Nir Avieli discusses his recent book Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel, and why food matters for understanding contemporary Israel: Who lays claim to “owning” various foods and cuisines, what it means to fight over food, and the relationship of food, culture, and power.
Nir Avieli is Associate Professor at Ben Gurion University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. He is a cultural anthropologist interested mainly in food and in tourism.
Food and Power a fascinating and exciting exploration of the foodways of contemporary Israelis. As he argues, what we eat is something that we do not always think about deeply, but there is a great deal to unpack. In the course of the book, we see how Israeli Jews construct their identity through food as well as negotiate their relationship with populations like the native Palestinian Arab population, Europe, and migrant workers. On the whole, he argues that there is a close relationship between the ways in which Israeli Jews consume and create food, and the ambivalent relationship with power in Israeli and Jewish history.
Some other books and topics discussed in this episode:
- Miri Regev’s Culture War (NYT, Oct. 2016)
- Janet Siskind, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: A Ritual of American Nationality.” Critique of Anthropology 12, no. 2 (1992): 167–191.
- The “hummus wars”
- “Give Chickpeas A Chance: Why Hummus Unites, And Divides, The Mideast” (NPR Morning Edition, July 2016)
- Matthew Shaer, “The Politics of Hummus” (New York Magazine, Mar. 2012)
- Yotam Ottolenghi, Jerusalem
An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Food and Power in Contemporary Israel
Jason Lustig: When I saw this book, I was immediately grabbed by this connection between food and power. To me, it really allows us to think through a lot of big questions about the nature of culture and the nature of the societies in which we live. So to get started, what is the relationship between food and power that you are engaging with in the book, and that you want to make this argument about in relationship to Israeli society and cuisine?
Nir Avieli: So in order to answer this question—which is really hard, the relationship between food and power—if you don’t mind I would like to go to the conclusion of the book, the last chapter. And in this chapter, I make two arguments: First, I argued that power in Israel is deeply involved with ambivalence. Let me explain what I mean. As everybody knows, one of the most researched topics about Israeli society and Israeli culture, Israeli modern history is power. Israel has this military image. It’s a regional superpower. It has a very strong army and air force, and it has won many wars. It has been occupying the Palestinian territories for fifty years. The recent and increasing escalations with Iran: This is all about power.
But power in Israel was never examined from the culinary sphere. And when I chose to examine power through the culinary sphere, I think that I have two insights that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And let me just quickly elaborate on these two insights. The first one, as I said, is that power in Israel is really ambivalent. People may think about power in Israel as either being this superhero nation, a small and mighty country using its power, defeating all its enemies, being very effective with its military power and prowess and weapons and so on and so forth.
And the other way to think about Israeli power is a way in which many Israelis think about it. We the Israelis, or the Jewish nation if we want to be more accurate, are the global victims. We the Jewish people have been victimized to an extent no other people have ever been. This is not my argument. This is the argument of those people who advocate this idea that the Holocaust is the utmost expression of victimization in the history of humanity, never before, never after, incomparable to anything else. And therefore, we are totally weak. But what I saw in my research is the oscillation. You can be, at a certain moment, a citizen of this mighty super power. But at the very same second, you can also be weak and victimized and feel powerless. And this constant oscillation, very fast, between being very strong to being very weak, creates a sense of deep ambivalence when it comes to power. So I think that for many Israelis, one of the organizing principles of our life is that we think: “Are we strong, or are we weak?” And we don’t have an answer. It’s too easy to say we are both. It’s also true that we are both, but it’s too easy.
It’s this ambivalence that creates a strange relationship in Israel to power. So this is the first point. The second point has to do with the increasing salience and centrality and perhaps hegemony of the so-called oriental food in Israel. Now, let me explain what I mean. In a recent talk in the United States, one of the members of the audience came after the lecture and she told me, “you know, recently I came to Israel and I couldn’t find any Jewish food, any restaurants serving Jewish food.” Now, what is she talking about? She came to the Jewish nation and there is no Jewish food? But what she meant was actually Ashkenazi food, Eastern European food. In Israel, for many years but not anymore—and certainly this is in the case in America—Jewish food means Ashkenazifood, Eastern European food. And this direct link, this identification between Jewish food and Ashkenazi food, expresses a long-standing hegemony in Israel, when Ashkenazi culture was hegemonic, therefore it was transparent, when only Ashkenazim were “real Jews,” and therefore only Ashkenazi food is a Jewish food.
But in Israel now, things have changed. And if, Jason, you would come to visit me in Israel, and you tell me I would like to have some Jewish food/Ashkenazi food, Eastern European kosher food, I would tell you: oh, this is a little complicated. So we will have to go to either one of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods where the Jews live, and sometimes you can find some restaurants that serve this is eastern European food. And I’m talking about the chopped liver and kreplach and gefilte fish and chicken soup. You might find them in some restaurants there, and very, very few other restaurants in downtown Tel Aviv that still serve this food, but they are disappearing, they are fading out. And what you will find everywhere in Israel, in restaurants, at home, in canteens, in kiosks, or what children take to school would be the so-called mizrahi food. Now, Mizrahi or oriental food is a category that needs some unpacking.
JL: Yeah, so to take you up on that unpacking, what is the relationship between this ambivalence about power in the modern state of Israel and the hegemony of Mizrahi food? What, then, is this relationship between food and power in the state of Israel, these two parts?
NA: Let me actually just quickly go to the argument, and then explain what is the relationship. I argue in the book that oriental food has become the mainstay of Israelis. Israeli food equals Mizrahi food. And you know, one of the best places to see it is in America, because in America where you go to the so-called Israeli restaurants, which is another very interesting phenomena that we might want to talk about a little later, Israeli restaurants in America, what they actually serve is hummus and tahini and baba ganoush and shish-kebab and maybe magadra or other dishes. All of them, in Israel, are considered oriental. Now, you might say also that they’re actually Arab or Palestinian food. And you would be right. So we see here also the levels of power: who takes and who appropriates the food from whom.
