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Food Theft as a Form of Cultural Genocide

Back in 2012 I wrote a short book entitled Cultural Genocide (Rutgers University Press). It looked at four case studies of this phenomenon: the American Indians, Russian treatment of Jews in the 19th century, Chinese assimilation of Tibet, and Israel’s ongoing treatment of the Palestinians. It is an aspect of Palestinian plight that I want to revisit here.

The idea behind cultural genocide is relatively simple—it is the systematic erasure of the culture of indigenous people subject to colonization. The endgame here is that the conquered land will no longer be popularly identified with the culture and traditions of those who were once native to it. Instead, their culture will be replaced by that of the colonizer. The most common way of doing this is to disperse or actually wipe out a good part of the indigenous population, with the resulting trauma causing their culture, at least in its native form, to disappear. However, sometimes the colonizers will appropriate elements of the native culture as their own. This is cultural genocide by theft as well as destruction.

In Cultural Genocide I laid out how the Israelis were attempting to undermine and ultimately destroy Palestinian culture in a seemingly never-ending effort to “Hebraize” the territory now called Israel. Here are some of the techniques employed:

(1) the practice of renaming, which began as early as the 1920s: “With the help of archeologists, geographers and biblical scholars” the Zionists “began to systematically erase Palestine’s Arab history and heritage from what would be Israel’s own official records, maps and histories”;

(2) The physical destruction of Palestinian archeological sites, artifacts, ancient mosques and historic houses to the extent that the Unesco World Heritage office describes the Israeli actions as “crimes against the cultural history of mankind”;

(3) The purposeful looting and subsequent destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives and museums; and

(4) the imposition of literally thousands of regulations designed to make it impossible for Palestinians in occupied territory to express themselves culturally or politically. (For further information, see Cultural Genocide, pp. 77-80.)

Mislabeling Palestinian Cuisine

When I wrote this book in 2012, the issue of the appropriation of native foods as the colonizer’s own did not come up. It was, if you will, “under my radar.” It got on my radar about five years ago, whereupon I began complaining (often to no avail) to supermarkets and restaurants about hummus and falafel being advertised as “Israeli food.”

I was again reminded of the issue by a series of events, most recently, a local catered dinner to raise money for Playgrounds For Palestine. The food was all Palestinian. The well-known chef Anan Zahr reminded us all that “this is a crucial time for the Palestinian people, whose identity and culture are aggressively threatened on a daily basis by the Israeli government. It is so important for us to highlight and showcase the Palestinian cuisine to prevent ongoing food appropriation.”

To “highlight and showcase Palestinian cuisine” here in the West is a difficult task, if only because the effort must overcome a sea of ignorance and indifference. Despite the decades of ongoing conflict that has been grist for the mill of mass media, there are still millions of Americans, and others too, who know little about the cultural genocide of the Palestinians. What resides now in the minds of most people (when they consider the topic at all) is Israel presented to them as a “normal country” periodically threatened by Muslim Arabs. And, just as the Italians eat Italian food, and the French eat French food, the average American assumes that the Israelis eat “Israeli food.”

A good example of this was the controversy sparked by celebrity chef Rachel Ray, who appears on a number of on-line and televised cooking shows. Back in December 2017Ray, who is not Jewish, put out a number of tweets describing “an Israeli nite meal.” The foods she tweeted about included hummus, tabbouleh (“tabouli”), stuffed grape leaves, chicken fried in za’atar and cucumber salad—all of them traditional Palestinian foods.

As the Times of Israel described it, “the posts spurred a cascade of more than1,600 replies, most of them critical.” This is an expression of the fact that Palestinians “see Israeli claims to these foods as just one more form of oppression.” Yousef Munayyer, who directs the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, placed the situation in context: “place names, street names, historical markers have been changed. Forests have literally been planted above our villages, obfuscating the very remnants of our history and the graves of our ancestors. So please understand, when you label this food ‘Israeli’ you’re participating in a broad process of replacement that goes way beyond what is on a plate and is instead about denying Palestinians [to] even have a place at the global table.” He asserted that Ray’s tweets had contributed to “a culture in which Palestinians, as a people, are often told they do not exist.” In other words, by taking Palestinian food and renaming it Israeli, the Zionists perform an act of cultural genocide.

All of this must have left Rachael Ray’s head spinning. She did not directly respond to the consequences of her faux pas but quickly moved on to tweeting about Greek cuisine. As far as I can learn, her mislabeling of Palestinian cuisine as Israeli was largely due to ignorance. She has no particular connections to Israel beyond the fact that she has a friend who goes there and brings her back recipes. She certainly is no hard-core Zionist. For instance, back in 2008 Ray was accused of giving moral support to a “murderous Palestinian jihad,” by appearing in a commercial for Dunkin Donuts wearing a scarf that “looked too much like a keffiyeh.”

The Zionist Response

Zionists and their supporters have a response to these complaints. However, like all their other arguments, they rest on an utter unwillingness to take responsibility for their own collective actions. What they do in this case is talk around the issue, thus avoiding a complete picture. Thus, their principle response, given here by one Alex Kay, goes like this: “Israeli cuisine is a beautiful celebration of Jews from around the world, including 800,000 Jewish Arabs thrown out from Arab countries. In Israel you have Eastern and Western food mixed perfectly. … Palestinians don’t own chopped salad or za’atar.”

It is quite beside the point whether or not Israeli cuisine is “a beautiful celebration of Jews from around the world” or “in Israel you have Eastern and Western food mixed perfectly.” The context for the complaint of food appropriation has nothing to do with the celebration of “Jewishness” or a melding of cuisines. Nor, quite frankly, has it to do with the allegation that 800,000 Jewish Arabs were “thrown out from Arab countries” soon after Israel was founded. This assertion is an exaggerated element of the broader Zionist mantra. Jewish Arabs faced much less hostility in most Arab countries than the Zionists say they did, particularly considering that, at the time, the Zionists had begun to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. However, in every case these Arab Jewish communities faced relentless Zionist pressure to emigrate. And, when they did go to Israel they faced discrimination because of their Arab heritage.

The only pertinent allegation in the Zionist retort is “Palestinians don’t own chopped salad or za’atar.” Yet, within the broader context in which Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian food takes place, the truth is that the Palestinians do “own” these foods—not only historically, but also morally. As noted above, that greater context is one of purposeful destruction of the Palestinian people, and that makes all the difference.

As long as the Israelis practice ethnic cleansing and continue down the road to apartheid state status (as they did with their recent nationality law), their claim on any aspect of Palestinian heritage—be it land or food—is a de facto act of cultural genocide. And, if this form of destructive racism is not to become ever more frequent, every aspect of Zionist appropriation must be fought, right down to the last “Israeli” falafel.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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