Dissociation, Dispossession, and Food in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict is, to put it lightly, a very difficult task. Criticism of the state of Israel and its government has become synonymous with anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and anti-Jewish sentiment. Palestinian struggles often get lost behind suicide attacks performed by Hamas, and the West’s general disdain and distrust of Islam. To say that subjectivity, and bias both run high in this conflict would be true; but it is often in these emotion-laden narratives that we find real truth. 

Food in the Israel-Palestine arena is politicized on many different levels. It plays into questions of identity, development issues related to food insecurity, and moreover asks hard questions about the controversy of the very existence of a distinct Palestinian food culture. This piece doesn’t seek to answer questions of ownership, but rather to engage in the power dynamics within the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of food. Ideas of national identity and a country’s socio-economic structures are directly related to one another, as the complexity of running a country is often just as complex as the idea of nation itself. 

Food as National Identity 

Benedict Anderson, political scientist and historian, defines the nation as an “imagined political community”; the relationships between people from a specific community are based on a sense of belonging based on abstract ideas, hence “imagined”. Anderson’s definition illustrates that national identities can be understood as social and political constructs, but this understanding should not invalidate the connection felt to these identities by individual community members. 

Food is an often overlooked element in conversations of national identity. According to anthropologist Gillian Browther, dishes are one of the most powerful forms of nationalism because of the accessible nature of them. Food is tangible, it is known by most members of a nation regardless of socio-economic background, and it is “experienced everyday”. Food is incredibly important for both parties in this two-sided conflict, as it plays a strong role in the creation of identity for each group.

Food culture in Israel reflects the cuisines of both the many Jewish diaspora groups, and Palestinians. The Eastern and Northern European (Ashekenazi) diaspora bring dishes like kugel and schnitzel, whilst the Mizrahi and Sephardi diasporas brought dishes from the Middle East. Israeli cuisine is in some ways reflective of the very idea of Israeli identity, which is to be ethnically or culturally Jewish.  Being that the Jewish diaspora is one of the largest in human history, cognizing what it means to be “culturally Jewish” has proven challenging for the creation of a singular, Israeli identity. In fact, understanding the very idea of an Israeli identity or food culture is challenging. However, the real issue is the exclusion of the Palestinians from its production.

Palestinian food reflects much of Levantine cuisine. Some of its dishes are recognized as unique to the area like mussakhan (a dish of bread, chicken, and onions covered in sumac). Ingredients like zataar and sumac are used heavily in Palestinian cuisine, and grow naturally in the area. Food is incredibly important in Palestinian conceptions of nationalism. For example, olive trees have become synonymous with the roots Palestinian people have to the land. However, dishes like falafel, hummus, and labneh (English: strained yoghurt) are dishes that are common throughout the Levant, considered part of Palestinian national cuisine, and part of an Israeli national cuisine. Whilst diffusion is inevitable, it’s the relationship between political turmoil and contentious food dynamics that make claiming these dishes so controversial.

Culinary identity and food insecurity 

Ronald Ranta and Yotam Mendel are two well known scholars of Israeli cuisine, and their ethnographic research on the subject shows a definite “admiration” on the part of early Jewish settlers with Palestinian cuisine. That this admiration was followed by imitation was not entirely problematic for Ranta and Mendel. Rather, the problem stems from the publication of Israeli cookbooks after 1948. These cookbooks referred to local foods as “Mizrahi or Sephardi” dishes as opposed to Palestinian dishes. Though some Mizrahim and Sephardim do consider foods of the Levant to be part of their national cuisine, not mentioning Palestinians as major contributors to modern Israeli cuisine excludes them from the conversation on the topic, perhaps purposefully so. This conversation about food goes beyond its place in a nation’s cultural identity, but also extends to issues of food security. 

The World Food Programme’s (WFP) definition of food security involves a country both having enough food available to feed its population; and the people having the purchasing power to purchase this food. The WFP profile on Palestine asserts that over 30% of people living in Palestinians are food insecure, with 68.5% of Gaza’s population experiencing food insecurity. This issue mainly affects society’s most vulnerable, like elderly people, single mothers, people with disabilities and children. The WFP identifies Israel’s control of Palestinian territories’ borders and the “protracted conflict” between the two parties as the main reason for this food insecurity. Israel’s control of the borders has not only resulted in restrictions on the movement of people and resources (foodstuffs, water, etc.) but has also caused  land “expropriation…, settler violence” and legal boundaries to food access. 

Israel ranks 18th in the world on the Global Food Security index, and thus have no clear political gain in minimizing food access in the territories. Nevertheless, studies like anthropologist Kiven Strohm’s discuss Israeli enacted laws banning the foraging and storing of zaatar, which is a staple of the Palestinian diet. Anthropologist Anne Meneley’s fieldwork involved participating in  the olive harvest in the Palestinian territories. Meneley notes in her article that the olive harvest was historically a time for families to gather, but violence on the part of settlers and government rezoning of lands has made this a dangerous and complicated task. However controversial the word may be in a discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict, one cannot confront this information and not think of the word ‘dispossession’. 

Food and conflict

In her article entitled “The Rise of Palestinian Food”, author Ligaya Mishan notes the stark contrast between the vibrant display of food culture in Palestinian cookbooks, with the food insecurity experienced by Palestinians living in the territories. Mishan also interviews several Palestinian chefs like chef Amanny Ahmad. Ahmad calls many Israeli chefs’ relationship to Palestinian food “psychologically dissociative”, as they embrace the cooking techniques whilst shying away from the controversy of calling these foods “Palestinian”. There is a clear anxiety on both sides of this conflict when it comes to food. For the Israelis, the anxiety that comes from the need to solidify a new national identity, but for the Palestinians, there is anxiety that their cultural identity – and by extension their own persons – might disappear. 

Food controversy may seem trivial, but it has true political implications for both parties. Israel and Palestine are both within the top fifty countries impacted by paramilitary violence, and there is a clear correlation between this saturation of violence and food insecurity. Food insecurity creates a void in society that can often be filled by groups that perpetuate violence. Leaving Palestinians out of food conversations seems to translate to the control of Palestinian access to food itself, as though disassociation incites dispossession. This analysis begs the question: does the creation of an Israeli identity necessitate the questioning of a Palestinian one? 

These are questions that are tough to answer for even the most experienced of policymakers. One can only hope that we will find answers within our lifetime. As much as academia primes us to approach every situation with a critical and “objective” lens, it is hard to make sense of the idea that warm plates of hummus are being served on swanky patios in Tel Aviv whilst, only miles away, children in Gaza go without food. The situation is much more nuanced than one so far removed from the conflict could conceive, but the hope is that pieces that critically engage both the power dynamics and the consequences of this conflict continue to be written. To quote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “without hope we are lost”

Edited by Olivia Shan.

Photo Credits: World Water Day Media Tour in West Bank by Fadwa Baroud (EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid), published on 23 March 2013, licensed under Flickr Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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