But back to the argument of oriental food becoming hegemonic in Israel. In the last three years or the last four years, Israel is experiencing a cultural war. And this cultural war is about who is the hegemonic power in this country. After many, many years of Ashkenazi culture and Western-inclined culture was hegemonic in Israel, this is not the case anymore. There is a big battle. We have a minister, Miri Regev, who argues that there should be no priority to western culture and she was ridiculing western literature and western music in suggesting that oriental music and oriental literature are as good. And perhaps she’s right. I’m not challenging her. The point is that there is a battle. People are arguing about it. There is no agreement about what is the hegemonic culture in Israel, and what it should be. However, when you go to the culinary realm, you’ll see that there is no question. This has been decided already 10 or 15 years ago. Mizrahi food isIsraeli food.
Now, I think that one of the reasons that anthropology of food is so effective or appealing is that the culinary sphere is an unreflective sphere. When people eat, they don’t really think about their food in political terms. They think about food in terms of calories and in terms of health, but rarely do they think about the cultural meanings of food. And therefore the culinary realm is unreflective and because it is unreflective, things happen there that don’t happen in other realms.
And it is often the case that the culinary realm pioneers cultural processes. So when I look at the Israeli culinary sphere and I say, wow, this is all Mizrahi, I know where the power is shifted to. It is Mizrahi food in the culinary sphere, and the rest will follow. So the way I see it at the moment, is the entire Israeli culture is pulling towards the direction of being Oriental/Middle Eastern/this category that was invented in Israel of Mizrahi Jews.
Can I say something about this category of Mizrahi Jews? Because it’s very important to understand what I mean when I say Oriental Jews. They are the Jews that came from the different countries in the Middle East and North Africa. They came from very different backgrounds, some educated, some were not, some were rich, some were not. They’re as distant as Iran is distant to Morocco. Thousands of kilometers away, very distinct and different cultures. But when they came to Israel, they were all thrown into the same bowl and were considered one class, one ethnic class—the Mizrahi, that is the Oriental class—which was juxtaposed to the Ashkenazi, that is the Western class. And the general attitude was, Mizrahi Jews are primitive and they need of civilizing. They are not as good as us, and we need to recast them, change them and make them Israeli—that is, make them Ashkenazi Jews. That is perhaps Western. So this is the category, and this social category in seventy years became the hegemonic category in Israel. They are the biggest ethnic group. They are very powerful politically. They are powerful economically. They are powerful socially. And increasingly, they are becoming part of the other elites. And the cultural war that is raging in Israel is between the leaders of this group and the leaders of the Ashkenazi deposed hegemony, as I would say.
JL: As you’re discussing the rise of Mizrahi food, Hummus, etc. to prominence in Israel, it seems like there are two levels to this question of power. Because on the one hand, it’s something that, as you said anybody who comes to Israel will see this naturally, or even if you go to the supermarket in America and see the “Israeli food,” this is what you will see there. And you don’t see your matzo ball mix, and so on and so forth. This really does reflect the rise of the Mizrahi Jews as a group, broadly speaking, to cultural and political prominence in Israel. And one can trace this, I think, to the 70s, to the rise of the Herut party, in a number of spheres and in the culinary sphere as well. This has really taken off. So on the one hand, there’s this question of the internal power struggle among Israeli Jews, and then there’s also this question of the power struggle between Jews and Arabs over who gets to control this food which is seen as Israeli food. Especially among Jews in the Diaspora, it has been appropriated from the people of this region and claimed by the Israelis as their own. This seems to me as the way in which this really has a significance beyond just describing what is happening on the ground, culturally speaking, in modern Israel.
NA: I think that you’re absolutely right. We can look at the politics. Okay, so there’s different levels to it, as you said, but let’s do them one by one. When we look in the so-called Israeli food today, or if you will ask young Israelis, “So what’s Israeli food,” they will tell you that Israeli food is falafel and hummus and pita and salad and some kind of spicy sauce, schug or harrisa. And of course, they will be totally right. Because this is what Israelis eat. It has been repeatedly shown in research that the most popular food it Israeli is hummus. So the most popular item in Israeli fridges is hummus. If you’ll open the fridge is Israel in 80% of the fridges you’ll find Hummus.
This makes, clearly, hummus a very Israeli food. But it is also similar to, a few years ago, I taught Norwegian students and I asked them, what’s your national food? They said, well our national food is “pizza grandiosa.” And I asked them, what’s pizza grandiosa, and they told me all this is a kind of frozen pizza. So it is a Norwegian frozen version of an Italian pizza, and they said that this is their national food. And when I asked them why, they said, because everybody eats it all the time. So, in origin perhaps they were appropriating Italian food. In Israel, what we have been appropriating is Palestinian food or Arab food or shami food (greater Syrian food), or perhaps Ottoman food could be also a definition to this kind of dishes that today are considered the Israeli. So I begin the book with the famous or infamous or funny story of the “Hummus Wars” between Israel and Lebanon.
Who Owns Food? The “Hummus Wars”
JL: I think this is important. You’re saying that this food could “belong” to any number of countries or regions or nationalities, and I think this is something you really hit on very clearly in the opening to the book when you wrote about these somewhat humorous, perhaps, “hummus wars” between people in Israel and those in Lebanon, You know, what does it mean to make claims by one country or one ethnic or religious group or nationality that this food is one’s own.
