By James M. Dorsey
Food, far more than diplomatic relations with Arab states, could be turning Israel into a state rooted rather than implanted in the Middle East even if Palestinians are likely to continue to look at the Jewish state as an implant and usurper for generations to come.
Israel’s conversion is as much a domestic revolution as Palestinians perceive it to be an extension of the expropriation of their land to the alleged appropriation of the food of a people that is in the majority living under occupation or a blockade or in exile.
To be fair, the appropriation or culinary fusion may have happened irrespective of the occupation. Some 20 percent of the Israeli population is of Palestinian descent, and 44 percent of Israeli Jews identify as Mizrahim or Jews of Eastern, primarily Middle Eastern and North African origin.
Palestinians assert on good grounds that Israeli repackaging of their food is part of a broader effort to minimise if not erase Palestinian national identity. Yet, at the same time, the appropriation argument ignores the fact that Palestinians and Mizrahim share similar culinary traditions.
It also neglects that the notion of a national cuisine is ambiguous at best. “Every nation’s culinary lineage is regionally specific and indelibly influenced by trade, migration, and conquest. … I finally understand that even though national cuisine is a social construct, it can be a useful one,” says Palestinian American cookbook author Reem Kassis.
For Ms. Kassis, the notion of a Palestinian cuisine was a way for the cookbook writer to remain connected to her homeland and give her British and US-born daughters a sense of rootedness. Yet, as she detailed the cuisine of her recent ancestors in her first book, Ms. Kassis realised that if she went further back in history, she would not be able to delineate the precise origins of each dish.
Food historian Alija Lakisic came to a similar conclusion when researching culinary traditions in Bosnia Herzegovina. Quoted by Bosnia-born food scholar Riada Asimovic Akyol, Ms. Lakisic argues that “in the end, one cannot speak of some pure national cuisine … it is very difficult to determine which are the authentic dishes of certain regions and peoples.”
Ms. Kassis’ and Ms. Lakisic’s experience is no less true for Israel’s Mizrahim, who together with Israeli Palestinians constitute a slim majority in Israel. Together, they have increasingly put their cultural stamp on Israel with music and food.
In doing so, they have pushed to the margins cultural expressions of Ashkenazi European Jewish culture that dominated Israel’s early years. It also reflects the coming out of a Mizrahi Jewish culture that was long looked down upon because of its Arab affinity.
Food anthropologist Daniel Monterescu and food entrepreneur Yair Yosefi describe the transition as “the Orientalisation of food (that) prioritises North African and Arab dishes over Ashkenazi cuisine.”
In analyzing the role of excessive spice in Israeli cuisine, Messrs. Monterescu and Yosefi argue that spice has become a “unifying factor that defines a broad social common denominator. Mizrahim who eat spicy food confirm their Mizrahiness, but even Ashkenazis who eat spicy food reaffirm their nativeness.”
In other words, orientalisation constitutes a rebalancing of identity both within the Israeli Jewish community and between Israeli Jews and Palestinians that goes beyond usurpation to some degree of commonality.
It is a far cry from the cookbook writing that exploded in the wake of the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Cookbooks of that era defined Israeli cuisine as having “mainly Jewish and American or European values or practices or ideas in it. They were…creating a new identity and drawing in all the references that they could identify with an Israeli background. That way, they managed to claim that land,” said historian Suna Cagaptay.
Messrs. Monterescu and Yosefi seem to suggest that despite orientalisation, Israeli usurpation of Palestinian food is an ongoing rather than an evolving process. “In the same way that the State of Israel swallows Arab space, Israelis devour what to them symbolises the Arab other. Spice food is a fantasy of imagined indigeneity,” they wrote.
Israel’s more recent focus on spiciness that is absent from Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese cooking and more prevalent in some North African cuisines reflects in their minds “the combustible combination of masculinity, ethnicity, militarism and indigenous authenticity.”
Messrs. Monterescu and Yosefi quote Israeli chef Eitan Vanunu as saying: “There’s a term among (Israeli) chefs: ‘How’s the food?’ ‘It shouts.’ That’s considered a compliment. After all, we lack any cultural mainstays. Muscles are our bread and butter.”
Ultimately the two seemingly opposed views of an Israeli food culture that not only dominates the Jewish state’s culinary scene but also is making waves internationally may be two sides of the same coin: an Israeli gastronomic culture that builds as much on the traditions of a multi-ethnic Jewish population as it does on the usurpation of Palestinian food with which significant segments of Israeli society have a cultural affinity.
In the process, the identity of Israeli Jews becomes one that increasingly is associated with attributes that Mizrahim and Palestinians share rather than European and American cultural practices that offer less opportunity to find common cultural traits.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.