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All About Israeli Food!

An Israeli bride who insisted on eating a falafel sandwich on the way to the alter (photo credit Levinsky)
An Israeli bride who insisted on eating a falafel sandwich on the way to the altar. (Levinsky)

Is It Really About Food?

(warning: this is a long article, but I had a lot to say.) 

Yep, I did, I definitely said “Israeli food”—two words that evince so much wrath, disgust and public scrutiny because apparently there is no such thing and Israelis have no business including it in their menus, especially when the food in question is of Palestinian provenance. It is the very recipes that Palestinians and only Palestinians have been making for generations and for which they are known throughout the Middle East, and the world!

“This is cultural genocide. It’s not Israeli food. It’s Arab (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian). First the Israelis take the land and ethnically cleanse it of Arabs. Now they take their food and culture and claim it’s theirs too! Shame,” tweeted prominent Arab American James Zogby. [1]

Cultural genocide? Ethnic cleansing you say? You sure? The use of these pejorative epithets in connection with Israeli food is another crafty way of expunging Jewish history from Israel, and prolonging a never-ending conflict. These very words have juxtaposed Arab exclusively of the Levant with Israeli appropriation of their land, food, and culture. The food-scene-war is not entirely new, but I’ve noticed how it has gained momentum especially since the focus on food photos in cookbooks and on social media has shifted to the people making the food, and the stories behind them. Have you noticed the backlash directed towards celebrities who mention a tasty Israeli meal on a recent trip to Israel? It doesn’t only happen to celebs, it happens to many of us who post about food—we all become the recipients of the usual barrage of intifada hashtags.

Falafel in Sha-araim, Rehovot, Israel (Levinsky)

I’ve heard it many times, that most people will shy away from criticizing Israel because of the automatic onslaught from the pro-Israel camp that will label them antisemitic. But that argument does not hold any water with me. Have you watched a session in the Israeli Knesset? Have you read Israeli newspapers? Are you abreast of different political rallies that take place across Israel? So no, criticism of Israeli policies is not priori antisemitic, it differs from the posturing of reactionaries who masquerade as progressive thinkers yet lack criticism of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, or shut a blind eye to human rights violations in a number of problematic countries around the world. Which leads me to the next question of what is really going on here? Is it really about hummus and falafel and the need to hang on to those garbanzo balls for dear life, without which Palestinian national identity will slowly fade?

There’s something to be said about the allure of supporting a resistance movement, taking a stance, exhibiting passion for their cause, and becoming entrenched in the others’ struggle, while undermining Jewish self-determination. Sometimes, it’s a lucrative business too. But the ones who criticize Israel, often enough are the most ardent of activists who embrace an-all-or-nothing approach with their main focus of castigating Israel while spewing moral outrage over Israel’s very existence. This time, with the aid of food, these writers then seduce their readers with impassioned iterations of personal loss; this does nothing for one’s appetite other than demonize Israel and Israelis. An interesting facet of these claims is that no one ever challenges them on particular details.

Fake Refugees

Take the Hadids for instance; you know who I’m talking about—he’s a real estate developer, father to models Gigi and Bella and all together they share a particular aversion to Israel. They present a model of history that erases Jewish presence and multiculturalism from the region while placing Palestinians at the forefront of civilization. It’s funny and maybe borders on lunacy when you consider rudimentary knowledge of Christianity and Islam, both religions using Judaism as a blueprint for their belief systems.

Here’s what Hadid said in one of his posts that featured olive oil: “The @ahmadawad4u family Olive Oil that started it .. All …hand pressed today with the same hands that turned the soil and planted the Olive Trees that cared for them watered them with sweat and tears and jars of water on their fragile heads 6000 years ago .. the same families. The same Palestinians and generations of them still .. doing it as I write this note. Don’t let any one cut your trees as to kill our roots . A single tree can Re root 1000 new trees .. the rolled dried ‏ لبني Strained and dried and hand rolled from Khair The mother of @Waelelsaadi.” [2]

An underground olive press, Maresha–Beit Guvrin Park, Israel (Levinsky)

Sure, there are Arabs whose families had grown olive trees for a few generations. And? So? Does that also give them exclusivity to the olive oil industry in Israel? Are Palestinians the moral and legal heirs of olive tree history in Israel? What about the symbolism of the olive tree and olive oil in Judaism? Olive oil is pretty much embedded in every layer of ancient Jewish history, also known as the “land of olive and oil” (Deut 8:8).

I remember touring Beit Guvrin and Maresha – a city in the kingdom of Judea during the time of the First Temple. The city is mentioned in the book of Joshua and the Zenon papyri, and like any other place in Israel it was later taken over by the Romans and a succession of foreign conquests that led to a tapestry of cultures that inhabited the area for the next two thousand years. Among the many relics unearthed in both towns, archeologists found batei bad – olive oil production facilities with 22 olive presses, crushing mills, as well as trenches and cisterns that drained and stored olive oil. Most of the facilities that were found belonged to Jews or Christians, so Hadid would have a hard time proving that Palestinian hands were responsible for cultivating all of those trees.

