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The Hummus Wars

'The Hummus Wars' of Israel-Palestine dish up the most trivial but informative, bizarre but common-sense cross-section of the land’s politics.

Since its independence in 1948, Israeli cuisine has been widely exported from Jerusalem’s street markets to Western shopping malls. They sell ‘Israeli food’; hummus, falafel, pita, shwarma.

Palestinians are outraged. They say these are Palestinian and Arab dishes that have been around for hundreds of years before Israel was around to profit from cultural appropriation of their recipes. They believe that Israel stole the cookbooks when they stole Palestinian homes in the Nakba.

But the truth is more complicated than that. Many of Israel’s first Jewish immigrants were European, and Jewish takes on European dishes -- such as borsht, strudels, and rugelach -- were popular. But hummus became a widespread Israeli dish in the 1950s and 60s, when Mizrahi and Sephardi (or pan-Sephardi) Jews were expelled from Arab countries in retaliation for Israel’s ethnic cleansing in the Nakba.

Many pan-Sephardic Jews fled their homes with only a handful of their possessions. Iraq’s Jews, for example, were restricted to the contents of one suitcase. They formed the bulk of Israel’s working class, and found jobs working in kitchens in army bases, hospitals, and kibbutz. Quickly, Mizrahi cuisine’s melting pot of different Arab cultures became the dominant street food.

It was in these kitchens that Yemenite’s Jews mixed their Zkhug with Tunisian Jew’s shakshouka, and an Israeli hot-take was born. Israeli hummus quickly became distinct from other recipes, taking on a thicker texture with more garlic and less lemon.

Israel is dependent on pan-Sephardi Jews for much of their culture and food, and also for their continuity as a Jewish State. In a twisted way, Israel was saved by the Arab’s ethnic cleansing of Jews. A wave of Mizrahi Jewish refugees arrived in Israel while villages of Palestinians were cleansed. Suddenly Israel became more Jewish than not.

Some Jewish refugees fled their homes in Arab areas like Hebron in the West Bank, while others came from further away in Iraq, Yemen, or Morocco. These Jews absorbed the Arab culture that surrounded them and continued it in Israel.

Israeli’s may have stolen Palestinian land, but they did not steal Palestinian culture. Rather, the pan-Sephardi Jews who fled Arab countries brought Arab culture to Israel. They brought hummus bars, colourful Arabic curse words, and backgammon cafes.

It is important to remember the history of pan-Sephardi Jews. Many people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make the mistake of erasing pan-Sephardi history and identity.

Some European Jews, like Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, describe Mizrahim as a ‘rabble people of the desert’, lacking ‘serious Jewish education.’

Recently there have been efforts by Israeli lawmakers to remove Arabic as an official language of the ‘Jewish State’, despite that one fifth of the population is Palestinian and another two fifth are Jews from Arab countries. Arabic is often seen as the ‘enemy’s’ language, despite that Jews have been writing religious texts in Arabic for longer than Yiddish and Modern Hebrew combined.

Meanwhile, anti-Zionists would rather see the conflict as simple: white Jewish colonizers vs Palestinian people of colour. Never mind that most of Israel’s Jews are refugees, or are children of refugees, from Arab countries.

It’s a petty semantic difference, but it teaches a whole lot about the intricacy of the conflict.

Israel has similarities to Arab countries because it houses many pan-Sephardi Jews who fled Arab countries for their lives. They have been making hummus for thousands of years. Let them practice the culture they have.

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