recognition of the origins of the dishes adopted from Palestinians. But that might be a good place to start.
Kassis is author of “The Palestinian Table.”
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