Hummus-ide: Israeli appropriation of Arab–Palestinian food culture

Where in the world is Palestine? A year ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to locate it on a map or answer basic questions about the region’s politics or people. But I could probably tell you a little bit about Israel. Or, rather, I could tell you about the image that Israel projects of itself, free of flaws and faults, and certainly not engaged in the oppression of entire groups of people. This paper will explore Arab cuisine (or, as I prefer, ‘food culture’) in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and its political complexities, as well as the barriers that Arab–Palestinian people face with respect to maintaining their culture and identity; for, as I strongly believe, we must always learn about history, conflict, and hegemony from the perspective of the oppressed. The Israeli appropriation of Arab–Palestinian food culture—and subsequent cultural codification of foods (like hummus and falafel) as iconographic of Israeli national identity—serves as a form of colonization, and ultimately, de-Palestinianization.

Cuisines of poverty

Sociological concepts of cuisine are based on detachment of food from the satisfaction of hunger and its “relation to hedonism and pleasure.”1 Cuisines of poverty, however, are practical, cognitive systems of material provisions. Food is meant to sustain the body—and attitudes toward food are based on tastes of necessity that are defined by an absence of food and are practiced out of need.2 Cuisines of poverty are practiced both in urban and rural settings, although the urban and rural poor have “different access to food and therefore develop different means of survival and self reliance.”3 The study of cuisines of poverty emphasizes the modes of participation of ethnic and minority groups within hegemonic structures4 and contributes to our understanding of the relationships between cultural practices, identity, and power.

Food is a basic feature of power,5 as hunger is the absolute sign of the powerless.6 Where the political elite use hunger and poverty as strategies to maintain their power by keeping the poor hungry, “hunger and poverty can be turned into a means by which the unprivileged obtain power, form social ties within the community, and resist political oppression.”7 Cuisines of poverty relate the discourse of food to discourses of policy and economics by revealing historically politicized issues, including unfair land tenure and labour practices.8 The sustainability of cuisines of poverty revolves around an entitlement to land and its products. As a result, a “discourse of identity”9 is formed. Cuisines of poverty mobilize food as a valuable source of identity creation.

Until 1967, Palestinians lived under military regime. Although they were granted the right to vote, free schooling, and a national health plan, they suffered institutionalized discrimination.10 Living under a military regime required them to have a travel pass whenever they wanted to leave their villages, which limited their chances for employment. Many families, as a result, were driven down towards poverty. Until the 1990s, immigration to Israel was mostly ideologically-based as Jews participated in the building of a “new Jewish state.”11 Unlike the Jewish immigrants, Palestinians were forced to become Israeli citizens. Despite this, they were never never perceived as full and legitimate “partners” in Israeli society. This caused the Palestinians to mobilize both poverty and minority statuses as a means to “establish personal and cultural resistance.”12 The Palestinians use their adherence to distinct culinary practices as a way to “resist attempts made by Jewish Israelis to fully appropriate Palestinian cultural assets.”13 Looking at lower class Palestinian cooking as a cuisine of poverty, preoccupation with food sustains ethnic knowledge, reinforces the status of Palestinians as a minority, and simultaneously serves as a means of resisting power relations.

According to Gvion, encounters between members of the dominant culture and members of ethnic or minority groups have two major culinary outcomes: first the food of the ethnic population can be modified to suit the taste of the dominant group; and second, ethnic culinary knowledge can become a resource out of which an ethnic economy emerges.14 Israelis have devalued the status of certain Arab dishes by ignoring them and claiming them as unworthy of attention. In both cases, ethnic groups are “stripped of their cultural assets,”15 turning them into commodities. Certain foods are appropriated by agencies of the dominant culture and integrated into the dominant diet, their origins lost in the process. Talk about hegemonic struggle: “While the Palestinian citizens of Israel started integrating new foods into their diet, a certain amount of culinary appropriation … has taken place. Dishes such as hummus, tahini sauce, falafel, taboule, and labane have entered the culinary mainstream mostly because they have proved to be easily adjusted to common eating habits of Israel’s Jewish population.”16 The dishes can be served in addition to food that Israelis consume on a regular basis. Nowadays, these dishes are associated by Jews with Israeli food. Unfortunately, the Palestinian minority feels unable to fight for official recognition of their dishes: “They feel the limited exposure of Israelis to Arab dishes indicates a lack of interest in Palestinian food.”17 Despite this, the general resentment towards Palestinian dishes plays to the Palestinians’ favour, as the majority of these dishes escape reappropriation.