Olive oil is pretty much embedded in every layer of ancient Jewish history, also known as the ‘land of olive and oil.’ (Deut 8:8) (Levinsky)

But why stop there when millions accept this fantasy as reality? He’s a foreigner in America and an outsider among Arab-Palestinian refugees unless he somehow inserts himself into the broad social construct of the Palestinian conflict, which intrinsically promotes his status in his adoptive country too. He shows photos of his driver’s license as proof of his date of birth on November 6, 1948 and the word “Palestine” next to the place of his birth. And this little detail has eluded everyone. He was never born in Palestine because Israel had already gained its independence six months earlier on May 14, 1948. Also, among many, inconsistencies, his posts assert two different towns interchangeably as his place of birth; in any case, both Safed and Nazareth were de facto Israel on that date.

A medley of olives at Shuk Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

When Hadid is not promoting his personal brand of expensive caviar, he posts food photos that he attributes to Palestinian cuisine, which is fine and dandy, but as usual, he politicizes the palate as well. His main goal is to indoctrinate his followers with the idea that Israeli society has claimed Palestinian identity and dispossessed them of their patrimony. He adopts a passive-aggressive tone to undermine the notion of peace by presenting half-truths, myths, and conspiracy theories. I doubt whether Hadid actually meets any of the criteria that define a refugee; he calls Israelis “fake Jews” but maybe he’s a fake refugee!

The same goes for Dr. Edward Said; he was an esteemed scholar from Columbia University who for decades promoted the story of his own family’s displacement by Israel when in fact they had voluntarily moved to Cairo, Egypt, in 1935. It became the core of his identity; however, Said lied to his students, colleagues, and readers. [3]

The intelligentsia that fawned at his feet did nothing more than a dismissive hand gesture, because men like Said and Hadid speak to a broad swath of the population that sees Israel as a warmongering rogue state, and an agent of western imperialism. Apparently, the details don’t matter as long as they help reinforce the narrative against Israel.

“If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy” (Psalm 137) (Levinsky)

The problem is that words have consequences; we’ve seen the tragic outcome when the very idea of Jewishness is perceived as hostile. Unfortunately, it is still the prism from which many of Israel’s critics see the world. And self-flagellating Jews are among those who have crossed the line between legitimate criticism and a plain desire to dismantle the Jewish democracy. Lately, I’ve seen many Jews describing themselves as post-Zionists. Having to live with the shame of belonging to a group that’s routinely vilified and identified as racist is taxing; the UN had equated Zionism to racism back in 1975, which has turned into a battle cry of the ages, and it also has deep psychological ramifications. Is it not easier to just cross over to the “right” side of history? Is it not easier to do so because it’s too much, too much hate to have to deal with? We still have to prove our history every – single – time we write about this conflict. The fact that falsehoods and mythology are accepted as fact, points to a form of systemic erasure and this is possible regardless of a history that is not so convoluted, not difficult to follow, or understand.

Shakshuka was eaten not only by Tunisian and Moroccan Jews but Yemenite Jews also enjoyed that messy poached egg concoction (Levinsky)

Culinary Amnesia

Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago has said the following:

“We always sort of look at each other and roll our eyeballs when we pass a restaurant that says ‘Israeli falafel’” (Jodi Kantor, Jewish Journal, “The Great Falafel Question”).

Why the eye roll? As though falafel should be something foreign to all Jews? Are all Jews in Israel of Eastern European descent? Were there no Jews living in Israel throughout the centuries, throughout the many occupations of their land? Are Jews not indigenous to Israel? What about Jews who came from Arab lands? Did they just continue to live off manna that was dropped down from the sky?

“Presenting dishes of Palestinian provenance as Israeli not only denies the Palestinian contribution to Israeli cuisine but it erases our very history and existence,” says cookbook author Reem Kassis. [4]

She continues:

“I was also frustrated to see the best Palestinian dish I had tasted since arriving in the United States being served at an Israeli restaurant — with no mention given to its origin, nor the origin of most other dishes on the menu, many of which I recognized as the iconic meals of my childhood.”

Lat’s make one thing clear, Israelis have no problem giving credit where its due! You open up any Israeli cookbook and there is reference to Palestinians and their contribution to local cuisine. A few months ago I recall watching a segment on the Israeli news about the most celebrated knafe maker in Israel—customers were licking their lips and singing her praises.  Go on Instagram and see the Israelis’ adulation for Farah Raslan, one of the most beloved knafe makers in northern Israel. Her posts are lovely, all about knafe-ka-ak, a sweet cheese dessert served in a special sesame bagel, and she takes pride in celebrating her Lebanese heritage and offering her version of Lebanese knafe. She doesn’t try to politicize her food by pointing fingers at Israelis who consider Arab food part of their food culture too.

