The idea of cultural appropriation never made much sense, but the Palestinians have finally taken it beyond ridiculous. At a time when the war between Israel and the Palestinians seems closer than ever, Palestinians are complaining about how Israel ‘stole’ their food. They mean to say ‘appropriated’ but ‘stole’ has so much more power, don’t you think?
A Washington Post story, called “Should White Chefs Sell Burritos?” reports on the growing chorus of accusations of “cultural appropriation” against Portland, Oregon chefs who are making their fortunes cooking foods that have come from other cultures. But consider this: If the idea of “cultural appropriation” is really a valid premise, then Asians should not be eating hotdogs, black people should not be seen eating pizza or sushi, and white people should never eat Chinese food or fried chicken. By the same token, hot dogs and hamburgers, long time American favorites, should not, by this logic, be sold in Asia, while bagels and gefilte fish should only be sold to Jews, and Latino taco vendors should only sell to other Latinos.
Rubbish! The term “cultural appropriation” is absurd on its face. For as long as people have been moving around the world, they have been adopting and adapting the local foods as part of their culture in their new homes. Which brings me to the story of the Palestinians and their ‘stolen’ food.
Jews have been living in the land of Israel for thousands of years. They should not have to apologize for eating the indigenous food of the region. They have broken bread with their Arab neighbors, and shared their cuisine with them for centuries.
Nevertheless, one of the most recent complaints made by Palestinians, right alongside the accusations of “occupation”, “apartheid”, and “genocide”, is that the Israelis stole their food. Falafel, shawarma, shakshouka, kibbeh, hummous, pita, and couscous, all of these and more (claim the Palestinians) were stolen from them by the Israelis and are now considered ‘Israeli food’.
Well, as ridiculous and frankly trivial as this supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ sounds to the outsider, a quick look at the origins of some of these foods makes their claims even more absurd.
Shawarma, for example, was not invented by the Palestinians (who by the way, it could be argued, invented themselves, but that is a subject for another article), was actually invented in the 19th century in Turkey. Shawarma, which is layers of meat rotating on a vertical spit, is an Arabic rendering of a Turkish word which means ‘turning’. An almost identical food that is popular in Western countries is the Greek “gyros” (properly pronounced ‘heros”), which also refers to ‘turning’. So the origins of this food goes far beyond the history and culture of the Palestinians.
Shakshouka has its origins in Tunisia. It is a combination of tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices, and eggs, and is usually eaten as a breakfast or lunch dish. And talk about ‘cultural appropriation, it is similar to the Turkish dish ‘Menemen’ as well as the Latin American breakfast dish Huevos Rancheros, which is also a combination of the same foods, and served as a mid-morning meal on rural Mexican farms.
Falafel is a traditional Middle Eastern food that most likely originated in Egypt, but because of its popularity among Israelis, has become associated with Israeli street food, and is sometimes called Israel’s national food. Mizrahi Jews, who immigrated to Israel from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East, enjoyed falafel as a part of their diet in their countries of origin and brought it with them to Israel, where it was happily adopted by Israelis.
The Lebanese Industrialists’ Association once tried to claim a protected status for the name “falafel”, in order to prevent Israeli use of the word. Needless to say, that effort failed. Falafel has by now migrated to countries around the world, including the United States, where it is popular and is sold in both Arab and Jewish food stores, as well as in supermarkets, throughout the country.
Kibbeh (or as the Israelis call it “kubeh”) is a kind of meat dumpling in the shape of an American football, made of fine bulghur wheat, onions, and finely chopped meat (usually lamb). It is usually deep fried. It is popular throughout the Middle East, including in Israel, and probably originated in Lebanon.
The point is that most of these foods have origins outside of the Israeli / Palestinian region and, frankly, shouldn’t by rights belong to anyone. They all originate, however, from the Middle East and haven’t truly been “appropriated” by either the Palestinians or the Israelis. They are, simply put, regional foods enjoyed by much of the world.
Cross Cultural ‘Sharing’ Brings Us Together
The term “cultural appropriation” is absurd. And it doesn’t only apply to food. In a world that is falling apart at the seams because of growing political and sociological divisions, the last thing we need is to accuse each other of ‘cultural appropriation” when we share our ideas, our cultures, our fashions, and our food.
When teenager Keziah Daum, a high school senior in Utah, offended fellow Americans by wearing a red cheongsam or qipao, (a traditional Chinese gown) to her senior prom, she was applauded by the Chinese who took her choice of apparel as a compliment – which they should have because it was. One Chinese poster voiced their sentiments on WeChat: “I am very proud to have our culture recognized by people in other countries.” The comment merited 100,000 views.
The cultural sensitivities that have developed in the U.S. over the last few years have spread around the world and have created extraordinary divisions between us. Cross cultural sharing is what brings people together. And nothing could be more important today in our deeply divided world.
So let’s all get together and share a meal of fahitas and matzah balls and falafel and apple pie. Let’s see if we can overcome some of our toxic differences by recognizing and paying homage to the things that we have in common – a love of good food, no matter where it comes from. Then just maybe we can begin a respectful conversation about some of the other things that divide us. Just maybe.