Cuisines of poverty reveal links between culinary political discourses, where issues such as national and ethnic identities and means of participation in the dominant culture come to light. Foods in general—and traditional dishes, in particular—become assets for identity formation, which allow the Palestinian people to hold on to their internal knowledge and refuse to have their food appropriated. Due to a lack of respect for Palestinian food culture, members of the Palestinian community are thus able to regulate the penetration of Arab dishes into Israeli food culture.18

Eating the Other

Hirsch applies hooks’ concept of ‘eating the Other’ to the Israeli appropriation of Arab–Palestinian foods. She notes that eating the Other refers to the commodification of difference, “manifested in ‘ethnic cuisine’,”19 for white consumption. She continues: “Whether the Other is consumed in an effort to … [overcome] of white prejudice or as an assertion of power and privilege—an act of incorporating and thereby mastering a threatening yet alluring Other—it is always meant to serve the ends of white desire.” On a similar note, Gvion argues that Jewish Israelis’ attitudes toward Palestinian cuisine reflects the political, social, and cultural marginalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel.20 This attitude has resulted in the Jewish appropriation of only certain items of the Palestinian food repertoire21—those that can easily be adjusted to Jewish eating habits—without acknowledging their origins, and also deeming items not easily adopted as unworthy. Hirsch posits that the frameworks of ‘eating the Other’ and food colonialism seem “particularly relevant to the Israeli case,”22 and I agree with her. The Jewish appropriation of certain Arab dishes is regarded as yet another instance of Israel consuming Palestinian resources and claiming them as their own. Some scholars have argued that any stable notion of ‘the food of the Other’ is predicated on an essentialized version of culture, in which local, ethnic, or national ‘cultures’ are seen as distinct, bounded, and static units.23

Falafel’s transformation into an icon of Israeli culture24 (from a food originating from Arab–Palestinians) was rushed and deliberate. Early Jewish immigrants adopted certain local Arab cultural practices in a deliberate attempt to “relinquish Diaspora habits”25 in favour of a new existence in Palestine. Here, Raviv notes, the ambivalent Zionist attitude toward the local Arab population becomes apparent: on the one hand, Arabs were seen as “models of behaviour,”26 but on the other hand, they were seen as “primitive and in need of Jewish acculturation and modernization.”27 As a street food—not a creation of a sophisticated cuisine—falafel was more readily accepted by Jewish people in Palestine at a time when home cooking was seen as part of the bourgeois existence they had left behind in Europe. Despite most falafel being consumed on the streets, practically every cookbook published in Israel up to the 1970s included a recipe for it. The falafel was eventually seen as a symbol of successful Jewish agriculture in Palestine. By estranging the falafel from its Arab past, the Zionists were able to adopt it as their own, presenting Palestine as essentially empty and desolate before their arrival. This helps the Jewish population in Palestine to see themselves not as colonizers, but as “redeemers of the land.”28 Following Israel’s independence in 1948, a much larger demographic of non-European immigrants began to arrive. Since falafel could now be linked to Jewish immigrants who had come from the Middle East and Africa, it could “shed its Arab association in favor of an overarching Israeli identification.”29 The mixture of romanticization, admiration, and imitation of the local Arab–Palestinian, together with an overt or covert desire to become a political replacement to this people were evident processes throughout the Zionist immigrations to Palestine.30

The detachment of falafel from its Arab origins allowed it to reach the next stage in culinary appropriation: authenticity. According to Raviv, at this stage, “the food is no longer taken for granted; the best versions are searched out and held up as prized products.”31 By the late 1960s, falafel had become nationalized into Israeli (food) culture to the point where it could be used with pride as a symbol of “Israeliness.”32 Even outside of Israel, falafel retains its status as a marker for the Israeli nation and Jewish nationalism.33