Aside from that, I do think that mentioning a recipe’s origins in Israeli restaurants is a fantastic idea. Brilliant! It may help alleviate a lot of confusion and misrepresentation pertaining to misunderstood and undermined Jewish history. Perhaps it would help clarify our ingenuity status—that our connection to the land of Israel is not a construct of modern Zionism and perhaps a little blurb about the food on an Israeli menu will reevaluate the notion of “culinary amnesia”—the notion that all Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands forgot about the diet that is ubiquitous to the region. As if they were not already familiar with shakshuka, pita, hummus, techina, falafel, baklava just to name a few of the contested items, and mentioning our history would explain for once and for all, the biggest and longest culinary influence in the region: The Ottoman Empire. So yes, please, let’s adopt this author’s idea right away.

Another Twist

“Some might counter that Mizrahi Jews brought these dishes to Israel. But hummus and falafel were not part of the culinary repertoire of most Mizrahi Jews before their immigration in the 1950s, as they were generally eaten in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine, rather than in North Africa, Yemen and Iraq, from where most Mizrahi immigrants hailed.”

The way it used to be, a replica of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

As confident as Kassis sounds in the rendering of our history, I’m afraid that I have to set the record straight, nonetheless. There are quite a few sources that explain the Egyptian provenance of falafel—a country where many Jews had resided. Jews had lived in Egypt since the destruction of the First Temple—the Cairo geniza contains the largest archival finds in history made up of sacred texts and prayers and the works of Jewish philosophers, poets, rabbinical responses, community records, legal briefings, contracts, and letters that were discovered in the 1000-year-old Ezra synagogue in Cairo. [5]

Archeological findings at The Temple Mount Sifting Project, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

This is just one of many examples that helps thread our history into a cohesive narrative that affirms Jewish presence around the world, including a continued Jewish presence in the Holy Land/Palestine/Israel in spite of foreign occupation. Some of the notable Jews who resided in Egypt were the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Saadia Gaaon as well as Maimonides—a medieval Jewish philosopher, Torah scholar, and personal physician to the king.

Delectable falafel balls at Badra’s Yementie eatery in Sha-araim, Rehovot, Israel (Levinsky)

Still, some believe that falafel has deep ancient Egyptian roots, while others think it’s a modern food because using oil for frying would have been too expensive as a local, popular food. Shaul Stamfer is a Professor of Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he’s had a few interesting observations with respect to falafel history. He conducted thorough research on specific foods and their association with Jews when writing the book Jews and their Foodways—Studies in Contemporary Jewry. He says that many foods we deem iconic are relatively new foods, things like British fish and chips, Egyptian koshary, and Chinese American chop suey.  And falafel is no different, even though some have speculated that it was first made with fava beans by the Coptic community as early as the 4th century; however, the first mention of falafel appears in Egyptian literature only after the British occupation in 1882. [6]

Historians Paul Balta and Farouk Mardam Bey have speculated that during the British rule of India, they must have acquired the taste for certain spices and fried vegetable croquettes such as vada and bonda, and when occupying Egypt, they pined after those same tastes and flavors and may have asked their Egyptian cooks to come up with similar recipes. The Jews of Kerala and Calcutta would sometimes make fried balls of split green peas known as parippu vada or filowri, which Stampfer observed were strikingly similar to falafel. Regardless of who made what, those delectable fried balls became so popular in Egypt that they were known as ta’miyya, which means “a bite of food.”

Magical Balls

Soon enough, that little falafel ball had caught the attention and the palates of the Lebanese, it then crossed the Red Sea towards Yemen, and rolled into Turkey and Libya, all of which were happy to adopt this popular fried concoction. In the same way that other recipes had integrated into new societies because of occupation, it’s not difficult to assume that when Mohamed Ali, the pasha and viceroy of Egypt, had occupied Palestine in 1831 and brought with him tens of thousands of soldiers and falachim (peasants/farm workers)—well these new residents introduced the local population to their beloved falafel balls. The falafel that was eaten decades ago was made from fava beans instead of garbanzo beans. [7]

Salufa, a Yemenite-style flat bread accompanies my plate of hummus and techina, Safed, Israel (Levinsky)

Hummus and pita are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which is made up of ingredients native to the region, but chickpeas are not exclusive to Jews or Arabs and yet these Palestinian writers and those they have brainwashed into believing this narrative will continue to tell us that it’s a food that is foreign to all Jews. Never mind that hummus, for instance, already appears in the Bible as himtza or hamitz, specifically when Boaz offered Ruth to “. . . eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar . . .” (Ruth 2:14).

There are those who will tell you that the vinegar offered to Ruth was none other than hummus, while others will argue that it’s not. However, Eilon Giladi, in his article for Haaretz on “How Hummus Got Its Name” discusses the etymology of the word hummus, which I find especially interesting. There are quite a few references to chickpeas in early Jewish writings, so let’s just make one thing clear, there is nothing political in such discussions because they took place before the rise of Islam. The Mishna mentions the word afun to describe a specific legume, which is believed to be the chickpea. Interestingly, the word “af” in Hebrew is nose and the chickpea does have a nose-like protrusion. We also have the Hebrew Book of Medicines attributed to Asaf the Sage where he discussed the medicinal properties of this particular legume. Babylonian sages adopted the Aramaic word himtzi as we have also seen mentioned in similar form in the Bible. Psst, that association is too far-fetched according to these falafel and hummus warriors.

