TO A NUMBER of Palestinians, there is another threat, one that is subtler and more abstract but no less potent. Like the controversy i...
TO A NUMBER of Palestinians, there is another threat, one that is subtler and more abstract but no less potent. Like the controversy invoked by saying “Palestinian,” it centers on the problem of a name: “Israeli cuisine,” which in the West has come to signify the likes of hummus, falafel, labneh, tabbouleh and shawarma, dishes long part of Arab tradition.
In its most basic definition, Israeli cuisine is simply what the people of Israel eat, brought to the newly founded country in the midcentury by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This might include everything from cheese blintzes and goulash to cakes of almonds and whole oranges, boiled and pulped, from a recipe that’s six centuries old. But as the British cookbook writer Claudia Roden notes in Trevor Graham’s 2012 documentary “Make Hummus Not War,” many Jewish migrants “wanted to forget their old food because it reminded them of persecution.” In the food of their Palestinian neighbors, they found a connection to the land and their ancestors.
If to say ‘Palestinian’ is in itself a political act, then each author is, in effect, an advocate.
It’s worth noting that the term “Israeli cuisine” is of fairly recent vintage and appears to have more currency outside Israel; the American chef Ari Miller, of Musi in Philadelphia, spent a decade living in Tel Aviv and said that he never heard it until he returned to the United States in 2013. The Israeli journalist Ronit Vered, who writes for the newspaper Ha’aretz, suggested that because the country is so young, “we don’t know yet what is Israeli and what is just part of the region’s diet” — but there is a willful refusal by some Israelis, she said, to acknowledge Arab influences.
At issue is not the right of Israelis to eat hummus and falafel. “I have never said, ‘Don’t cook this food,’” said Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a molecular biologist and the first Arab-Israeli (and Palestinian) to win Israel’s reality TV competition “Master Chef,” in 2014. For her, the problem is a denial of origins, as if these dishes were wholly unique to Israel: “I am asking for modesty.” Ahmad goes further, saying that it’s “psychologically dissociative” for Israelis to embrace the daily food of a people whose name is rarely spoken within the country: “It’s taking what you want and rejecting the rest.” In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs began flying in renowned chefs from around the world to attend the annual Round Tables by American Express culinary festival, as an opportunity for them to explore local cuisine while also sharing their own, a campaign that Ahmad calls “culinary whitewashing” — promoting the pleasures of food to distract from the grim consequences of the government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
Food may be the most effective form of propaganda. It humanizes: When we dine with strangers, we learn something of who they are. The fear for Palestinians is that as dishes labeled Israeli grow increasingly popular in the West, their Palestinian counterparts — and, by extension, Palestinians themselves — sink out of view. They are rendered invisible.
Consider maftoul, often called Palestinian couscous, although it’s molded not with semolina but bulgur, from hard winter wheat berries that have been boiled until on the verge of bursting, then sun-dried and cracked. The broken pieces are soaked in water and coated in wheat flour, a process done entirely by hand, pinch by pinch, turning them into tiny orbs. Beyond shape, maftoul has little in common with what has been marketed in the West as Israeli couscous but is known in Israel as ptitim (“little crumbles” in Hebrew) or, more colloquially, as Ben-Gurion rice, named after former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who in the 1950s, during a time of austerity and rationing, asked Osem, a local company, to come up with a cheap, machine-extruded alternative to rice. It’s perhaps inevitable that a factory product, easy to replicate, would gain ascendance in the world over a handmade one; but for Palestinians, it can feel like erasure just the same.
IN 2015, ATAMNA-ISMAEEL started the A-Sham festival in Haifa, Israel, to highlight Arab food — A-Sham is the Arabic name for the Levant — and to pair up Arab-Israeli (Muslim and Christian, Palestinian and those with roots in other lands) and Jewish-Israeli chefs to cook traditional dishes. As portrayed in Beth Elise Hawk’s documentary “Breaking Bread,” which premiered in Haifa last fall, the festival is an exuberant success: One chef, the son of a Jew and a Catholic, says cheerily, “Even my godfather is Muslim”; another, a Jaffa, Israel- born Palestinian, reminisces about his multicultural childhood: “In our neighborhood, we spoke Arabic, we laughed in Hebrew, we cursed in Romanian.”