Anthony Bourdain explains the Israel-Palestine conflict through food

CNN food and travel host Anthony Bourdain's excellent hour-long special on Israel-Palestine, in he which he explores both sides of the green line, begins with a line that could not ring truer for me.

"It's easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there's no hope – none – of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off," he says of Israel-Palestine and particularly Jerusalem. "By the end of this episode, I'll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, fascist, socialist CIA agent and worse. So here goes nothing."

Then he gets an instant bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. From there, he talks about falafel and borders, hummus and the occupation. He asks settlers why they tolerate "price tag" attacks against Palestinian communities. He points out Palestinian street art glorifying airplane hijackers. He goes to Gaza. He eats and eats and eats. You can watch the whole thing, and in pretty good quality, right here:

It's not just Bourdain's tortured ambivalence about the politics, both geo- and identity, that makes his Jerusalem program so good. He gets at, or at least tries to get at, some of the core issues by approaching them simply as a food and travel writer. He's a tourist and foodie, but one exploring Jerusalem's history and politics by way of its sights and smells. Much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in a way about identity, and food is a part of identity.

Food also humanizes. It's a ritual we all know and that's meant to bring people together. And we can all agree that both Israeli and Palestinian food is delicious – as well as being often quite similar.

Maybe most helpful is the way that Bourdain foregrounds his own struggle to navigate it all. That he is so wary of the politics, and skeptical of his own ability to understand it, makes him a potentially very effective proxy for regular American TV viewers.

The 45-minute tour of Jerusalem will not do much to edify Israel-Palestine experts or to move along the two-state peace process. But it's not made for partisans or practitioners, it's made for regular people back in the United States. The U.S. has an unusually crucial role to play in this particular crisis. Americans learning more about it – and, even more importantly, thinking critically as Bourdain does – can only be a good thing.

If you like the idea of learning about the Israel-Palestine conflict through food, check out "Jerusalem: A Cookbook," written by two chefs who were born in the Jewish and Arab halves of the city in the same year.

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Max Fisher · September 17, 2013

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