When Food Tastes of Politics
By Benjamin J Doherty, 27 March 2001
Joan Nathan's "Food of Modern Israel" interview: Steve Dolinsky's interview this morning with Joan Nathan was at its heart a revealing political statement on the ownership of cultural capital in Israel.  Modern Israel, I'm sure you're well aware, is itself a contentious issue because of modern Israel's origins and its present actions against Palestinians who live within its borders and in the territories it occupies who are resisting the occupation.  I don't deny that Israel's cuisine is influenced by its geography and its multicultural residents and through international trade and tourism.  The problem is how these influences--the cultural capital that is a group's cuisine and agriculture--are recognized, contextualized, appropriated, and assimilated.

Early in the report, Joan Nathan was given an opportunity to retell the story of the creation of the state of Israel.  She told a story of hardship and antagonism, a time when "there was no food."  She mentioned that Jews from Arab countries fled their homes in those countries to live in Israel. During this time of crisis when "there was no food" and meat was scarce, citizens of the new state of Israel relied on protein-rich vegetable foods such as felafel, which is a staple of the Arab kitchen. Ironically, the creation of the state of Israel was predicated on the forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from their homes from the end of 1947 through the middle of 1948.  Many of these refugees' former homes were filled with new Jewish immigrants to the state of Israel, and these Jewish immigrants filled their stomachs with Palestinian/Arab cuisine. In light of these facts, the Palestinian refugees also experienced the creation of the state of Israel as a time of extreme hardship, a time when "there was no food" in addition to the loss of their homes and property.

However, telling this fuller story would have been an overt politicization of the history of the cuisine of Modern Israel, and Ms. Nathan was much more successful with her covert political statement that excluded any mention of the words "Palestine" or "Palestinians."  Her ideological slant was even more apparent with her clever distinctions among the Arab culinary influences: non-Palestinian Arab ("Syrian" and "Lebanese"), "of the land," and "Biblical food."  All of this served one and only one end: the denial of Palestinian existence.  Zatar and sumac are basic ingredients in Palestinian cooking.  Olives and dates--what Ms. Nathan termed "Biblical food"--are also staples.  All of these ingredients have been grown by Palestinian farmers for centuries.  Her terms "of the land" and "Biblical food" remind me of the fact the same U.S. federal department maintains forests, rivers, and Native Americans.  Ms. Nathan's reorganization of these ingredients into the self-serving categories denied Palestinian influence on Israeli cuisine and thus denied their existence at all.

While these cultural misappropriations might seem ultimately harmless to the basic welfare of Palestinians, it is basically identical to the material conflict that captures our attention daily on the evening news. Ms. Nathan's denial of Palestinian influence on Israeli cuisine feeds into a larger denial or "void."  Palestine and Palestinians are central to Israel's existence:  Israel was created on the historic land of Palestine and at the cost of the livelihoods of a million Palestinians in 1948 and the livelihoods of millions of their descendants today.  This void is integral to Israeli identity.  The vast cultural denial of Palestinian identity in Israel also serves to deny Palestinians their basic human rights.

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