NA: The story of the hummus wars is interesting mainly because it is so multi-layered. There’s all kinds of things that inform the story. One aspect of the story is commercial. It’s about money. The hummus wars began when the Lebanese realized that Israeli companies, or companies that are now actually global and owned by international companies, were trying to market hummus and other dishes that the Lebanese considered Lebanese to the American market.
And this is a multi-billion dollar market. If you go to any American market today, you will find 20 brands of hummus. But one of the most popular in them is and Sabra. Sabra in New York wanted to do a publicity stunt and they set up an event in which they broke or made a Guinness record for the biggest plate of hummus. And the CEO of Sabra in America said it very clearly: He said, this is a commercial stunt. We want to let the American public know that we are selling this product, and we get attention by breaking this record. So the Lebanese were overwhelmed by this event. They said, how can the Israelis—and remember that this was not an Israeli, this was an American CEO of an Israeli global company—but they said how can the Israelis sell our food to the Americans and make the money? We are going to sue them.
And the precedent was of the feta cheese. The Danes for many years were producing Danish feta, and eventually the Greeks took them to some kind of economic court within the European Union and the court decided that feta can only be Greek. And the Lebanese said, it’s the same thing. Hummus can only be Lebanese. But since they couldn’t find an appropriate court to deal with their claim, what they did is break the hummus record themselves.
And then the Israelis were really astonished and angry. People were freaking out. It made the headlines in the newspapers. One of the headlines said, the Lebanese are stealing our record. And then came a twist in the story, when an Israeli Palestinian, a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship, decided to break the record and make the biggest plate of hummus, so break the record make the hummus in Israel, and by doing this he said—because, you know, I heard it on the radio—he said, “I’m going to restore the nation’s honor.”
So the story becomes more and more and more complicated. Because you have this Palestinian of Israeli citizenship saying that he, by making a large plate of hummus, will restore the nation’s honor, and the nation is Israel, the Jewish state. So obviously, I was very intrigued by the story. And on the day of the of the Guinness record making, we went to the village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem to see to see the event. We came very early in the morning, and we saw a couple of things that were very interesting. The first was that a big truck that said Mickey Salads. So this is prefabricated hummus. It was brought in boxes. It was not handmade or homemade, but they just brought it from the factory. This was the first thing that we thought was funny. We actually told the Guinness record man, you know, this hummus is not handmade. It’s prefabricated. And he said, “So what? Who cares? The Lebanese did the same.” The point was who has the biggest plate of hummus.
And then the second thing that we realized was that the hummus had a funny smell. And do you know how God has a funny way of doing things? It was January, but it was the hottest they ever recorded in January in Israel. So nobody took precautions. There was no refrigeration. There was no shading of the hummus. And they were dishing this huge amount—almost 10,000 kilograms of hummus into a plate—that was standing in the blazing sun, 30 degrees Celsius.
It was clear to me that the hummus was going to spoil. Now, the event was in the media. They said that once the record is made, free hummus is going to be dished out. And there were thousands of people, mainly Israeli Jews, who came to the Arab Palestinian village to celebrate the breaking of the record. But once the record was set, the hummus was not dished out, and nobody said anything. Which was very un-Israeli, you know, because Israelis, usually, when they are promised that they would give free food and then they come and they see the free food that it’s not handed out, this should have created a mess. But it didn’t. Because, I think that everybody felt, well this day is really too hot to have the hummus exposed in this way and then eat it.
So when I was driving home, I was thinking about the whole event. How this is Palestinian of Israeli citizenship is restoring the honor of the Israeli Jewish nation by creating the biggest plate of hummus ever. And claiming, because what he said in his speech was, that actually peace in the Middle East should be negotiated over hummus. Because hummus is a dish that you share, it is given in a round plate, a few people can take their pitas and dig into the hummus. And everybody likes hummus in the Middle East, indeed Israelis and Arabs, so let’s sit together in the village of Abu Ghosh, in an Israeli Palestinian village, Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Arabs, and discuss peace. And it was a really nice and touching speech. But when I was driving home, I was thinking, yes, but metaphors and food metaphors specifically they have a life of their own. He said that peace in the Middle East should be like hummus. And the hummus was rotted in spoiled. So his metaphor was actually much more accurate than he intended, because he was really depicting what was going on.
JL: There’s so much to unpack here. It’s such a rich story, a tasty morsel, right? There’s lots of think about here. You mentioned this idea of this connection between peace and food. This is not the only instance where we’ve seen this. If you look in any number of forums, for instance the cookbooks of uh of Yotam Ottolenghi, Jerusalem, which are very popular in the U.S., which are bringing “Israeli” cuisine to an American audience. They talk about this idea of the power of food to create peace, that by breaking bread together or eating, that these cuisines are shared. So there is a lot to think about here in terms of the way in which people assume that there is this connection between food and peace, but it’s also a space of conflict.
NA: So it is often the case that food and food sharing are presented, as they should be, in positive terms. Yes, people sit together. They break bread. Sharing bread means that we’re responsible for each other. We like the same stuff. We think about food, and we think about the family meal and mom dishing us the food and our childhood memories and Grandma making something nice for us. And this is one aspect of food and of research about food. But also controlling food, controlling the intake of food, is one way of exercising power that is unparalleled by any other. If you stop people, if you stop you prevent people from eating, you starve them to death. And this is one of the most effective and violent and horrible ways used to inflict power on other people. And in between this, -top-bottom infliction of power and the idea that I don’t let you eat and I starve to death and all the way to mom feeding her baby, which is like the most homey, sweet, and caring option, there is a huge range of possibilities of sharing food and also about fighting about food and the and using food as a tool of power.