This nationalism goes so far that it falafel is presented as a “proud national symbol”34 on postcards, tourist publications, and in meals served abroad. Raviv suggests that the Israelis’ choice to use falafel or hummus as markers of identity should “perhaps be perceived as a reflection of their wish to become part of the Middle East,”35 however, I have serious issues with this claim. Irrespective of the Israelis’ intentions, the act of claiming these foods as belonging to a group of people with a history of oppressing the group from which the foods originate is rooted in colonial ideologies. Raviv claims that “falafel is not a tool of oppression [but] … can offer some insight into the complex nature or national icons and cultural preferences,”36 and also addresses that foods like falafel and hummus are no longer Arab foods, but completely misses the mark insofar as recognizing the colonial nature with which these processes of appropriation operate. Hirsch notes that once an appropriated food items enters into the more “official registers of culture”37—that is, once the food has been mainstreamed in a colonial way—its Arab identity becomes suppressed, allowing the food item to be presented as a relic of biblical times, and, more importantly, as originating from the dominant culture.

After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, Jews began to travel to conquered Arab towns like Nazareth and Acre—or to Arab neighbourhoods in Haifa38—to look for foods that were unavailable in Jewish markets. Despite not finding meat, what they were originally searching for, they did find hummus—which proved to be a filling and nutritious substitute. The restaurant industry has served as an important agent of the “Israelization of hummus,”39 not only by rendering it as a national dish, but also by facilitating its penetration into official representations of Israeli cuisine. Despite much of this Israelization, Arab hummus gradually began to regain agency and authenticity in the late 1970s and early 1980s,40 but the first Intifada in 1987 reversed this trend and defaulted to colonized representations of hummus.

The 1980s were a decade of transformations in Israeli society and culture. The transition in Israeli political and economic policy went hand-in-hand with the erosion of the ideology of cultural unification. Two major processes are particularly relevant to this erosion of cultural unification: first, the “rise of a new urban middle class” developed a cosmopolitan cultural orientation with an emphasis on consumption and leisure, which restructured the entire Israeli culinary field; and second, the rise of identity politics prompted a search for authentic “ethnic cultures,” making food and cuisine focal to defining what ethnic cultures look like.41 Ethnic foods become a resource for the construction of nostalgic identities and authentic selves for members of marginalized ethnic groups. Simultaneously, in this new elite culinary culture, the ‘ethnic’, ‘foreign’, and ‘local’ all became commodified options in a repertoire available for the construction of the new bourgeoisie “cosmopolitan self.”42

With its entry into Israeli gourmet discourse, hummus has undergone differentiation, both along geographical lines and along quality lines. Arab-made hummus is distinguished from Jewish-made hummus and is deemed better and more authentic. Naturally, these views are contested; however, the assumption that Arab hummus is superior to Jewish hummus has become so commonplace in food discourse that “in a 1997 newspaper column announcing an Independence Day hummusiyot [‘hummus master’] tour, all seven tour stops listed were Arab.”43 Despite the recent reemergence of hummus as an Arab food, the history of Israeli appropriation is not forgotten, and the colonials ways in which Israeli culture swallowed Arab–Palestinian foods and culture are representative of continued injustices toward the Palestinian community today. The geopolitics of the Israeli–Palestinian region and Jewish–Arab tensions are inextricably linked and closely intertwined, and ultimately continue to be a site of conflict, oppression, and cultural clashing.

Conclusion

The discourse on Arab–Palestinian foods—like hummus and falafel—in Israel is often structured by the language of conflict and reconciliation. Despite this, the culinary success of hummus cannot be reduced to its political symbolism: it is also motivated by other factors, including taste, price, and nutritional qualities, all of which are mediated by various discourses of lifestyle and consumption. In these contexts, despite their consumption and signification, food can become analogical of political relations. The reemergence of the Arab identity of hummus in particular resulted from the interaction between the rise of the new urban middle class and the rise of identity politics and subsequent desire for ethnic cultures. Hummus and falafel, as popular and emotionally charged national foods, have become a terrain for Jewish–Arab relations as well as the precarity of the Israeli–Palestinian relationship. Despite the recent return of Arab hummus in mainstream culinary discourse, it is evident that the cultural codification of Arab food as iconographic of Israeli national identity de-Palestinianizes, colonizes, and devalues Arab foods—for it has permanently othered Arab–Palestinian food culture in an effort to reclaim the Holy Land.

