Food is central to perceptions of home, nationhood and identity. In Israel, a country marred by deep political and social divisions, as well as violent conflict, the establishment of a national cuisine was, from the outset, bound to create tensions. These tensions are revealed in the food culture – stretching from production to marketing and consumption. Research into nation-building and the power ideologies at play in Israel often fails to take into account the significance of bottom-up social change, focusing instead on political issues, such as the failure of peace negotiations. The study of everyday food choices and eating practices brings to the surface contentious issues of national identity and state formation that may otherwise be ignored.
For Palestinians and other Arabs who make up just over 20% of the population in Israel (which does not include the West Bank or Gaza), life is marginalised. Most identify as Arab or Palestinian by nationality, and Israeli by citizenship, hence the usage of the term ‘Arab-Palestinian’ throughout this article, which is also intended to acknowledge the shared culinary history of the Middle East. From the early Jewish settlers through the changing contexts of the 1950s and 1980s to the present day, Israeli food culture has been influenced by Arab-Palestinian cuisine in processes that have, according to some scholars, “romanticised, admired and imitated, then marginalised, blurred and reinterpreted” it. This reinterpretation has also been termed the ‘re-Arabisation’ of Israeli cuisine. It appears to be taking place alongside a general process of culinary ascent in Israel, characterised by an increased fascination with everything foodie, with Arab-Palestinian food now appearing on several of Israel’s trendiest menus. Until recently dishes such as ‘Palestinian Tartare’ and ‘Arabic Ravioli’ remained hidden in the shadow of Israeli cooking, however the acceptance and celebration of Arab-Palestinian food in Israel has begun to reveal itself. Particularly in Tel Aviv, a city that is far more secular than the rest of the country, discontent with the Israeli government agenda is expressed vividly in it’s food culture. Whilst pro-Palestinian Israeli citizens don’t have the direct authority to affect the politics of land rights and citizenship, their desire for peace appears to be revealing itself on their dinner plates.
The Role of Chefs and Restauranteurs
Renowned Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky recently stated in an interview that “a chef is also a citizen” who often feels the need to express political beliefs. Part of a coalition that succeeded in banning the force-feeding of geese in Israel, Komarovsky opposes both the torture of animals, as well as people. As part of a new wave of celebrity chefs infiltrating Israel’s culinary scene, Komarovsky was able to use his influential position to advance particular political causes. If successful in the name of animal rights, can the same not be achieved for human ones?
In recent years, numerous food writers have discussed the upsurge of Arab-Palestinian inspired restaurants across Israel. Despite the lack of official figures on the number of such restaurants, acclaimed Israeli tour company Arza World offers a list of the top five Arab restaurants in Israel. Noting that hummus is a national dish (a controversial issue in itself), Arza World recommends you “taste some authentic Arab food, an important element in Israeli cuisine”, and despite not mentioning Palestinian-inspired restaurants, the tour company subtly alludes to its political alignments: “irrespective of politics and wars, good food is always a window for co-existence and bringing people together”. The motivation behind the new wave of Arab-Palestinian inspired restaurants is complex, much like the conflict itself, yet the significance of influential chefs and restauranteurs on food culture may be part of a bottom-up peace process, led by Israeli citizens and ‘foodies’.
The Magdalena Restaurant in northern Israel, close to the Sea of Galilee, serves its wine in crystal glasses, alongside appetizers of “wild chicory with garlic confit and cloud like shishbarak dumplings of lamb and goat’s yogurt.” Forget hummus and chargrilled meats, this high-end Arab-Palestinian restaurant has dispelled the notion of Palestinian cuisine being simple and cheap, instead serving traditional dishes with innovative twists in luxurious surroundings. Like the increasing array of similar restaurants, the dishes are influenced by diverse Arab cultures, dating back as far as the Persian and Ottoman Empires, fusing together Lebanese and Syrian influences along the way. Drawing from their grandmother’s culinary experiences, the chefs of the Magdalena are, according to food writer Debra Kamin, “creating a new epicurean movement in Israel, one whose roots come not from the Ashkenazi Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe or the North African kitchens of Sephardic Jewry, but from the hills and farms of ancient Palestine.”
