Israelis, and Jews in General, Are Not ‘Appropriating’ Anything

Good old Israeli hummus
Good old Israeli hummus

With the “debate” over Israel’s legitimacy permeating Western campuses and media, Israeli culture has periodically oscillated in and out of the limelight. In particular, disputes over what aspects of Israeli culture – especially Israeli cuisine – are “authentically” Israeli (hint: if it’s Middle Eastern, then it’s “obviously not Israeli”) have become one of the most contentious frontiers of the entire anti-Zionist war on Jewish rights.

Attendant to the narrative that Zionist returnees in Israel/Palestine are “settler colonists” who “stole” Arab land, anti-Semites similarly charge Israelis and diaspora Jews alike with “stealing” Arab culture in the hope of weaving a convincing tale of Jewish indigeneity out of whole cloth. It is a fictive that aims to dispossess Jews of their own cultural heritage, identity, peoplehood and, eventually, their land.

However, the fact remains that most – if not all – of what Palestinian Arabs accuse us of “appropriating” are not really “Palestinian” at all. In fact, they have been a part of Jewish culture since Biblical times, long predating the Arab conquest of the Levant – and thus any Palestinian claim to exclusive ownership thereof. Since these allegations tend to fall exclusively on Ashkenazi Israelis – who are erroneously defamed as “white European settlers” – I will not focus on the Mizrahi claim to these items, but instead on the broader Jewish one.

Hummus and Pita – Hummus is a popular chickpea-spread that is eaten all over the Levant, whereas pitas are a type of flatbread — made from unleavened or slightly leavened bread — that is often used to make wraps/sandwiches. Both are mentioned in the Torah, a Jewish text that was written in the 6th century BCE and is thus far older than the Arab occupation of Israel.

Good old Israeli hummus

A direct translation of Ruth 2:14 into English gives us this “And Boaz told her when it came time to eat, ‘come forward and eat the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar'”

Of particular note here are the words used for vinegar (hamitz, or hometz) and piece of bread (pat/pittek). The Hebrew term “hometz/hamitz” sounds virtually identical to the modern Arabic term “hummus”, and to the modern Hebrew term “himtza” which means “chickpeas”. It is unlikely that hamitz or hometz actually meant “vinegar”, since vinegar is not a dip. It is an acid that is often used in cooking, but is not served on its own. Hummus, on the other hand, is a dip. The Arabic term “hummus” is most likely just a bastardized form of the Hebrew word for chickpeas.

A delicious pita sandwich

Moreover, chickpea cultivation in the Levant goes all the way back to the Bronze Age, and chickpeas were considered a main source of protein in ancient Israel. They’ve been found at Iron Age Israelite sites as well.

The Hebrew term “pat” or “pittek” essentially means “a piece of bread”. In Aramaic, a language that is extremely close to Hebrew (and was even spoken by most Jews in late antiquity), “pat” means “pita”. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food written by Gil Marks also mentions pita-like flatbread that was both eaten and used for cooking in ancient Israel.

In other words, it is clear from these texts that the Jews were familiar enough with hummus and pita in Biblical times to have a written record of them. That means these foods cannot possibly be of Palestinian Arab origin, since these events occurred at least 1,000 years before the Arab conquest of the Levant. It should also go without saying that the idea that no one in Israel ate chickpeas or flatbread before the Arabs showed up is flat out ridiculous.

Lentil soup – Or “Nezid”/”Meraq Adashim” in Hebrew. As the name suggests, it is a soup made with lentil. Other common ingredients include beans, peas, and sometimes meat. As with hummus and pita, lentil soup is mentioned in the Torah, specifically in Genesis 25:29-34.

Nezid aka lentil soup

“And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please pour me some of this red stuff’……..And Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil soup”

Likewise, archaeologists and non-Biblical historians have confirmed the existence of lentil soups and porridges in ancient Israel.

Halva – Although the precise origins of halva are still a matter of debate, there is sufficient evidence that Jews have been eating Levantine halva since Biblical times. This version is made from tahini, a type of ground sesame paste that was allegedly introduced to Israel by the ancient Persians either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, although sesame and honey (the main ingredients for halva) have existed in Israel since the Natufian period. The Babylonian Exile predates the Arab conquest by more than 1,000 years, whereas the Natufian period predates the Arab invasions by 9-10,000 years, so halva is obviously not an Arab food. According to archaeologists, sesame in a “cake-like form” (halva) was eaten by Jews in ancient Israel. Some scholars have even theorized that Levantine halva may, in fact, be the fabled manna mentioned in the Torah. Other optional ingredients (e.g. pistachios) may be included also.