My home-made hummus, A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking (Levinsky)

In any case, when Jewish immigrants arrived to Palestine in the 19 hundreds and there was a need to revive the Hebrew language, when it was time to decide what word would suffice for chickpeas, there were three versions of the word that were adopted: hemetz, himetz, and humtza. However “hummus,” the Arabic word for chickpeas/garbanzo beans and hummus paste is awfully similar to hametz, himetz and humtza. The bottom line is that this paste was familiar to all Jews who lived in Arab countries as well, and sure enough it was the Arabic word that everyone chose to adopt instead of the earlier versions that had appeared in the Bible and Mishna.

Yemenite Falafel

My research on this topic had led me to writer Moshe David who published a book about Southern Yemenite food titled The Disappearing Flavors of The South (Yemen). He mentioned that Yemenite Jews had their own fried mixture of black eyed peas and spices known as bagya, and another fried recipe reminiscent of falafel was fatair albadnejan belhumus. Also, shakshuka which Kassis says is of Palestinian provenance was eaten not only by Tunisian and Moroccan Jews, but also Yemenite Jews enjoyed that messy poached egg concoction.

Their own version of shakshuka contained potatoes, tomatoes, onion, chili pepper, turmeric, and eggs while the other recipe was made without potatoes but with the addition of the hawaij spice blend (cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, and cardamom). Let’s not forget that the Yemenite kitchen was influenced by Persian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Indonesian cooking, but the most significant influence was that of Indian cooking as they shared many similar combinations of spices. They were not influenced by British cuisine during their presence in the region—could you imagine a Yemenite Victoria Sponge Cake? Nevertheless, the Ottomans ruled Yemen on and off and their cuisine did have a profound effect on Yemenite cooking too.

Not surprising that Yemenite Jews were the first ones to open falafel stands in Israel and reinvent and repackage the food in terms of flavor and presentation, using garbanzo beans instead of fava beans or black eyed peas—stuffing it in pita, and adding salads which was not the eating custom beforehand. Of course, Kassis has that covered too—she says that the Israelis’ practice of eating falafel with salads still doesn’t mask the fact that it’s Palestinian food only!

A long view into the past: Archeology that predates Islam. An archway at the Roman amphitheater, Maresha–Beit Guvrin National Park, Israel (Levinsky)

How interesting that in the same vein that we are accused of robbing Palestinians of their land, of being outsiders in Israel, we are also accused of stealing their culture and appropriating every single item on their menu, even though similar recipes appear all over the Middle East, and we have a culture that predates Islam, and we’re pretty content with our traditions—so much so that we’ve stuck to them despite the Jews’ problematic reception around the world. We’ve been more than happy to share with Muslims quite a few beliefs and tradition that they have since adopted from us. Lo and behold, some of our biblical prophets make an appearance in the Quran, what a coincidence. What a coincidence that in Islam males get circumcised! Because so do Jews! Observant Jews don’t eat pork. But neither do Muslims, what an un-be-live-a-ble coincidence, a-gain!

My mom shopping for bread in Israel (Levinsky)

Arab Challah

Oh, but Kassis is relentless. She is hell-bent on linking every single thing Jews eat to issues of legitimacy and national identity. As of late, she has said that even bagels are another Jewish appropriation of Arab food. Funny though, considering that bagels are invariably associated with Jewish baked goods, which, sadly, have also been used in conjunction with antisemitic slurs such as “Bagelbender” (a person who rips you off). Well, according to Kassis, Jews had ripped off the bagel recipe from Arabs too! It goes hand-in-hand with our old-world reputation of swindlers. There’s always someone dusting off these incendiary tropes, and giving them new life. Thanks Kassis.

I think that if she spent less time finding fault with Israel and putting more emphasis on research, she would be inclined to recant her fairy tales.

On the one hand, her words evince bitterness towards occupation, then in a manner of pride she celebrates the Arab conquest and occupation of parts of Europe, and claims that through research she has come to the conclusion that the Jewish bagel is really of Arab provenance because of the Arab occupation of Sicily and southern Italy where the Arabs made ka’ak—the first bagel-like bread. At the end of the day, I don’t know of one nation that doesn’t have their own incarnation of bread recipes. But forget about the German pretzel or Russian and Ukraninan bublik, or Polish obwarzanek—all similar breads to ka’ak, including their crunchy sesame topping. Only the Jewish bagel is the focus of Kassis’s attention as she can trace its origins back to an old Arab cookbook from the 13th century.