When I was doing work in Vietnam many years ago, I remember an instance when a husband, a young couple, the spouse was very angry about his young wife for some reason. So we were sitting to have the meal and he refused to eat. He was sitting in front of the plate just not eating. The food was there, he was sitting very angry, not touching the food. And after 3 minutes, his wife left the table sobbing. The only thing that he did was not eat. But the message was so clear. It’s so strong that the woman left the table crying. So the language of food is very complex, and the possibilities to convey power and to express power and to express relationships, there are endless variations. But we all know how to read them. If you were sitting with me at the table, you would understand what is going on. Even if you don’t understand Vietnamese, you would get the picture.
Now, back to Ottolenghi. I really like Ottolenghi and his work and his, I don’t know, mission in life, maybe. But do you think that it is an accident that his career is abroad? Think about Ottoleghi’s background, his decision, his Palestinian partner, his suggestion that food is a way to bridge between Jews and Arabs, and where he is now. He is not in Israel. And in Israel people think that he is a, you know, a funny dreamer but not much more than that.
Using food as a metaphor for peace in the Middle East in contemporary Israel is very problematic. And the way that Ottolenghi does it works for outsiders, but perhaps not for insiders. Unfortunately. I am sad. You know, his book should become a best-seller in Israel, but it is not. His book and his ideas more than the book.
Portion Size and Israeli Culture
JL: I think what an episode like the “hummus wars” indicates is that there is so much to fight over here. What’s really striking there as well is the way in which the struggle over hummus was not about who made the best hummus, the most tasty hummus, the most nutritious, or appealing, but it was over portion size. And it’s striking. You write, to some extent, about the role of portion size in Israel as part of the culinary culture. But it’s also striking when you’re talking about tens of thousands of kilos of hummus that are ultimately going to waste. This is a lot of food. It’s really striking, because it parallels perhaps other kinds of wars, they’re fundamentally incredibly wasteful. And I think there’s a really powerful symbolism there.
NA: Yes, but I have I have to say that if it was up to me, and all the wars we have with our neighbors or with anyone would be hummus wars, I am all for it. I’m willing to waste tens of tons of hummus if we can save lives and blood. This is one point that should be emphasized here.
JL: I agree with you on that completely.
NA: Yeah, of course. But talking about size, there are two points that have to be made here. It is often the case of men and masculinity that they evaluate things by size. My house is bigger than yours. My car is bigger than yours. These are all classic masculine ways of engaging with each other and fighting with each other, really. So having the biggest hummus is almost a cliche of childish masculinity. And I think this is not only an Israeli issue. You can find it in many, many cultures, this childish wish of men to have things bigger than others. Now, back to Israel. In the first chapter of the book, I argued that the one possible definition for the Israeli cuisine would be that Israelis like large portions for a cheap price and they don’t really care about quality. So it’s not really only about the size of the portion, but also about the price and also about the quality. Three parameters that define what is Israeli food.
And I’ve written this chapter in order in order to deal with the common definition of the Israeli cuisine in Israel. Because in Israel, when you ask people how to define Israeli Cuisine, most Israelis will tell you, “well, the Israeli cuisine is a combination of immigrant Jewish cuisines,” which are actually the kosher version of the poor people cuisine from wherever they came to Israel. So you have Polish Jews coming to Israel bringing the kosher version of the Polish poor people food, Moroccans coming from Moroccan to Israel with the kosher version of Moroccan popular food and so forth and so on. They come to Israel with all the requisites and these are all mixed into this big bowl of food and then there is the local ecology, the local Israeli agriculture and the huge array of products that we make here, vegetables and fruits and diary and other ingredients.
And of course the ecology, the weather, that contribute the Mediterranean aspect to diet. And then comes politics. If you are a lefty, you would say that Israeli the Jews also adopted the Palestinian cuisine, adopted some or most or all of it into the food. Anyways, if you are a right wing supporter, you cannot say that the Israelis adopted Palestinian cuisine because you cannot acknowledge any Palestinian cuisine because if you acknowledge that there is a Palestinian cuisine, you acknowledge that there is a Palestinian people and the most right-wing Israelis would say Palestinians as a people do not exist. But this would be the definition.
And this definition, that the Israeli cuisine is made up of the immigrant cuisines and the meeting with the local ecology and the products and culture, it is totally accurate, but the problem is that it doesn’t tell us anything. Because if you think on any cuisine—think about the American cuisine, how was the American cuisine made? Immigrant cuisines from different places and then the local ecology, the local products, the local people. Remember that in Thanksgiving you actually celebrate by eating the products of the local natives which you are annihilated later. So a very similar story, but when I was working in Vietnam, it was the same. The Vietnamese food is an outcome of a process of people immigrating from place to place, meeting up with the ecology, mixing up. So if you can define the Israeli cuisine, the American cuisine, and the Vietnamese cuisine, I think any cuisine in the world, if you can define them in the same way, this is not a good definition. Because it doesn’t teach us much. So I interviewed dozens of Israeli chefs, and I asked them what is Israeli about your cooking. And they said, they use the metaphor of the of the of the Melting Pot.
Food and Cultural Interaction
JL: So are you ultimately saying, when you are describing this process of cultural interaction, that this question of food and power is fundamentally about the struggle over ownership and appropriation? The early settlers in North America, they not only annihilated the native peoples and decimated their population and took their land. They also took their food and made it their own. Are you saying the same thing is happening more less everywhere, that you see this cultural interaction but it really is very one-sided more often than not?
NA: Well, I’m not an expert on American culinary culture, but I have read quite a quite a few academic and non-academic texts about American cuisine. And there is this very interesting and intriguing article by (Janet) Siskind called “The Invention of Thanksgiving: A Ritual of American Nationality” and in this actually the author claims that the turkey is a metaphor for the body of the Native American. And consuming the turkey is consuming, literally eating, devouring, the body of the of the Native American, of the so-called Indian. Now, I know that this argument may sound very shallow in this way, but I invite the listeners to go and read the article because it is an interesting and complex and sophisticated article analyzing Thanksgiving foodways as expressions of food appropriation that creates nationalism or nationality.