Israeli halva with pistachios

It is commonly assumed, based on the etymology of the term “halva” (Arabic for “sweet”) and the fact that the earliest recorded mention of halva is in a 13th century Egyptian cookbook, that halva is an Arab food. This view is flawed for a number of reasons. One, ground sesame (tahini) forms the basis of the Israeli halva. Although sesame is native to the Levant and Mesopotamia, it does not grow in the Arabian Peninsula (as the environment there is too arid to support such a crop). Furthermore, ground sesame is mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian texts going back at least 3,000 years (at a time when Israel and Mesopotamia were closely linked), so the concept certainly did not arise in Arabia. As with hummus and pita, the idea that no one in the Levant ate tahini before the Arabs arrived is ludicrous.

Second, Levant style halva is apparently old enough that it had been eaten by Ashkenazi Jews in Europe for well over 1,000 years, even in areas that had never been touched by the Arabs or the Ottomans. Third, and most importantly, it was customary of Arab colonists to attach Arabic names to foods, clothing items, instruments, and even cities taken from indigenous peoples. The fact that halva is an Arabic term is by no means conclusive proof, or even evidence, of Arab origin. If anything, it is consistent with the pattern of Arab colonialism and appropriation of indigenous cultures.

The most likely explanation is that Levantine halva is an indigenous (albeit Persian-influenced) southern Levantine food that had been eaten by Jews since antiquity, but had an Arabic name grafted onto it either during or after the Arab conquests.

Za’atar and other Middle Eastern spices – Za’atar is the Arabic term for “Ezob”, an indigenous herb of Israel. Ezob is Hebrew for “hyssop” and is mentioned in both the Torah and the Mishnah, wherein it is described as a condiment and a ritual purification agent. This herb is frequently mixed with sesame (which, again, does not grow in the Arabian Peninsula), sumac (which comes from southern Europe), and salt (which could easily be obtained from the Dead Sea). Other popular Middle Eastern spices like saffron, coriander, myrrh, ginger, pepper, and thyme are known to have been used in ancient Israel as well, although some of these were imported from Arabia, Egypt, Africa, Greece, India, and China.

Za’atar

Turbans and robes – Turbans are mentioned at least 11 times in the Old Testament as miznefet (i.e. “to wrap”), mainly in Exodus, Leviticus (Latin for “Levi”), and Ezekiel. They were worn by both ordinary people and by priests, although the turbans worn by priests were different from those worn by commoners. The high priest of Israel wore a turban that was much larger than that of other priests, winding to make a broad, flat-topped shape resembling the blossom of a flower. The priestly crown (Hebrew “tzitz”, meaning “blossom” or “flower”) was attached to the turban by means of two sets of blue cords: one going over the top of the head and the other around the sides of the head at the ear level.

Yes, I know they are Samaritans, but I couldn’t find anything else that wasn’t copyrighted. And I figure it’s close enough anyway.

Moreover, Jews in medieval Europe (e.g. the 13th/14th century Ashkenazi rabbi Gersonides) are known to have worn turbans. At least until they were outlawed under Europe’s Sumptuary laws.

Robes are also mentioned in the Torah, and are referred to as “adderet”. They are seen as a symbol of glory or wealth, and were also commonly worn by priests. In many cases, they still are.

Ashkenazi Jewish musician Idan Raichel (on the right) wearing a turban and dreadlocks (more on that below)

Abaya – In Hebrew, it is called the sudara or sudra. It is a large square piece of woolen cloth folded diagonally in half into a triangle. It is known to have been worn by Jews in pre-colonial (read: pre-Roman and pre-Arab) Israel.

Example of an abaya

Dreadlocks/Afros – Dreadlocks are mentioned in the Nazirite vows of the Torah. In fact, the Rastafarian movement is known to have been profoundly influenced by Judaism, and allegedly got the idea for dreadlocks from the Nazirite vows. Ergo, the idea that we are “appropriating” dreadlocks is absurd.

Sliding even further into unhinged territory, we also find ourselves accused of “appropriating” African hair texture. Most notably, the “Jewfro” is seen by many as “cultural appropriation” of the Afro, although it should go without saying that we have no control over our own hair texture. What do they want us to do? Go bald?

Hamsa and other colorful jewelry – The idea that Jews – Ashkenazi or otherwise – are “appropriating” colorful jewelry is so profoundly idiotic that it basically refutes itself. But this accusation is nevertheless real and far from uncommon, so it is in need of a rebuttal.

Archaeologists and scholars attest that colorful clothing (presumably including colorful jewelry) was worn by Jews in ancient Israel. Moreover, the Phoenicians and Egyptians are said to have made and contributed much of our jewelry and architecture. See for yourself.

Doesn’t look terribly different from this, now does it?

Contemporary Jewish Judaica shop
Another Jewish Judaica shop

Lastly, we are also known to have worn garments/patterns such as these. The patterns are fairly colorful, no?

As for the hamsa, this symbol is likewise many thousands of years old. It is old enough that Ashkenazim brought it to Europe with them, so it’s clearly not Arab.

Yep. This is ours too. Sorry!