Delicious breads with spreads and toppings at the Sarona Market, Tel Aviv, Israel (Levinsky)

I think this is fantastic! The Jewish people are forever indebted to Kassis and Arabs for inspiring their ancestors to make the Jewish bagel, the star of all breads that Polish Jews were making in Eastern Europe in the 14th century. Thank you again and again and again for helping Jews take part in the American culinary scene, for the bagel became the darling of the American palates and a staple of the quintessential American breakfast in the early 20th century. And is it true that challah bread is also an ancient Palestinian or Arab recipe? I’m sure I’ll be hearing about the origins of challah in the near future. “Palestinian challah,” yeah, it does roll off the tongue quite smoothly.

Levinsky rosemary and garlic challah (Levinsky)

Eh, for the sake of being a pesky Jew, I can’t help but theorize that Arabs have appropriated many of the foods they’ve associated with their culture, and attached Arabic names to them; it is consistent with their history of occupation and appropriation of other cultures. Before these Arab conquests took place around the globe, who do you think lived in the area we know as the Arabian Peninsula? Well, there were Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians too! Before the Arabization and Islamization of those regions, the local population mainly spoke Aramaic and Greek.

It sucks to be erased from history and your traditions quashed. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.

Stuffed leaves at Shuk Machaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

The Turkish Kitchen

The Turkish Empires’ vast culinary influences stretched across the Middle East, Egypt, Eastern Europe, and Inner Asia for hundreds of years; some of their rule extended between the years 1299-1922. Many Jews had immigrated to Palestine from countries that were occupied by Turkey; plenty of Jews had emigrated from Izmir and Istanbul and Professor Yaron Ben-Naeh, an expert on Jewish history during the Ottoman period, explains that among the many varied occupations held by Jews living in the Ottoman Empire, they also worked as sweet makers. But what do you know, the Turks also ate shish kebab, stuffed and wrapped foods such as dolam—stuffed grape leaves that Kassis would tell you was of Palestinian provenance, of course. They were known for their borek/burek, which is bourekas in Israel (sort of like flaky savory hand-pies). Ladino-speaking Jews who fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition and even earlier during the 1391 pogroms had probably combined their beloved empanadas with the local bourekas and came up with their very own version of bourekitas, explains food writer Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food. She further explains that Joseph Caro, the author of Shulchan Aruch—the code of Jewish Law—had noted that Shabbat meal would include bourekas as far back as the sixteenth century!

Even Kassis understands this, to a degree.

“I know full well that our Palestinian cuisine, like every other, is a byproduct of evolution and diffusion,” she says, “but cultural diffusion is different from cultural appropriation. Diffusion is the result of people from different cultures living in close quarters and interacting with or learning from one another. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, relies on exploitation and consequent erasure, followed by the willful denying of these actions. Food after all is an expression of history, culture and tradition.” [8]

So Kassis accepts that recipes are fluid in nature and I can think of migration, immigration, war, famine, trade routes as a means of assimilation by food. . .  there are many factors that help recipes integrate with local cuisine. When do we get to think of food as a local cuisine in the first place? Is it not the food that most people choose to eat? Is it not the flavors that appeal to the masses, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or nationality?

Fruity tea at the Shuk Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

Pass the Ketchup Please!

Has anyone criticized America for adopting hamburgers as part of their national cuisine when its origins were German? Are there human right activists who argue about the origins of curry? Let’s see who claims curry as their national cuisine. Is it Pakistan? Myanmar? Bangladesh? There’s also Thai curry, or, or should curry be attributed to the Portuguese because of their contribution of the black pepper? Perhaps modern curry is a British dish since Nabobs—British bureaucrats in India—reinvented many of the dishes that we know and love to eat today? Chicken tikka masala was deemed England’s favorite national dish in 2001 by Robyn Cook yet it was created in Glasgow, and chicken balti was created in Birmingham according to Martin Fone’s article in Country Life Magazine “Curious Questions: How did curry become Britain’s national dish?”

What about the French and their escargot—have they not appropriated Italian food? Or did it originate in Portugal, or Spain, or Germany perhaps? Is Queen Elizabeth guilty of appropriation when she hosts her annual Garden (Tea) Party? Should it be renamed the Chinese Garden Tea Party instead?

Apparently, with respect to Jews it’s different; they have never contributed to the Levantine menu despite their existence in Israel and the region. And again, Kassis has that angle covered too:

“Other skeptics may claim that the food of Israel is a mishmash—” (did she say “mishmash”?) “—of cultures just like the immigrants making up the country. Indeed, dishes were brought to Israel from North Africa (shakshuka), Eastern Europe (schnitzel), Iraq (amba) and the Balkans (kebabs and burkas). But if a Jew from Japan were to immigrate to Israel and start making sushi in a restaurant, would sushi become Israeli.”

Israeli breakfast of eggs with scallions, and a side of olives and chopped tomatoes in olive oil, and lemon with a scattering of parsley served on top of yogurt and a dollop of spicy grated tomatoes (Levinsky)

Ah, I see, and there you have it; anything that Israelis eat, well, the method in which it showed up on their plates and palates is by ill-gotten gains, especially because diffusion is a foreign idea between Jews and Arabs. Oh, but Kassis knows her audience, especially at a time when the word appropriation is flung in every direction, sometimes without cause. She knows that her words will be eaten up and regurgitated through the World Wide Web without argument. Moo.

