Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Food-fights, Middle East style

The term ‘food fight’ usually generates images of screeching children smooshing ice cream, jelly and cake into each other’s faces; or drunk undergrads throwing around baked beans, pot noodle and other excuses for food while howling with laughter before running off to go and pull up some flowers somewhere.

As usual, when put into the context of Arab-Israeli relations, food fights refer to a much less fun reality.

So…what’s the problem?

In recent years, there have been a number of spats over the origin and ownership of various types of Middle Eastern food. In 2008, Fadi Abboud, the president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association, stated that Lebanon was preparing an international lawsuit against Israel to stop Israeli companies marketing products such as hummus and tabboleh as ‘Israeli’ (this is not as ridiculous as it sounds, in 2005 Greece won an international lawsuit against other EU countries for exclusive rights to make and market ‘feta’ cheese, and won). More recently (February 2015), an article entitled: 'Israel's Answer to Hot Chocolate' caused a furore online as Arab populations and publications insisted that the origin of sahlab was Arab rather than Israeli.

So what is the truth?

The truth is that it is very difficult to pinpoint the origin of a particular kind of food; many similar foods and dishes are eaten in numerous Middle Eastern countries. Any one country claiming ownership of a Middle Eastern dish, will always be slightly stretching their hand (remembering of course that the food was there before the borders of these countries were).

There also was a Kingdom of Israel from somethingBC to somethingBC so isn't modern-day Israeli food a continuation of ancient Israeli food?

Well...yes and no...again, it's difficult to pinpoint which ancient Israeli foods continued to be cooked and developed in communities of the Jewish diaspora, and it gets even more complicated when we remember that there were significant Jewish populations in Arab countries and within historical Palestine itself so a blending of ancient Israeli, Jewish and Arab foods was bound to (and did) happen.

So, the truth is really that these foods are both Arab and Israeli.

So...why does it matter?

The increasing trend of branding certain Middle Eastern foods as originating from, and belonging to Israel (culminating most recently in a 32 page supplement for Waitrose Magazine, entitled 'A Taste of Israel'), is part of the Israeli state's efforts to wipe Palestinian people, history and culture out of the annals, and out of (Western) public consciousness. 

This attempt to delete Palestinian history, culture and people can be found in the very founding philosophy of the state of Israel: Zionism.

Zionism today comes in many different forms but uniform amongst them is the belief in the Jewish right to a homeland in the ex-Kingdom of Israel (also historical Palestine). In order for this to occur, Jews obviously had to colonise the land and replace the indigenous population of Palestinians. Through mass Jewish immigration, Zionist terrorism, and an eventual resolution from the UN, in 1948 the state of Israel was established.

In an effort to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, part of the Israeli state narrative has always been that the land of historical Palestine was uninhabited*, and that (therefore) there is no such thing as Palestinians.** Indeed, many Israeli citizens refuse to even use the term ‘Palestinian’ as this recognises their existence and the previous existence of a land called Palestine. Instead, many use the term: 'West Bank Arabs' (for Palestinians in the West Bank. They have other terms for other populations of Palestinians depending on where they're now living). This widespread refusal to recognise the existence of Palestinians is not only a refusal to recognise their right to the land, but also a refusal to recognise their history and culture, which includes food. Israel’s attempt to invisibilise Palestinians – to deny their very existence – is promoted, supported and disseminated by publications such as that produced by Waitrose last month.

None of this negates the fact that falafel or hummus may also be national dishes of Israel, and be close to the hearts of many Israelis (which I know they are). The point is that these do not belong to Israel; these foods and dishes come from a rich, diverse, and mostly Arab history which Israeli - and Western - press attempt to ignore.

Though seemingly (and perhaps realistically) small fry in the wider context of Israeli-Arab politics in the region, it is in fact seemingly small, apparently insignificant cultural appropriations like this one that enable Israel to supplant itself in the place of Palestine both on the ground and in the minds of the general public.

So next time you’re lifting that falafel sandwich to your mouth or dipping your bread in hummus, why not instead throw it in the face of an Israeli and shout PALESTINE! (and then run away quickly as you can because they will probably want to wreak swift vengeance upon you).

*“Land without a people for a people without a land”, Israel Zangwill (prominent Zionist), New Liberal Review, 1901.
**"Even amidst the violent attacks launched against us for months past, we call upon the sons of the Arab people dwelling in Israel to keep the peace and to play their part in building the State on basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions, provisional and permanent [italics added]. Ben Gurion (1st and 3rd Prime Minister of Israel) during Israel's Declaration of Independence, 1948.
"There were no such things as Palestinians. They did not exist”. Golda Meir, reported in the Sunday Times 15 June 1969.

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