  1.  Liora Gvion, “Cuisines of Poverty as Means of Empowerment: Arab Food in Israel,” Agriculture and Human Values 23, no. 3 (July 9, 2006): 305, doi:10.1007/s10460-006-9003-7.
  2.  Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1 edition (Routledge, 2010).
  3.  Liora Gvion, “Cuisines of Poverty as Means of Empowerment: Arab Food in Israel,” Agriculture and Human Values 23, no. 3 (July 9, 2006): 300, doi:10.1007/s10460-006-9003-7.
  4. Ibid.
  5.  David Arnold, Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford, UK; New York, NY, USA: B. Blackwell, 1988).
  6.  Ianthe Maclagan, “Food and Gender in a Yemeni Community,” in Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, eds. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 1994), 159–72.
  7.  Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  8.  Liora Gvion, “Cuisines of Poverty as Means of Empowerment: Arab Food in Israel,” Agriculture and Human Values 23, no. 3 (July 9, 2006): 299, doi:10.1007/s10460-006-9003-7.
  9. Ibid., 303.
  10. Ibid., 301.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 308.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 310.
  19.  Dafna Hirsch, “‘Hummus Is Best When It Is Fresh and Made by Arabs’: The Gourmetization of Hummus in Israel and the Return of the Repressed Arab,” American Ethnologist 38, no. 4 (November 2011): 618, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01326.x.
  20.  Liora Gvion, “Cuisines of Poverty as Means of Empowerment: Arab Food in Israel,” Agriculture and Human Values 23, no. 3 (July 9, 2006): 299, doi:10.1007/s10460-006-9003-7.
  21.  Dafna Hirsch, “‘Hummus Is Best When It Is Fresh and Made by Arabs’: The Gourmetization of Hummus in Israel and the Return of the Repressed Arab,” American Ethnologist 38, no. 4 (November 2011): 618, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01326.x.
  22. Ibid.
  23.  Ian Cook and Philip Crang, “The World On a Plate Culinary Culture, Displacement and Geographical Knowledges,” Journal of Material Culture 1, no. 2 (July 1, 1996): 131–53, doi:10.1177/135918359600100201.
  24.  Yael Raviv, “Falafel: A National Icon,” Gastronomica 3, no. 3 (2003): 20, doi:10.1525/gfc.2003.3.3.20.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., 21.
  29. Ibid.
  30.  Ronald Ranta and Yonatan Mendel, “Consuming Palestine: Palestine and Palestinians in Israeli Food Culture,” Ethnicities, January 19, 2014, 13, doi:10.1177/1468796813519428.
  31.  Yael Raviv, “Falafel: A National Icon,” Gastronomica 3, no. 3 (2003): 22, doi:10.1525/gfc.2003.3.3.20.
  32. Ibid.
  33.  Yael Raviv, “National Identity on a Plate,” Palestine–Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture 8, no. 4 (April 30, 2002): 164.
  34.  Yael Raviv, “Falafel: A National Icon,” Gastronomica 3, no. 3 (2003): 23, doi:10.1525/gfc.2003.3.3.20.
  35. Ibid., 25.
  36. Ibid.
  37.  Dafna Hirsch, “‘Hummus Is Best When It Is Fresh and Made by Arabs’: The Gourmetization of Hummus in Israel and the Return of the Repressed Arab,” American Ethnologist 38, no. 4 (November 2011): 620, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01326.x.
  38. Ibid., 621.
  39. Ibid., 622.
  40. Ibid., 623.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ofra Tene, “Thus You Shall Cook! Analysis of Israeli Cookbooks” (MA Thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2002).
  43.  Dafna Hirsch, “‘Hummus Is Best When It Is Fresh and Made by Arabs’: The Gourmetization of Hummus in Israel and the Return of the Repressed Arab,” American Ethnologist 38, no. 4 (November 2011): 624, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01326.x.