I don’t think that enlisting the appropriation argument is a good idea in every single instance, and I’m not saying that identity doesn’t matter, or that it should not be respected or that food has nothing to do with national identity; however, I am saying that the motives behind such claims are something to be analyzed too.

I was under the impression that appropriation only works as an argument when there is a dominant culture taking from a marginal one. To date there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and only 16 million Jews . . . there are fifty majority-Muslim countries in the world, and one Jewish state that is deemed racist because of its Jewish status. Ask yourselves which Islamic country would welcome a Jewish right of return? After all, there were one million Jews from Arab lands who were displaced due to Arab policy towards Jews. If you attribute to them the same mathematical equation that has numbered Palestinian refugees at 5 million, then our numbers would be substantially larger.

If you take into account the number of Jews who had been expelled from Europe then, my goodness—that would increase that number by millions. With so much animosity towards Israel, much of it systemic in nature, how could one not understand that this claim—the return of five million Palestinians would indeed threaten Israel’s existence. That number includes an inconvenient truth, one that ignores the reality of ongoing incitement and threats imposed by their own leadership, which initiated the exodus of most of the Arab population in the months preceding the 1948 War of Independence. There were villages and mixed-population cities that refused to take part in any military operations against the Yishuv (the Jewish population before Independence) in spite of the scaremongering, and a peace agreement was reached between many Arab villages and the Hagana (Jewish paramilitary organization).

There was still a type of coexistence that ignored the violence, both communities also having mutual economic interests in mind. However, after months of hostilities in neighboring villages and ongoing threats enforced by their Arab leadership, the olive branch had finally withered and fighting ensued with some of those former allies. The Arab Liberation Army (ALA) had marched into Arab villages and turned them into military strongholds, many people were forced out of their homes in order to accommodate their arrival. In villages such as Ein Dor and Shuna in the Galilee, most of the villagers were evicted by the ALA before Israel’s independence. What a mess—and when word of Jewish victories had made waves across the country, this too sent the Arabs fleeing.

Arab leadership preferred to see their people in exile rather than coexist with their Jewish neighbors, and staying in Palestine would have meant accepting Jewish statehood, an antithesis to the Arab cause. Though, here’s something to consider, in the months prior to the war, Arab-Palestinians who applied for UN relief and registered as refugees were not all refugees. Among them were families that relocated to other cities within Palestine, and some left because they did not wish to live under the new independent Jewish state despite Ben Gurion’s invitation to remain in the country and become citizens, and despite the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and the 1947 UN Partition Plan that took into account the well-being of Arab-Palestinians and promised them half of the territory in question.

It’s shameful that a woman with access to such a large public platform has chosen divisiveness in order to widen the fissure between Jews and Arabs, and help fuel the digital rage against Israel. Who doesn’t like the victim-turned-perpetrator take on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a unilateral version of history, and romanticizing the life that was, while pledging to free Palestine from oppression. Is there any other context in which Israel is mentioned these days? The result of misinformation is potentially deadly; it inflames the tensions between Jews and Arabs and all you have to do is read a couple of samples of the comments that appear below her article about food.

The Wandering Jew

On The Hummus Route is a book that won the Gourmand Award, it was created by Dan Alexander, Ariel Rosenthal, and Orly Peli-Bronstein in collaboration with a number of Palestinian chefs from around the world. However, there was one condition for their participation, and Dan Alexander explains:

“I clarified to all participants up front that this was not an Israeli book, God forbid. We were meticulous in making sure that was the case. We stood by our promise to all of them .” [9]

Yeah, God forbid it would have anything to do with Israel because Jews are nothing more than foreigners and invaders to the region, they had never eaten hummus, falafel, pita, techina, shakshuka, stuffed grape leaves, or baklava and halva, just to name a few of the contested menu items, before Palestinians politicized Middle Eastern food as part of the calumnies ascribed to Israel.

Halva, another Israeli favorite, Sarona Market, Tel Aviv, Israel (Levinsky)

And no, not joking, these Palestinian writers always push for that narrative that all Jews are foreign to the Middle East. Look at what Najwa al-Qattan has said; she’s an associate professor for Middle Eastern History at Loyola Marymount University:

“If you were given the choice between falafel and gefilte fish, which would you choose?”[10]

Here’s a newsflash for ya Najwa, if I were a Jew whose family had lived in Israel undisturbed for generations, I’d probably be accustomed to the local food fare, you know. The harvest that we already see mentioned in biblical text is governed by Jewish laws directly bound to the ecology of Israel, and those dictate what we can eat, when we should eat certain foods, how to sustain the land, while accompanied by blessings and prayers that have been observed by Jews for millennia.

