No, Rachael Ray, hummus is not Israeli: How and why Palestinian culture gets erased

Rachael Ray, an American celebrity chef and television personality, posted a tweet claiming hummus to be an Israeli dish, alongside tabbouleh, meze stuffed grape leaves, and an assortment of dips familiar to the Arab world.

So, here’s the thing: the state of Israel was created in 1948, but the indigenous Arab occupants of what is now proclaimed to be the Jewish state have enjoyed hummus and tabbouleh for hundreds of years.

For some, Ray’s tweet merely represents harmless ignorance, and as meaningless and innocuous as any number of Americans who believe pizza originated in New York, and not in Naples, Italy.

But to Palestinians, Ray’s tweet has less to do with easily forgivable ignorance, and more to do with a well-orchestrated campaign to erase any memory or resemblance of Palestinian or Arab culture from their ancestral land, a campaign that is deliberate, sustained, and methodical.

When I interviewed Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American deputy director of the Arab American Institute, he told me Ray’s error-riddled tweet is “the sort of factual error that pretty much never gets corrected, because it’s part of a coordinated campaign to erase aspects of Palestinian culture and to promote them as authentically Israeli instead. And what makes this exceptionally outrageous is the fact that it’s only one component of erasing Palestinians altogether, as we see defenders of Israeli policies denying the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, and as we see the Israeli government actively destroying Palestinian society through a campaign of ethnic cleansing and settler-colonial occupation.”

Similarly, Israeli-Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal told me it’s important to contextualize Ray’s tweet, and place it against the backdrop of reality, one in which Israel seeks to “erase our history and our existence, while taking our land, and this appropriation of everything Palestinian has a physical and cultural component,” adding that, “When you appropriate and take from us our towns, lands, and build settlements, and then take our cultural DNA, which is connected to the land, you erase us.”

In her book Falafel Nation, Israeli expat Yael Raviv says Israel has used food as a propaganda tool since the arrival of the first Zionists on Palestinian land in the early-mid 1900s. She documents how the first wave of Jewish arrivals were told by Zionist leaders to transform the grocery store, telling Jewish women that “they held the power to influence the nation’s future,” thus recommending they buy only from Jewish farmers. In turn, according to Raviv, Jewish farmers were told to mark their products with the slogan, “Produced by Jewish hands.” Eggs became marketed as “Hebrew eggs.” Watermelons became marketed as “Hebrew watermelons,” and you guessed it, hummus became labeled as “Hebrew hummus.”

Food products that had been produced on Palestinian land by Palestinian landowners for centuries were now being transformed into symbols associated with the then soon-to-be Jewish state. By claiming food and cultural icons long associated with the Levant, Israel, a state established by white European settlers, can pretend its ties to Palestinian land stretches back long before their ships arrived in the early to mid-20th century.

In other words, in appropriating Palestinian cultural products and icons, Israel is able to give its artificial history a veneer of historicity, and, in doing so, gives political cover to Israel’s attempts to justify its manufactured existence.

Ultimately, appropriating indigenous culture allows Israel, a settler colonial state, to continue its charade of pretending to be an indigenous nation.

In response to Ray’s tweet, Palestinian comedian Amer Zahr posted on his Facebook page a comparison between Israeli and Palestinian hummus recipes. He said that to make Palestinian hummus, “You take one cup of cooked chickpeas, a half cup of tahini sauce, then spoon it all together and you’re set.”

To make Israeli hummus, however, Zahr joked, “It’s much easier. You simply find a Palestinian who has made Palestinian hummus, kick him out of his house, and then you say, ‘This is Israeli hummus.’”

Despite Zahr’s well-aimed humor, the erasure and replacement of Palestinian culture is no laughing matter for the Palestinian people, especially when 90 percent of all Palestinians residing in what is now the state of Israel were dispossessed.

While other modern day states in the Levant also make claims to hummus, Israel has been so successful at claiming ownership of the Mediterranean chickpea dish that most supermarkets in Europe grant almost exclusive rights to the Jewish state, which prompted the Association of Lebanese Industrialists to lodge a complaint with the European Commission a decade ago.

“We are trying to do is simply what the Greeks have done with feta cheese,” said Fadi Abboud, the association’s president. “The word Lebanon is not mentioned on one hummus tub in the UK. It makes mad. If we eat Sabra hummus, the very popular hummus available in UK supermarkets, there is no mention of Lebanon anywhere on the package. They call it an Israeli traditional dish, for heaven’s sake.”

Moreover, Israel and its sympathizers make no effort to conceal its strategy to appropriate the dish as part of its agenda to advance the interests of the state. In 2012, an Israeli launched “International Hummus Day,” with the stated goal to “connect people around hummus and get more people talking about it and hopefully get people to see the good the good things that are happening in Israel,” adding that, “I just wanted to make sure that people saw that the initiative started in Israel.”

As one can see, Ray’s tweet amounts to more than your everyday willful, yet forgivable display of ignorance, but rather reflects the effectiveness of unchallenged pro-Israeli narratives and storytelling in Western political discourse, one that seeks to erase any memory of Palestinian existence.

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