Yael Raviv is the author of Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
A word about food and politics in Israel:
When I started writing about food and nation in Israel in the late 1990s, I rather naively thought that I could avoid writing about the political situation. Isn’t food an instrument of commensality, after all? But food is intimately linked to identity (personal, communal, national), impacted by economics, religion and culture; it is impossible to talk about food products and dishes in the context of Israeli nationalism without talking about politics.
Food is often held up as a key to peace and greater understanding: if we could all just share a meal together we can bridge our differences. But, in fact, food seems to be more affective at articulating differences (i.e. we do not eat pork, but they do). The current political situation in the Middle East, with recurring eruptions of violence in the region and particularly the boycott of joint Israeli-Palestinian projects as promoting a “normalization” of the current situation, offers a constant reminder of the complexities inherent in this struggle. It is a rather impossible task to tease out true ownership of foodstuffs and dishes that are a result of commerce, exchange and travel. Deciding who created the first falafel or whose hummus is better is a thankless, unattainable task, but understanding the processes that brought these products to the position they hold today reflects a complex and complicated journey. This is not to say that food cannot serve as an instrument of peace, but rather that it occurs not through finding superficial similarities or staking a claim of ownership but in serving as a tool for posing more complex questions, opening a door to greater mutual understanding and respect.
Certain food products become as familiar, layered with meanings and associations as any flag, and as such, become powerful symbols that can be appropriated by artists and reshaped. Their appearance in a work of art alludes to a wealth of meanings and enables both direct and ironic messages with a simple, recognizable object. Many Israeli and Palestinian artists use food products like oranges, olive trees, hummus and falafel, to comment on the absurd reality through manipulating these everyday products. Ran Morin’s Orange Suspendu (1993), hanging in the center of Jaffa, detached from the earth, or Larissa Sansour’s Olive Tree (2011), a photograph showing an olive tree incongruously growing out of a high-rise building’s concrete floor, are but two examples of artists who use food products and their accumulated layers of meanings to present the absurdity of the present state of affairs in the Middle East. Their work reminds us that food—and art—can be effective tools for posing difficult questions and for highlighting the complexity and, therefore, the real tragedy of the current situation.
Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. Her book, Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, is out from the University of Nebraska Press.