Passing down Jewish traditions, Jerusalem, Israel (Levinsky)

One certainty is that Jews, no matter where they hailed from—had retained their Hebrew and passed it down from generation to generation as a continued patrimony and link to their ancestral roots. But these Jews made up a mosaic of customs that differed slightly from one another, and such were their palates too. The biggest immigration to Palestine took place in the 15 hundreds following the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions, which dispersed the Jews across many different countries, with a heavy concentration in Turkey. But we already know of Jews that had migrated out of Seville after the 1391 pogroms and reached Turkey, Algeria, Crete, Corfu, and northern Italy.

Kassis asserts that Jews did not live in Syria, but that’s not true either. Before its destruction in 2014, the Jobar synagogue had dated back to 720 BCE, and for heaven’s sake what about the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840? I am left scratching my head here, really I am. Jews had resided in Syria for centuries; there was constant traffic of Jews between Israel and Damascus, a lot of this is documented; Rabbi Yaakov Beirav was an important Torah scholar who traveled between Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Syria before returning to settle in Safed. The Wandering Jew, you know, it’s a real thing and that alone is food for thought on how much influence Jews have had on local cuisine.

Rooted In The Land

As hard as they try to detract from our indelible ties to the land, it is impossible to have a rational conversation on this topic but ignore the obvious. Judaism after all has three pilgrimage holidays, two of which are of an agricultural nature and aside from the genealogy, history, and mountains of archeology in support of our existence in the country, this way of life furthermore corroborates the Jews’ attachment to their land and the practice of distinctive customs for centuries. The idea of excluding Jews from this body of evidence is absurd.

“Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose on the festivals of Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot. They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you”(Deuteronomy 16:16).

On Shavuot Jews would gather the first harvest of the seven species and make offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. We still give each other a basket of bikurim. The other holiday is sukkot where Jews celebrate the last harvest before winter.

“You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” – Leviticus 23:42-43

Today, Jews still dwell in temporary booths built from wood and topped with branches and they are instructed to pray with the four species: Etrog, palm, myrtle and willow. Originally these pilgrimage holidays were all celebrated in the Temple, but once it was destroyed Jews continued to celebrate in local synagogues instead.

The Bible describes Israel as “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey” (Deut. 8:8.). All over Israel we have ancient olive presses that give us a palpable glimpse into that ancient world but according to these “food experts,” many of the contested food items prepared from local harvests were foreign to Jews.

Old prayer books at one of the synagogues in Safed, Israel—a continued Jewish presence (Levinsky)

Engravings of pomegranates, date trees, and grapes appear in ancient Jewish coins from the Bar Kokhba era have been found in caves in the Judean and Samaria region. There is more archeological evidence of what Jews had eaten during the Second Temple era, like their preference for sea fish instead of lake or river fish. In an excavation under a parking lot near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, Israeli archeologist uncovered an old market dating back to the Abbasid Rule. There were clay and glass vessels that contained the remains of at least 38 different types of vegetation, and among those findings was the eggplant believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent and most likely arrived to Israel with the Arab conquest. Nevertheless, this finding sheds light on the gastronomical influences of that time period.

We also have the writings of Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1355); when the Jews of France were expelled in 1306, he traveled to Spain and Egypt before settling in Israel. He wrote about the geography of Israel in a book titled Sefer Kaftor va-Ferach (The Book of the Bulb and the Flower) published in 1322. The book includes interesting information about the topography of the land; he also wrote about the eggplant as a favorite among locals, apparently the most sought after fruit eaten in the Land of the Tzvi (Israel) and Andalus (a province in Spain). It seems that eggplant dishes were also a staple in the Jewish, Sephardi kitchen.

Thus, the eggplant was not a foreign concept to Jews who lived in The Kingdom of Israel/Judea/Palestine/Israel—no matter what name it had at any given time.

The Cherry On Top

When Chef Joudie Kalla received her copy of the  Hummus book, she was shocked, absolutely mortified that there was Hebrew on the cover, which appeared right at the bottom—underneath the Arabic and English words for “hummus.”

“I didn’t know there would be Hebrew writing on the cover or in chapter headings, as Dan had told all Palestinians contributing to the book that this would not happen, among many things.”

And when Ehud Barak was seen holding a copy of their book, oh my, oh no. Oy!

“My father threw the copy I gave him into the garbage, saying I’d ruined years of my work,” she adds. “To me, this is an Israeli book built on lies – and promises, of which none were fulfilled. We had hoped it would be a beautiful project, but it’s turned into a nightmare . . . This was a manipulation to use us Palestinians to normalize the situation going on in Israel.”

Because That’s What Jews Do!

“This publication threatens my reputation and beliefs, in London and globally among my Palestinian friends and huge communities I have built around preserving our identity away from Israel,” said Kalla.

Oh and did I mention that some of her best friends are Israelis. Indeed, she says that too in her interview with Haaretz newspaper. I can safely say that this statement alone is enough to ruin her reputation in my eyes or what is it that one does these days? Oh right, we cancel people. So, in that vein—Kalla who?