JL: So is there something to learn from that, in terms of understanding for instance the construction of Israeli nationalism as part of that?
NA: I don’t think that when Israelis consume Palestinian food or Arab food, there is a metaphor for the consumption of the Palestinians. But rather the opposite. The Israeli ideology is of denying the existence of the Palestinian. (In this view) Falafel and hummus cannot be Palestinian food, because Palestinian people and culture do not exist. And since they do not exist, the argument that hummus is their food doesn’t work. It is impossible. It’s a catch for somebody who really believes that the Palestinians do not exist. The other side of it, of course, is the people that clearly are convinced that the Palestinians do exist. This is ridiculous. They exist and their food exists.
JL: Right, I think there’s a lot to think about here right in terms of this this way in which food illuminates this question of contact between cultures. What I was trying to say before is that maybe this contact between cultures is not really balanced, that more often than not it really is with one side having the upper hand and in food that you really see this.
And I think that in your book you really bring this out, the way you open by talking about the idea of tsabar (Sabra), the hummus company, and talking about the nature of that image and what that really represents. There’s so much to unpack in terms of the way that you talk about food and eating as a non-reflexive activity, that you don’t think about what you eat in very deep metaphorical, philosophical, intellectual terms, but really there’s a lot going on under the surface that one can really unpack if you think about it.
Italian Food and Israel’s Self-Conception as “European”
JL: So when we think about what is there to unpack, right, is that you argue that the popularity of Italian food for instance is because the Israelis see themselves as part of a Mediterranean, European culture, as opposed to something that is Middle Eastern. This, really, I think is interesting. It complicates this issue of these two realms of food, Italian food as European food, and hummus, falafel, and so on and so forth as Middle Eastern food, and this negotiation in Israel over what is the identity of this Jewish society in terms of the Israeli Jews who are developing their foodways and their food, their tastes and interests. And I think there’s really something really quite interesting there in terms of the Israeli Jews trying to understand themselves as being European or cosmopolitan on the one hand, but also appropriating or taking on sort of some of the native foods as well.
NA: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about this idea of Italian food. Everyone who comes to Israel can see that Italian food is very popular here. I think that for the average American, it would be not really surprising because in America, Italian food is also extremely popular. And in also in many European countries. But if you go to our neighboring countries, if you go to Jordan or you go to Egypt, the chances of seeing a pizza parlor in every corner and an Italian restaurant in every street is slimmer. So I thought, the Italian food is really popular here. Let’s think about why, but before thinking about why, I wanted to prove that it is popular.
And how do you prove that the food is really popular? One way of doing this is by counting the number of establishments that serve it. I found by using this technique of the golden pages (yellow pages) where you check actually how many restaurants are registered under Italian, under pizza, under Yemeni food, under Iraqi food, under Moroccan food, and so forth and so on. And it was amazing. I myself was surprised to see that in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, the largest number of culinary establishments in one category is Italian restaurants and pizzerias, they are the most popular food venues. More than falafel and hummus.
And of course, if you realize that the most important, most popular culinary established in Israel is the cafe. And at most Israeli cafes, about 50% of their menu is made up of Italian dishes, pasta and pizza and the like. And if, like me, you would be spending the last twenty years going into people’s houses and looking at their kitchens and their fridges and their meals, you would also know that pasta and pizza are eaten in every house Israel all the time.
So Italian food is extremely popular. And I wanted to understand why. So I went to a dozen Italian restaurants and I interviewed the chefs. But I did not only interview them. I did participant observation, meaning I was hanging out in the restaurants looking at what people talking about, with the customers, with the waitresses, with the cooks, with the owners of the restaurants about what they were serving to the customers. And of course, I was eating in this restaurant.
And my main question to everybody was why Israelis like Italian food so much. And very quickly I realized that there were four lines of argument. Let me go very quickly over these arguments. The first argument had to do with the size and price. People told me time and again that Italian food is easy to expend cheaply. It’s very easy to give a big bowl of pasta for a cheap price. It’s very easy to give a big pizza. Actually a pizza meal in Israel is one of the cheapest meals you can eat. So it’s cheap and large, according to the Israeli preference that we have discussed previously.
The second line of argument has to do with the fact that in Israel, Italian food is usually relegated to the diary side of things. And you know in Judaism there is a separation between meat and dairy products. And even though in Italy most Italian dishes mix meat and milk, in Israel there is a total separation. And most Italian restaurants and pizzerias only serve the diary, that is the kosher version of Italian food. And this makes these restaurants diary restaurants that are considered fancy. When I was interviewing a restaurant owner and he tried to explain why the customers like his restaurant. He said, when people go out in the evening, perhaps they don’t want to eat a lot of meat. So if they want to eat dairy food, there is only one option for them: Italian food. And I told him, “wow, why can’t they go to a hummus place?” He said, would you propose to your girlfriend in a hummus place? No. Italian food is the appropriate place to propose to your girlfriend, because it’s romantic and so forth and so on. So there is this image of luxuriousness and style, and at the same time it’s dairy. This reflects on the importance of Kashrut in Israel, which is another issue that we didn’t touch yet but is very important, the idea that food in Israel and restaurants in Israel are more often than not Kosher.
