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Hummus Is a Metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

A misguided hashtag activism campaign is asking people to tweet photos of hummus to help bridge the divide between Israelis and Palestinians. But Laila El-Haddad, the co-author of The Gaza Kitchen, points out that even dip is politically loaded.

As part of a 72-hour cease-fire agreement, Israel announced earlier today that it would begin to withdraw its ground troops from Gaza, where a nearly month-long conflict has left 1,834 Palestinians and 67 Israelis dead.

You could thank Egyptian mediation, or even begrudgingly nod to Hamas and Islamic Jihad's decision to finally accept a proposal. But you certainly can't thank #hummusselfies, a silly new social media trend that asks Israelis and Palestinians to put aside their differences over a plate of meze.

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Like most hashtag activism, #hummusselfies exists to "spread awareness" to people who have little influence on decision-making between the interested parties. Instead of, say, collecting donations for the 260,000 Palestinians who have been displaced and left without access to water and electricity during the conflict, the French Facebook group The Hummus Initiative aims "to underline the commonalities between the two peoples in war instead of focusing on that which separates them."

But hummus selfies aren't simply absurd in and of themselves. Beloved by the region's Jews, Muslims, and even Christians, hummus is nevertheless a dish whose origins and name is unquestionably Arab—in Arabic, "hummus" refers to both chickpeas and the dip they're turned into—but who exactly is allowed to claim ownership of hummus is still fiercely disputed.

Outside the region, the hummus market is dominated by Israeli companies: Sabra claims 63 percent of the US market share, while Tribe comes in second with 7 percent. (Sabra's also been the focus of several high-profile boycotts because of its parent company's support for the IDF.) With Israelis leading the global hummus campaign, Palestinians are sent into a tailspin with accusations of cultural appropriation.

It's a lot more complex than just a dip. Centering a slacktivist campaign around a food that encapsulates the cultural and political tensions between Israelis and Palestinians suggests a deep misunderstanding of history and the very real sensitivities both groups feel about heritage and ownership.

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To better understand the issues in play, I asked Laila El-Haddad, a Maryland-based Palestinian activist and co-author of The Gaza Kitchen, to talk a little bit about how food plays an important role in Palestinian identity.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Laila. So, could hummus really be an edible way to bridge the divide? Laila El-Haddad: This often came up in the course of our conversations and talks about the book. My co-author, Maggie Schmitt, and I refer to it as "hummus kumbaya." It's not as simple as, "We like hummus, you like hummus. Why can't we all just get along?" We reject this notion that we can all bond over hummus while ignoring the underlying, core issues: people's fundamental rights and equalities. It's a little deeper than that.

And even though hummus is entrenched in both Israeli and Arab food cultures, there's still a lot of sensitivity about appropriation. [The problem is] accepting one part of the Other, in this case Palestinians, while ignoring the rest, saying, "Yes, I'll accept this part of you because I like it, this cultural aspect, but I'll ignore your claim to the land, your claim to history, your rights, your freedoms. But we can all eat the hummus, it's fine." In another context, I think people have no problem sharing their food, but when you begin to accept one part and willfully ignore another, there's an issue.

You spoke last year in Bon Appétit to Yotam Ottolenghi about Palestinian and Israeli cuisines, and you said that the political issues surrounding Palestinian food were "not so much the ownership as it is about devaluation or historical distortion." Again, it's about this notion of accepting a benign part of the indigenous people, and this is what the early Zionists did. For example, El Al stewardesses would dress in Palestinian clothes. And when [Zionists] first came to pre-'48 Palestine, they very much adopted the culture and the food—accepting that part but then ignoring and devaluing the rest.

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You still see this to this day in an almost libelous way, painting them as the Other, as barbaric. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted the other day about how the Jewish people abandoned child sacrifice 3,500 years ago but the Palestinians haven't. It's this idea of stereotyping and painting Palestinians in this very caricatured way, in a very racist way.

But ownership is an important aspect, which got me thinking about when exactly a food culture officially begins. Turkish cuisine, for example, is largely a fusion of many of the regional cuisines that were under the rule of the Ottoman empire and that were eventually assimilated into one cuisine. When can a culture claim a food as its own? That's a very good question. You can't necessarily draw a line, and it isn't necessarily about drawing lines, per se, because I think people are proud and happy to be able to share their food with others. But are you sharing my food in order to steal my claims and my identity, or devalue those things? Or are you doing it because you're genuinely interested in learning about them and accepting me and my claims for what they are?

[In the book] we talk about how Palestine forms part of a geographic continuum stretching all the way to the [historic] Ottoman empire. That area is a geographic crossroads, and so you have the influences of the Mediterranean, of Greece, of Egypt on one side, of the rest of the Levant on the other, and all of that is mixed in, which is why the cuisine of Gaza is a little bit more unique. You see a lot of parallels—overlap of foods that you find all across the Levant, and up through Turkey and so forth, and then others that you don't.

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Definitely no one is saying that these [foods] are exclusively ours. And even if there are particular dishes that are very unique to a specific area, people are more than happy to share them, and that's something we discovered. People were always saying, "Weren't people worried that if they shared these dishes with you, it's like this is the last thing left for them, and those too will be appropriated?" But on the contrary, it was as though Palestinians were saying to us, "Here, partake with us in these meals, share these dishes with the world and accept us for who we are. See that we exist and that we refuse to cease existing."

That's an important, point, though. On the one hand, you want a cuisine to be known by the larger world, but there's always a risk of having its origins muddled. There was a bit of an outcry last year when an article in Haaretz called za'atar "the spice of Israel." The writer later wrote a defense of the piece in The Atlantic, explaining that the headline was probably changed because her editor didn't take the piece seriously. "And why should he have?" she wrote. "We're not talking about the Green Line. We're talking about a handful of green herbs." We actually quote that article [in The Gaza Kitchen]. I think a lot of food magazines now are shifting away from the trend of saying that, but now they'll often say "a Middle Eastern spice." Naming something like that [as Israeli], that has a history of thousands of years—I think especially for Palestinians, that's very offensive. It's almost disappearing their rights, their claims, their history. It's like, "We just happened upon the land and discover and discovered this phenomenal thing."

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Well, a dominant culture is always in the position to write the history from its own point of view, so things like food often get elided in the process. Yes. But for colonized or occupied people, it's often one of the few things they have left to cling to, to be able to identify and look at themselves and say, "We exist. Don't erase us. And here we are."

Speaking of za'atar, there's an Israeli military ordinance that forbids Palestinians from foraging for za'atar, among other wild herbs that they've cultivated for centuries. It fines them if they're caught foraging for za'atar or another wild vegetable, called akoub [wild thistle], that's very popular. Palestinians have to go out and do it in secret. It's political, and it's silly because this is a perennial, fast-growing herb. Why would you ban it, claiming that it's threatened when it's not?

Last year, you talked about food and colonialism with the Washington Post's Vered Guttman, who wrote, "The problem is not in the hummus; it's the occupation that is still not resolved. The Palestinian influence on Israeli cuisine is a natural process, especially because it's based on what the land has to offer." Nothing is natural about occupying someone's land and then kicking out the inhabitants and rounding them up into ghettos. When you are, at some point, able to resolve these underlying issues and also accept what you've done and accept the indigenous inhabitants as a whole—I think it's a package—then you can begin to say OK.

No one is saying, "Don't eat the food," but it's loaded.

Thanks for speaking with me, Laila.