When I was growing up in Israel, Shoko in a bag was everyone’s favorite drink, and it remains so today (Levinsky)

Most people just don’t care about this nonsense—neither do I—all I care about is eating good food, and the genesis of the recipe, although interesting, does not affect me one way or another, certainly it does not stir up notions of culinary sovereignty. I just want a good bite of food, damn it, without any political implications tied into it. This contested menu is typical to Israel and obviously to Israeli restaurants and kitchens anywhere else in the world; it also shares a number of similar dishes with the Arab kitchen, Palestinian kitchens, Turkish kitchens, and many other kitchens really. As such, this and other foods make up a seminal portion of my nostalgia for Israel—memories of the time I grew up there, when a walk home from school meant a stop at the makolet (local mart) for a bag of Shoko (chocolate milk) or a half portion of falafel from Falafel Chaim. Going to the beach and delighting in a cool and crisp artick limon (lemon popsicle) or a banana-chocolate ice cream from one of the beach vendors in Herzliya—my hometown.

On Friday’s I would shop for freshly roasted garinim (birdseeds) and pitot, then we’d head over to my grandparents’ home for Shabbat meal or join them for Shabbat breakfast and delight on Yemenite kubana (steamed bread) and soup. During Jewish holidays at my grandparents’ home we’d prepare salufa (flat bread) in their tabun (clay open- flame oven); I miss having kiddush under a canopy made from grape vines and the sound of Yemenite prayer and blessings. I miss picking shesek (loquat), or mishmesh (apricots), or plums from their many fruit trees, depending on the season as well as eating large, sweet guavas, and the best sabres (prickly pear). Or browsing the herbs and spices at Levinsky Market (it’s a real thing, I promise), and choosing fresh zaatar for my feta bagel sandwiches, and maybe a few ounces of dried figs and dates and burekas, off course burekas! Another vivid memory is visiting my Uncle Ami in Jerusalem and joining him for a session of public singing at a nearby kibbutz, then ending the night at Shuk Machane Yehuda at 11:00 p.m., for a wipe of hummus . . . the memories are overflowing.

Eating cheesecake at Milk, one of my favorite little bakeries in Jaffa.

Those are some of my tastes, my beloved flavors, and the foods that I too pine after, none of which are exclusive to Palestinians who are horrified, and disgusted by the mere mention of a Jewish connection to what they deem as Palestinian cuisine only.

Israeli food is much more than falafel and pita etc., so much more really; and similar to every other cuisine around the world, it’s a pastiche of many different ethnic backgrounds combined with the natural bounty of the region to produce its own distinctive variety of dishes combined with a perfect pairing of passion and culture. Beteavon.

I’ll say it again, just for the hell of it: I love Israeli food!

  1. James Dorsey, Modern Diplomacy, “Middle Eastern Culture Wars: The Battle of the palates,” May 27, 2018.
  2. Instagram, July 25, 2020, accessed on August 3, 2020, https://bit.ly/3iFc7z.
  3. Justus Reid Weiner, Commentary, “My Beautiful Old House and other Fabrications by Edward Said,” September 1999.
  4. Reem Kassis, The Washington Post, “Here’s why Palestinians object to the term Israeli food’: It erases us from history” February 18, 2020.
  5. Hillel Halkin, Yehudah Halevi, p. 72.
  6. Liz Steinberg, Haaretz, “Food Wars; Did Jews Invent Falafel After All?” December 2, 2015.
  7. Alexander Lee, History Today, “Falafel,” January 2019.
  8. Reem Kassis The Washington Post, “Here’s why Palestinians object to the term Israeli food’: It erases us from history,” February 18, 2020.
  9. Moshe Gilad, Haaretz, “Acclaimed Hummus Book Will Never Come Out in Hebrew, the Language of the Occupation,” July 23, 2020.
  10. Jodi Kantor, Jewish Journal, “The Great Falafel Question,” July 18, 2002.
About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own; "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school, and "Rotten Tooth Ruth" brings to life T. Brush, Minty Paste, and Floss who must think of a way to befriend Ruth; "Bobby B. Sprout Meets a Bunch of Rotten Veggies" is an allegory for anyone who's felt like the "other," it's all about racism/antisemitism. "My Best Friend Shadow" teaches that life can be bigger, better and fun, and her latest publication now available on Amazon is "I'd Rather Eat Fries!"--a charming tale about a picky eater and parents who make one mistake after another as they try to convince their son to adopt a healthier diet. Other work includes "Diary of a Wrinkle" a blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on @soletseat for her daily culinary creations and for more of her creative writing inspiration you may scroll through @whoopdedocreations. "A Yemenite Bride" (a screenplay) tells the story of Ilana's great-grandmother Saida, and sheds light on the life of Jews in Yemen during the early 20th century, and her adapted screenplay (of her book) "East End Dreams" tells the story of Gertrude, a widowed, middle-aged, Jewish woman who leaves South Africa and returns to her birthplace of London where she battles with a type of existential crisis, as she tries to find her purpose in life as well as love in an unfamiliar, new world.
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