The third point had to do with the idea that Italian restaurants in Israel are family-friendly. Now this was really an interesting finding, because the owners of the restaurant told me again and again and again that Israelis like Italian food because it works well for the family. You can have big portions and they’re not expensive, you can share them. But then one of the restaurant owners who is an Italian, he’s not Jewish and not Israeli, he told me, I don’t understand the way Israelis behave. They saw the television perhaps in American films that Italian restaurants are family friendly, children-friendly. There is the big mama and the children running around the table and you know, everybody is very tolerant to children and because Israeli Society is so inclined to having a big family with many children—you know that the Jewish population in Israel has the largest number of average children in the OECD. So, Israelis go to Italian restaurants because they think that they are family-friendly. But this guy told me, you know, I hate it when they behave in this way. When the family calls me and tells me we have a birthday, I tell them “I’m sorry. I’m full.” I don’t want the children to run around behaving in this way. And when he told me that, I started thinking about the way my kids behave in Italian restaurants, and I was a little ashamed to admit that Italian places and especially pizzerias in Israel are equipped with very, how to say, robust and strong tables. Even in my village, the only food establishment here is a pizzeria, it’s called Chicago Pizza by the way, and it is a little place in one of the farms and there is a big area of grass and very strong tables and the children climb about the tables and jump over the tables waiting for the pizza because they feel that they’re allowed to do it. So being family friendly is also one way of drawing Israeli customers.
But the fourth explanation was the one that I found the most intriguing, and this was a repeated claim that had two levels of claiming for affinity with the Italians. Many people told me, look, the weather in Israel and the ingredients in Israel are fairly similar to Italy, to southern Italy: garlic tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, they eat very similar to what we eat. And it’s not surprising, because we are both in the Mediterranean. Okay, but then many of them also told me, they added, and also there is the question of style, of personality. We, the Israelis, are very similar to the Italians.
Because in recent years I spent some time in Italy, I was thinking, hmm… Israelis and Italians are similar—not exactly. So I went on pursuing this argument, and you see how people again and again and again made this claim. They said, we have the same temperament. We have the same style of eating. So for example, one of the chef’s told me, “We are just like them. We don’t like complex, long cooking and meals. We like it fast.” But you know, everybody who has been to Italy knows that the Italians don’t like it fast at all. They like it slow and elaborate, and their meals can take hours.
So there was something going on that I had to figure out. And what I argue in the chapter is that when Israelis argue that “we are just like Italians and we have the same ecology and the same ingredients and also the same temperament, the same a cultural choices,” they are saying something about themselves and about the place they consider themselves to belong and what they think about themselves. So what they would like to think about themselves is that Israel is a Mediterranean country and not a Middle Eastern country. And here is the main point. For many Israelis, we like our country. There is no doubt if we like it, and we like living here. But we often complain about the neighbors and we often complain about the neighborhood. And time and again you will hear Israeli politicians, when they talk about our neighbors, they would say, well what can you do? The Palestinians are not Norwegians. The Palestinians are not Swiss, right? We live here in the Middle East. But the fact that we are here in the Middle East doesn’t mean that we like it. And then I realized that one of the major draws of Italian food for Israelis is in the fact that when you go to an Italian restaurant, you can imagine even if for the time of the meal, this can be 30 minutes or one hour, two hours, you imagine that now you are not really in the Middle East, you are now in the Mediterranean. You have moved yourself magically through the food. And now you’re where you want to be. You’re like the Italians. Yes, you eat tomatoes and peppers and olive oil and cheese and you have the same temperament and you’re just like them.
So I asked some of the people, I pointed out that there is another people that are very similar to us, very similar temperament, and similar ecology, and we like the same foods. And when the people told me, what are you talking about? I said, I’m talking about the Arabs. And they said, how can you say something like this? You know, we are not like them. We are like the Italians, we are not like the Arabs. And therefore, my argument in this chapter is that one reason—because I counted four reasons—but one reason for the Israelis liking so much Italian food is that Italian food allows them to remove themselves from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, just for a while to feel that they are where they want to be, not where they actually belong.
And if you think that what I’m saying is far-fetched, you can check in the media and see what our political leaders and specifically Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu said about the neighborhood: Ehud Barack is notoriously, famously quoted for making the claim that Israel is a “villa in the jungle.” And think about this image. First of all, it’s a very colonial image. There is the villa, civilization and safety and light and protection, and then surrounded by the dark jungle which is very exotic and very appealing and at the same time scary and dangerous. And Benjamin Netanyahu, on a recent visit to the wall that he has built between Israel and Egypt in order to stop the infiltration of African refugees, jobseekers, asylum stickers, you know, you choose how you want to tag them, he said, and I’m quoting, “We shall surround ourselves with fences to protect from wild beasts.” So you see again how the Israeli leading politicians—and right and left because Netanyahu is Likud and Ehud Barak is Labor party—both of them consider the neighborhood to be a very dangerous one, the neighbors to be dangerous and scary. And the need to protect ourselves from our neighbors. And the Italian restaurants let you rest for a while, leave the Middle East for a while.
JL: I think there’s a lot to think about here. When we talk about food, there’s a certain power of imagination connected with food, whether we’re talking about eating world cuisines and traveling the world by plate, or even eating a childhood dish and you have this kind of nostalgia for home and the family and childhood. But I think that you’re really touching here on something really important as well, this ability to construct an entire worldview surrounding the food, whether that is on the one hand imagining Israel as a European country, something that you see in any number of other realms as well. For instance, think about Israeli participation in Eurovision, right? This is Israeli Jews trying to mark Israel as a part of European culture in a very broad sense. But also this whole question of hummus, falafel, etc, and marking these not as Arab or Palestinian foods, but as Mizrahi Jewish foods. This is a whole process of trying to construct an imagined view of how one sees themselves through food in Israel.