Unafraid of acknowledging his culinary influences, Alonim of The Basta Restaurant accredited the Palestinian style of his food, to his deep understanding of where the local ingredients come from, as well as the environment he lives and works in – an environment that is deeply political, stating “I don’t separate my political views from my cooking”. The acceptance and celebration of Arab-Palestinian food in Israeli cuisine may be due to emerging young chefs with high culinary education and strong Arabic influences, whose success enables them to credit their source of inspiration. Another reason may be more political in nature. ‘Gastrodiplomacy’ is defined as the grassroots level “diplomatic exchange of food culture between people”. Unlike ‘culinary diplomacy’ which is a state level diplomatic tool for the promotion of its power abroad using high cuisine, ‘gastrodiplomacy’ is accessible and dependent upon the actions of ordinary people.
A direct attempt at gastrodiplomacy can be found in the less gourmet setting of a traditional hummus bar in the north of Tel Aviv. Kobi Tzafrir, the owner of a ‘hummusiya’ (the Hebrew name for a hummus bar), has offered a 50% discount to Jews and Arabs eating together. This promotion, he claims, is a way to “wipe away some of the gloom of the current Israeli-Palestinian animosity”. Significantly, the refusal to share in traditional Palestinian cooking is a sign of enmity and hostility, whilst sharing food and traditional knowledge are key features of gastrodiplomacy.
Other interesting examples include the establishment of a three-day food festival in Haifa, attended by a mixture of Arab, Palestinian and Jewish chefs, which celebrates Arab cuisine and offers a site for the sharing of culinary skills and traditions. Meanwhile, a group of artists from Jerusalem, Artists Without Walls, recently filmed a Palestinian and an Israeli family eating on separate sides of the border between Israel and the West Bank. The films were then projected simultaneously on either side of the wall, enabling Israelis and Palestinians to share a meal, if only virtually. The establishment of a ‘culinary peace deal’ is the precise aim of a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs, founders of Chefs for Peace – a non-profit, non-political organization located in Jerusalem. The chefs claim to be “indifferent to politics, religion, or skin colour”, and their political message is simple too: “Only real people living and working together, not politicians, will create peace on the ground.” Peace, they say “happens every day, in the kitchen and around the table”.
The issue of ‘culinary peace’ has also been discussed at length in American chef Michael Voltaggio’s television series Breaking Borders (2015), the first episode of which focuses on bringing together Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank over a meal. Despite a “heated” conversation over a lamb and avocado salad, the participants all agreed that “just coming together over a meal and discussion is a valuable step”.
The Potential for Gastrodiplomacy
Because food is such a fundamental part of life, we should be able to use the powerful emotions that are attached to it, as an agent for positive social change. In Israel, it appears that despite the persistent controversial nature of the term ‘Palestinian’ within food culture, there is a growing interest in Arab-Palestinian cuisine. This culture may be desired and, quite literally, consumed by Jewish-Israelis, but for some, this consumption will be devoid of any political sentiment. However, the identification of a commonality between Arab-Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis – be it their shared love of hummus, or culinary techniques and flavours – can surely only be positive. The choice by restauranteurs and celebrity chefs to produce and label their food as ‘Arab-Palestinian’, and the decision by citizens to consume such food, encourages a re-examination of the influence of the Arab-Palestinian population and their food culture in the construction of the Jewish-Israeli national identity.
As one of the world’s longest running and most controversial conflicts, involving the violent occupation of land and a growing number of Palestinian refugees, the culinary choices of individuals aimed at bringing two communities together is a very small step towards peace. However, individual food choices and the consumption of Arab-Palestinian food may be part of the gastrodiplomatic construction of a new civic space that can provide a dialogue between two distinct and polarised communities. Enthused by the notion of a common culinary identity, we can only hope that eventually this space will migrate from the kitchen to the public realm.
Main photograph: Emmanuel DYAN
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