Oud music – Although it was (probably) not invented in Israel, Jews are known to have played oud music since ancient times. In fact, the Biblical Hebrew word “ud” is the same as the Arabic word “oud”, and both have the same meaning: “wooden stick”.

Generally speaking, although Ashkenazi music often incorporates European instruments (since that was what was available), it also maintains a strictly Middle Eastern musicology – most notably in its use of pentatonic scale. Take this Hasidic folk tune as an example.

So why are all of the above foods/items/customs now considered “Arab”? And why are Jewish returnees to Israel (especially Ashkenazi Jews) charged with “appropriating” these things, when their presence in Jewish culture long predates the Arab conquests? Because, like most colonial populations, Arabs simply took from the peoples they conquered. This includes food, music, and even mathematics, with the most common myth being that they created our number system – often called “Arab numerals” – and Algebra. They did coin the word, but not the subject.

In addition, there are many other specifically Jewish foods that also date back to Biblical times. They are still eaten today, albeit mostly in Israel.

Assassyot – They are cookies made from wheat, pomegranates, walnuts, salt, and honey. They are mentioned in the Torah, specifically Ezra.

Assassyot

Ashishim – Fried pancakes made with mallow, lentils, dates, olive oil, onions, pomegranates, and a garlic that is pressed in vinegar.

Ashishim

Levivot – Sweet cakes made with lentil, which became the basis for latkes. Ashkenazim did not have access to lentil in diaspora, and so potatoes were used instead.

Levivot

Qali – A type of popcorn made from bulgur wheat seeds. The seeds are boiled, drained of water, spread on a platter, left to dry for a couple of hours, roasted, and then covered in date honey. The Torah also describes parched corn, raisins, and figs being added.

Qali

Matzah – Bread without yeast. It has deep cultural significance to Jews, and is primarily associated with Pesakh (Passover). In diaspora, matzah was used to invent matzoh ball soup.

Jewish baker baking matzah bread

Khallah – A loaf of braided bread that is made from flour, yeast, salt, and an inordinate amount of eggs. Similar to matzah, khallah has deep cultural significance and is eaten on Jewish holidays (except Yom Kippur) and on Shabbat. Many East European countries adopted khallah from the Jews who lived among them, and developed their own versions.

Khallah with sesame seeds

Kharoset – A sweet, dark-colored paste made from fruits and nuts. It is commonly eaten on Passover.

Kharoset

Hillel Karikh – Otherwise known as the Hillel sandwich. It is two pieces of matzah with small cut-up, cooked goat/sheep meat, kharoset, fruits, leafy vegetables, and maror in between.

Hillel Karikh

Salat Shivat haMunnim – A salad made from the 7 species of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

Salat Shivat haMunnim

Qde’irat – A roast made from goat or sheep marinated in honey and herbal spices, especially saffron and coriander.

Qde’irat

Ktzitzot Khelmit – A type of meatball that is made with mallow and sometimes meat. It is very similar to falafel.

Ktzitzot Khelmit

Ugah – A cake made with semolina, solet, pine nuts, pumpkin, and raisins.

Ugah cake

Lavan – A type of white yogurt that has been strained to remove most of its whey. It is popular throughout the Mediterranean region, and is alternately known as “Greek yogurt” or “labneh”, which is a bastardized form of the Hebrew term “lavan”, which means “white”.

Lavan

Lastly, a small section on foods that were not eaten in ancient Israel, but were either invented by Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews or were brought over to modern Israel by them.

Shakshouka – A dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and garlic, commonly spiced with cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg. It was invented by Sephardic Jews in North Africa.

Falafel – A food that is Coptic in origin, and was allegedly first invented 1000 years ago as a replacement meat during Lent. Another theory is that it goes all the way back to Pharaonic Egypt, where it moved north into the Levant. If the latter theory is true, then it was most certainly eaten by the ancestors of today’s Jews.

Shawarma – A meat-based food that is somewhat common in Israel. However, it originates in Turkey, and was likely brought to the Levant during the Ottoman occupation.

Kebabs – A meat skewer that is popular throughout the Middle East, including Israel. Its origins are not clearly known, although it is thought to have originated in Turkey. However, eating meat on a stick over a fire is pretty damned universal.

Spare me your talk of “cultural genocide”.

Sources: Cooper, John (1993). Eat and Be Satisfied.

Macdonald, Nathan (2008). What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?

Marks, Gil (2010). Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

Yeivin, Z (1966). Journal of the Israel Department of Antiquities.

Borowski, Oded (2003). Daily Life in Biblical Times. p. 72.

J. R. Bartlett (19 July 1973). The First and Second Books of the Maccabees.

http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/culture_clothing.html

Dumbrill, Richard J. (2005). The Archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near East.

Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus, et al. (1901–1906). “Food – Biblical Data”. The Jewish Encyclopedia.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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