NA: I would say that if you think about the recent success of Israeli or so-called Israeli restaurants in America and those restaurants that are actually serving this Mizrahi, oriental food in America. You know, I was trying to think how come that in the last few years suddenly Israeli restaurants are becoming so popular. And this comes hand in hand with the exceeding questioning of the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Americans right? Because J Street, which is actually, you know, a very large component of the Jewish community in America, wants to engage in Israel in a different way and it’s very critical about Israel. So how come Americans suddenly are crazy about Israeli food? One possible explanation to this question is that Israel also offers Americans a diluted version of the Middle East. The real Middle East, the hardcore Middle East, the Muslim Middle East, the Arab Middle East is scary for the Americans. Yeah, this is September 11, terrorists, Jihad, Al Qaeda, ISIS, all these horrible, horrible people. And we don’t want to eat their food. But Israelis offer a civilized version.
Now, Israeli, as we said earlier in the conversation, yes—Israel is a super power. It uses violence. It occupies the territories. There is a lot of criticism about Israel. But at the same time, Israel is not really an integral part of the Middle East. It is unique here. It is different. It is more like us, you know, it has been argued by both American and Israeli politicians that Israel is an American colony or American or like a western bastion. And therefore the military aspect of life in Israel. So Israeli food becomes a way of consuming a diluted, more civilized version of the Middle East.
JL: When you say that, when you say Americans are you talking about American Jews or Americans at large?
NA: No, no, for Americans at large. This Is exactly the point. The way I understand the huge popularity of Israeli food in America now is not based on Israeli immigrants, and is not based only on Jewish customers, but also on a lot of other customers that have nothing to do with Israel or at least they have nothing to do with Judaism or with Israel. But they’re happy to eat Israeli food. Now, the common explanation is that the you know, the Mediterranean diet is recently marketed as healthy and perhaps it is healthy. But what about Greek food? Greek food is not becoming suddenly so popular, even though they are the ancestors of the Mediterranean diet. So there is something that there is a political edge to these choices or cultural edge to these choices.
Israeli Jews’ Misconceptions About Thai Workers
JL: So one thing that you had wanted to talk about was this question of what is not eaten, the imagined idea among Israeli Jews about some of the immigrant populations in Israel.
NA: So usually when we talk about food stereotypes, we accuse people of eating stuff that we think is an is inedible. So calling the French “froggies” or calling the German “krauts” are two examples of very famous food stereotypes that had to do with practical realities. Some of the French really eat frogs, and some of the Americans felt that this is awful and call them call them “froggies.” And the thing goes for sauerkraut, or you remember the spaghetti westerns or western spaghettis in the 60s and 70s, again accusing the Italians of eating so much pasta. There was a reality to it.
But in Israel, there is an interesting myth that has nothing to do with reality. And this myth is the accusation of the Thai migrant workers in Israel of stealing and butchering and eating Israeli pet dogs. This phenomenon became really a moral panic in the late 90s. The social process was the following: In the early years of the country, the manual work was done mainly by immigrants from Middle East, Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. And gradually, more by Palestinians of Israeli citizenship after the 1967 six-day war and the occupation of the occupied territories, much our work was done by Palestinians.
But the intifada in the late 80s and the early 90s and especially the suicide attacks made the government close the borders. So there was a feeling that this huge number of workers that are coming every day from the occupied territories into Israel allows terrorists to infiltrate and then to execute these terrorist attacks. And there was a sealing of the occupied territories, but somebody has to work, somebody has to build houses, somebody has to tend for the elderly. We need nurses in hospitals and we need people to work in agriculture. And Israeli Jews didn’t want to do this manual work anymore, they’ve gone up in life and their economic situation has improved. They got used to more managerial and service work and people here didn’t want to do manual jobs anymore.
So you need to bring somebody in. There was a decision to bring foreign workers from abroad, and one interesting category was deciding to bring Thai workers from Northeast Thailand to Israel to work in agriculture. And in fact, if you check the agricultural cultural regions in Israel you will see that in some places like in the Arava valley on the way to Eilat, there are more Thais than Israeli Jews in this region. Their number is larger because they do all the farming work. But hand-in-hand with their coming to Israel came this accusation of them eating dogs.
I was involved in research on this process of migrant workers, and I found myself experiencing a very strange phenomenon. The newspapers were publishing every day or two another case of Thais eating dogs. However, I was spending time among the Thais where they live, talking to them and to their employers, and they were not eating dogs. And then I decided to, you know (after) working in many years in Southeast Asia, I had the experience of knowing what people eat in Thailand. Dogs are not eaten in Thailand.
So we had a very strange case. We have a group of people immigrating from another country into Israel. They didn’t ever eat dogs at home. Apparently they didn’t eat dogs in Israel. But all the Israelis “know” for a fact that they eat pet dogs. So this was a myth that I wanted to understand, to unpack, and then I would go directly to my argument.
I think that the explanation for this accusation had to do with what Israelis think about dog meat-eating. Israeli Jews, Israelis in general—because this includes Israeli Palestinians—are horrified at the idea of eating dogs. And for two reasons: one reason is that it is unkosher and according to Islam polluted, and the other reason is that the dog is man’s best friend. So this combination of being an unkosher and polluting animal, and at the same time man’s best friend, makes the dog for Israeli Jews and Israelis in general totally inedible, it’s a taboo. And when I was interviewing people about eating dog or avoiding dog meat, they immediately told me that eating dogs is like eating your family members. And then I realized that the accusations of the Israelis, accusing the Thais of eating dogs, is actually an accusation of cannibalism.
So why is it good to accuse these foreign workers of cannibalism? The point is that when you accuse somebody of being a cannibal, you’re actually denying his humanity or saying, you know, he is not really a human, he is a degraded human or is being a cannibal is being so savage that you’re removed from the realm of humanity or not a full human with the full rights of human beings.
