Israel-Gaza war spreads to food: Once friends, Palestinian, Israeli chefs now embroiled in conflict

'My experience of late has confirmed for me that food diplomacy does not work and that you cannot solve problems ... over the proverbial plate of hummus'

By Kim Severson

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Published: Thu 9 Nov 2023, 8:14 AM

Last updated: Thu 9 Nov 2023, 8:22 AM

Theirs was an unlikely friendship.

Reem Kassis, who was born in Jerusalem and lives in Philadelphia, left high-paying work as a management consultant to write cookbooks. She is Palestinian, and her book “The Palestinian Table,” which she published in 2017, broke open a new national conversation about both the cuisine and the appropriation of its recipes.

Michael Solomonov, a chef who was born near Tel Aviv, Israel, was cooking Italian food in Philadelphia when a sniper killed his 21-year-old brother, an Israeli soldier who was patrolling on Yom Kippur. Solomonov, who is Jewish, dedicated himself to Israeli cuisine and opened Zahav in Philadelphia in 2008. The restaurant brought both him and Israeli food to national prominence, and he has since opened more than 20 restaurants.

Kassis nervously sent him a copy of her book. It shifted his perspective. The two became close friends, cooking together at his restaurant and in each other’s homes. They appeared together in magazine articles about cooking for the holidays and at events examining the role of food in national identity.

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But now, they aren’t speaking.

“If anything,” Kassis said, “my experience of late has confirmed for me that food diplomacy does not work and that you cannot solve problems like the Israeli occupation of Palestine over the proverbial plate of hummus. Anyone who claims that is deflecting from the real work that needs to be done, first of a cease-fire, but in general, freedom for and equal rights for all Palestinians.”

Solomonov’s restaurant and a handful of others that offer Israeli cuisine have been targeted for a boycott by a group calling itself the Philly Palestine Coalition, a new organization whose only public profile is on Instagram. (Kassis is not affiliated with the group.) He is not speaking publicly about the issue.

A cold platter at Laser Wolf, a restaurant in Brooklyn that Michael Solomonov, a chef born near Tel Aviv, collaborated on, in New York, ON Sept. 9, 2022. (Adam Friedlander/The New York Times)
A cold platter at Laser Wolf, a restaurant in Brooklyn that Michael Solomonov, a chef born near Tel Aviv, collaborated on, in New York, ON Sept. 9, 2022. (Adam Friedlander/The New York Times)

The war between Hamas and Israel has divided American cultural institutions, and now it is spilling into the food world. In this fraught moment, dishes such as hummus have become weaponized like never before.

American scholars of Jewish food describe the country’s cuisine as an amalgam of recipes brought to Israel by the global Jewish diaspora and merged with Middle Eastern food cooked by local Jews and Arabs. Some supporters of Palestine argue that Israeli cooks are colonisers who have adopted certain Arabic dishes as their own and, thus, contribute to the erasure of Palestinian culture.

Nearly 900 chefs, farmers and others in the American food business have signed a pledge with an organization called Hospitality for Humanity, which a group of Palestinian chefs and political organizers began in October to push for a cease-fire and the end to US support for Israel. They want to use a boycott of Israel-based food businesses and culinary events that promote Israel as one way to apply pressure.

Among the signatories are farmers, prominent chefs such as Mason Hereford of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans, and food writers, including Helen Rosner of The New Yorker; cookbook author and former New York Times food columnist Samin Nosrat; Stephen Satterfield, founder of Whetstone magazine and host of Netflix’s “High on the Hog”; and Kassis, who has written for the Times.

Palestinian food businesses in the United States report having been flooded with one-star reviews online, and Israeli restaurants in a few cities beyond Philadelphia have been tagged for boycotts on social media.

“We tend to think of food as humanising, but when there is conflict, food becomes part of the conflict,” said Ari Ariel, an associate professor at the University of Iowa who has written about and lectured on what he calls the Hummus Wars. The battle began in 2009, when Lebanon claimed that Israel was trying to steal its national dish, turning the dip of sesame paste and chickpeas into an avatar of hostilities in the Middle East.

Lebanese officials sought to have the word hummus declared a protected designation in the European Union like Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the tensions were made literal in a contest between Israel and Lebanon to make a tub of hummus big enough to break a world record. Lebanon took the title after spreading a 23,042-pound serving onto a giant ceramic plate in 2010.

“We have this romantic idea that if we eat the same food and break the same bread, somehow we can come together, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here,” said Ariel, who is researching the origins of falafel.

Indeed, any hope for reconciling differences in what has been called hummus diplomacy appears to have been dashed.

Lia Ronnen is publisher and editorial director of Artisan Books and Workman Publishing, whose catalog is heavy with design and cooking books. The argument that Israeli food is stolen Palestinian food is a false narrative about the myriad origins and traditions of Israeli food, she said. And, she added, targeting American businesses that serve Israeli food is dangerous and has antisemitic implications.

“The food community is enforcing a narrative that is factually wrong and fomenting violence against Jews in America. That is totally tragic,” she said. “The food community is supposed to be a place that celebrates humanity and celebrates caring and celebrates truth.”

In the wake of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, questions about cultural appropriation, who owns a recipe and who can profit from certain cuisines have forced conversations and reflections in restaurant kitchens and food media.

The war has made these questions especially urgent, said Reem Assil, a San Francisco Bay Area chef and speaker who has family in the Gaza Strip and started Hospitality for Humanity with other Palestinian chefs and political organisers who were feeling isolated and grieving.

In addition to applying economic pressure, the organisation is encouraging people who make their living through food to speak out against the bombings and US aid to Israel.

“The culture follows food,” Assil said. “Using food as a conduit for culture is a very powerful way of rehumanising us.”

Samir Mogannam, chef and owner of Beit Rima in San Francisco, describes his restaurant as Arab comfort food. He joined Hospitality for Humanity but said he doesn’t support boycotting American restaurants serving Israeli food, pointing out that appropriating food from other cultures has happened throughout history.

“But if you are going to appropriate our food, give us credit,” he said. “If you say Israeli cuisine is an eclectic cuisine that pulls inspiration from the Jewish diaspora and local Palestinians, that is more respectable. But appropriating our food and erasing our existence are two different things.”

Naama Shefi, founder of the Jewish Food Society, which archives recipes and the stories behind them as a way to preserve Jewish identity, has her doubts about whether food can build bridges at such a scary and dangerous junction.

“People need to educate themselves about the different cuisines, history and cultures of the region,” she said. “I am trying to stay optimistic. I am a believer in the power of food to educate and connect, and I will keep being a believer because if not, I don’t know what’s left for us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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