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.

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