Last week, a striking image began circulating across the Instagram accounts of chefs, food workers, farmers, and activists nationwide. The image depicted a sensual tablescape, a communal feast of zeit and za’atar, bread, labne with sumac from the West Bank city of Jenin, butternut squash muttabal, and Palestinian olives impeccably lit against an illuminating red tabletop. It was posted as a leadup to the fourth annual Round Tables festival—a Tel Aviv–based food festival that starts today, and is supported by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sponsored by American Express—and was accompanied by an open letter directed at the chefs slated to participate in this year’s event.
One of the widely-used captions read: “We are one of more than 70 food industry folks who have signed an open letter to Gabrielle Hamilton and other international chefs, asking them to do the right thing and withdraw from the Israeli-government funded “Round Tables” festival next week. As chefs, farmers, and culinary workers, we recognize that humans everywhere deserve good, just food––from our part of Turtle Island to Palestine. Food sovereignty for all.”
As of this writing, over 90 food industry professionals had signed their support, and less than a week after the letter’s release, chef Gabrielle Hamilton of New York’s Prune restaurant had rescinded her participation. So far, she has offered no comment on the reason for her decision. In addition, Ana Roš, chef at Hiša Franko in Slovenia, cancelled her participation as well.* Round Tables did not respond to a request for comment.
The Round Tables website bills itself as “a cultural project, an honorary member of the gastro-diplomacy movement, which advocates cultural, economic and political dialogue through gastronomy, maintaining that ‘The easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.’” It continues to say, “We are proud to embrace the international chefs…and open a door to a fruitful dialogue, whose influence transcends borders and time.”
For those protesting the festival, it’s an unacceptable extension of a larger diplomacy campaign enacted by the Israeli government in 2005 known as Brand Israel. According to this year’s open letter: “Events such as Round Tables are part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ campaign to help the Israeli government normalize its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has poured resources into this campaign with the explicit intention to improve Israel’s image abroad and silence outrage over its massacres and war crimes.”
This year’s letter is a continuation of efforts led by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), a subsection of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which describes itself as a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice, and equality. The organizers see the increase in signatures for this year’s letter––over 90 signatures versus 30 last year––as marking a monumental shift, especially in this volatile moment in time, when conversations around the issues of racism, sexism, and oppression percolate in mainstream arenas.
“In the last two years, we have become extremely aware of how apathy to injustice is dangerous,” says Amanny Ahmad, a Palestinian-American artist and chef, who signed and helped coordinate the open letter. “That kind of laziness is no longer an option.”
Ahmad grew up between Salt Lake City, Utah and the West Bank. She chooses to cook the food of her culture as an act of resistance. As she puts it, she is “defying cultural and culinary colonialism,” by claiming her cuisine.
Last year, Ahmad and Reem Assil, the James Beard nominated Palestinian- and Syrian-American chef of Reem’s California and Dyafa, gathered to share their culture in a two night dinner series held in response and opposition to the Round Tables event. The dinner series, organized by Ora Wise, director of the Dream Cafe at Allied Media Conference; Kimberly Chou, co-director of Food Book Fair; and Shalva Wise, artist council and projects coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace, was intentionally named the Asymmetrical Table, a nod to the unequal footing in which Palestinians find themselves under Israeli-government policies.
In a not-yet-released short film about the Asymmetrical Table, Assil explains, “What I’ve learned from the history of Arab peoples—and what’s inspired me about the street corner bakeries and the cultural preservation in the Arab world despite the political turmoil—is what people have been able to do with food. We’re doing deeper consciousness-raising work, and food is an essential component of building trust.”
Though the Asymmetrical Table was her first encounter with Round Tables, Assil has done work around Palestinian activism since college and is committed to supporting the work of broader Arab communities in the Bay Area. Last May, after opening Reem’s California, Assil received death threats and violent animosity from protesters aligned with right-wing, pro-Israel views for a mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeh Odea that hung inside her bakery.
Tara Besosa-Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican activist and founder of El Departamento de La Comida, signed the letter this year in solidarity with the Arab community. She views her anti-colonial movement building in Puerto Rico, where she works closely with local farmers to advocate for a different, more sovereign food system, as an identical struggle to that of the Palestinian people. Earlier this year, at the Dream Cafe in Detroit, Besosa-Rodriguez volunteered her time during a Palestinian brunch pop-up featuring Amanny Ahmad. “It was the real reason I was in Detroit,” says Besosa-Rodriguez. “I needed to meet this woman, share her food, feel her pain, and also her determination.”
Indigenous food activist, M. Karlos Baca, founder of indigenous food cooperative Taste of Native Cuisine, signed the letter for similar reasons. “I have seen, tasted, and discussed the foodscapes of Palestine with my friend Amanny Ahmad, and the parallels are immense,” says Baca. “The continued displacement, through violence, of the Palestinian people along with the constant destruction of their olive trees and agricultural systems are mirrored in the indigenous history of the Dinè and Pueblo people of the desert southwest and continues today with the destruction of wild rice ecosystems in the Great Lakes region, and salmon habitats in Coast Salish territory.”
One look at the signatures that accompany this year’s letter to Round Tables reveals a formidable list of culinary talent, many of them working toward food justice in their own rights. The list includes Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi fame who actively supports issues related to food access and backs chefs of color including Reem Assil’s Dyafa; Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa, recently featured on Chef’s Table, actively resist injustices for undocumented individuals; and the People’s Kitchen Collective, who cook to nourish, create access, and fuel consciousness. The list goes on.
“Everything is connected,” says Wise. “Food is at the intersection of all systems of power–economically, politically, environmentally. And those of us in the food world have a responsibility, as storytellers, guardians, and gatekeepers, because we are at that intersection.”
*UPDATE 11/10/18: This article originally described Italian chef Isa Mazzocchi of Ristorante La Palta as having been removed from the Round Tables site and implied that it was in response to pushback; representatives clarified that Mazzocchi's name was removed because her events were sold out.