And why was that so important? And here I am going back to the social argument. Israel has a socialist ethos. We don’t think about ourselves as exploiting landlords and as abusing cheap labor, and almost I don’t want to say slave owners, but you know being very abusive and with our employees. We don’t think about ourselves in this way. However, the phenomenon of migrant workers is a phenomenon of abuse. In Israel, in America, and everywhere else where people come from poor countries to work in rich countries, they’re underpaid and they are not treated well and they’re abused. And this abuse, it is easy to say, well, this is personal. But it is not personal. It is in the system. The system is abusive to begin with. But in Israel, and especially where the Thais were employed because the Thais were employed in Kibbutzim and Moshavim, you know in the Israeli farming establishing, the farming elite that set up this country.
And suddenly in the kibbutz, the place where they were trying to return to Jewish labor, to change the Diasporic condition of the Jews as people who do luftgeschäft, you know, buy and sell and give his money and perhaps alcohol and loan… The Zionist movement said no, no, no, we are going back to till the land, to be real farmers, to produce with our own hands. And one hundred years later, the Israeli farmers, they are managers, they employ foreign workers. They can pay them a cheap and low wage and give them poor conditions and then enjoy the profits of this abusive system. But this created an uneasiness among Israelis. And the accusation of eating dogs solves the problem, because if you accuse the Thais of eating dogs, if everybody knows it, everybody “knows” the Thais eat dogs—even though again, my empirical findings are that the Thais don’t eat dogs, not in Israel, not in Thailand, nowhere—yes, but since everybody in Israel strongly believes that Thais eat dogs, and since eating dogs in Israel is considered inhuman and degrading and cannibalistic. It makes the Thai workers less than humans and if they’re less than humans the whole unease about exploiting them disappears, since they are not humans. What’s the big deal about paying them low wages or giving them housing conditions that are really horrible and so forth and so on so—this culinary myth allows the exploitation of foreign workers.
Why Israel’s Food Culture Matters
JL: As we come towards our conclusion, I want to pose an overarching question to think about the book and about this research as a whole. I think that what we’ve been talking about, and what you provide in the book, is a really fascinating and exciting analysis of Israeli culture, of the culture of Israeli Jews in particular, through their culinary life and their ideas about food. And you present a whole series of really interesting theses about various aspects of this. And so I wanted to pose two questions that relate to this. If we were to put all of these components together, whether we’re talking about the importance of portion size as opposed to quality, this question of the importance of Middle Eastern food on the one hand and the gravitation towards Italian food on the other, when one talks about something we didn’t talk about today which was this this importance of meat as a core component of the food that many Israelis eat, or even this whole issue of Thai workers “eating dogs,” what do we get when we put it all together? What does this tell us as a whole about Israel and about the Jewish Israeli culture and its relationship with other groups of people there?
And also, what is the relationship between these ideas about food and the history of the Jews at large in modern times, and also in terms of the history of the state of Israel?
NA: Small questions. I’ll try to answer some of them. I think that what it tells us, first and foremost, is that Israeli Jews live not only in tension but also in a in a constant state of uneasiness. They’re not comfortable. They feel threatened all the time. They feel victimized. They feel powerful, but are they really powerful? Who is the enemy? What is the threat? All these things are unclear to us all the time. And then, at the same time or because of this content constant threat, I think that many Israelis are uncertain about the future. And they think, well, we might as well enjoy today, you know eat and drink and be merry, because we are not certain about the future. I hear more and more and more people think, how sure you are of what will exist in twenty years? Well, people are hesitating.
If I may add my own personal view, I don’t think that Israel as a political entity will be disappear. But Israel as we know it today is in danger of disappearing. It is in the process of becoming a middle-eastern dictatorship, and one aspect of this becoming middle eastern can be seen in the process of the food that we choose. We are becoming part of the region, but becoming part of the region means losing what makes Israel different and special.
And at the same time, if Israel continues to be a place where people are not certain about their future and where there is always this dilemma of power and the sense of unease and ambivalence… What can you say? You know, I’m Israeli. When I think, emotionally, about the future, of course, I’m going to stay here. My children are going to stay here. This is our land. You know, I was born in Israel and my father was born in Israel. So for me, being a native is natural. At the same time, as a scientist and especially after I wrote this book, you know, I’m not sure I can be very optimistic about the future. Again, not that Israel will disappear but that Israel as we know it today will change into something else and maybe that something else is something that we wouldn’t really like.
JL: Without being too pessimistic about the future as a whole, do you think that this kind of an insight into the nature of Israeli culture is something that that studying food in particular helps us to understand? Why does studying the food of Israel matter? And what does it contribute to the way in which we understand the history and the social and political reality of Israel at large? What does it contribute that studying other aspects of Israeli history or culture don’t contribute?
NA: So I would return to the argument that I made at the beginning of our conversation, but in a different way. If you talk about gender relations in Israel, we are in the age of #MeToo. You have to be very careful about what you say. We think 10 times before you do something, right? If you talk about religion, of course religion is so sensitive. And so, you know, you really have to be careful when you talk about religion or when you practice religion. If you talk about ethnicity, whether you’re talking about Israelis and Arabs or whether you talk about different ethnicities within the Jewish Israelis, they make for one of the most important conflict in contemporary Israeli, right? People think, food, this is only food. We eat for fun. We don’t really think about the political meanings of food. We think about the calories. We don’t want to be fat. We want to be healthy. But we don’t think about food as a tool of power. We don’t think about food as a political tool. And because we don’t think about food in this way, the culinary sphere is a place where you can see processes that you are unable to see anywhere else.
Because anywhere else, people are protecting themselves. They’re careful. They know that the things are tricky, you’re in a minefield and you’re careful when you talk about gender relations in Israel, the way you talk about women or about when you talk about Arabs or about Jews, you have to be very careful. When you talk about hummus, you know, you can say whatever you like because it doesn’t matter. It’s only food.
So studying Israeli food, I argue, allows you to see Israel in the most immediate and direct and clear way. There is no other cultural realm that allows you such an exploration of the Israeli society.