Why sahlab (and hummus) still aren’t “Israeli”

The Jewish Daily Forward rebrands sahlab as “Israeli”

Yesterday, the The Jewish Daily Forward published a blog post by Michael Kaminer that generated a great amount of online mockery, including from myself.

The post headlined “Israel’s Answer to Hot Chocolate Hits New York” claimed that sahlab, the hot milky drink or pudding made with orchid flower (or rose water), traditionally consumed during Ramadan, is “Israeli.”

The motive of the mockery is that this effort to rebrand sahlab as “Israeli” – and erase its Arab, Palestinian, Turkish and Ottoman history (it is called salep in Turkish) – falls into a long line of efforts to repackage indigenous cultures of the region as authentically those of the European Zionist settler-colony.

Typically, these appropriation efforts have targeted hummus, falafel, olive oil and knafeh. Even peasant dancing, or dabke, has been marketed as “Israeli folk dancing.”

Kaminer listed several Israeli restaurants in New York where sahlab could now be had and ignored the many Palestinian and other restaurants that already serve it.

He even applied the authentically Hebrew-sounding name “sachlav” to it, an appelation ridiculed even by an observer in present-day Israel:

The Arab Jewish alibi

The Forward moved quickly to respond to the criticism. Kaminer amended his post and the publication ran another item by blogger Lior Zaltzman with the headline “Why Sachlav Is Really Israeli – and Arab Too.”

Zaltzman asserted that Kaminer’s original post “touched a serious nerve with cultural purists and Palestinian activists,” and embedded my tweet below:

She doubled down, writing on Israel’s cultural theft:

Israel has gotten a lot of that beef from those who say it’s unfairly staked claims to foods that are really the cultural property of Arabs.

“Hummus is not Israeli! Falafel is not Israeli!” some say. That’s usually followed by some variation of: “Well, it figures. When Israel isn’t appropriating land, it’s appropriating food.”

I’ll leave the politics for another column. But when it comes to hummus, falafel and yes, even possibly sachlav, I will say they are Israeli.

They’re also Lebanese. And Syrian. And Palestinian.

How generous! But then Zaltzman deploys what I call the Arab Jewish alibi:

Often times, when people cry out Israeli culinary appropriation, they forget about the existence of Arab Jews, many of whom were forced to leave their homelands after the founding of Israel in 1948. These Arab Jews brought with them a wealth of knowledge and their own cuisines, inextricably tied to the countries they just left.

Many still speak Arabic, Persian or Turkish. They are a vital part of Israel. And so is their food.

According to this common line, if Jews ate a certain food anywhere in time and space, then Israel can claim that food. This claim is logical and historical nonsense.

First, it seems to apply only to indigenous Palestinian, Arab and other regional foods. Consider the fact that Israel boasts that its Jewish settler-colonial population is made up of people from dozens of countries. There are, for instance, French Jews, German Jews and Italian Jews.

Yet I’ve never seen an article claiming soufflé, bratwurst or spaghetti as “Israeli” foods, even though Jews from France, Germany and Italy have undoubtedly enjoyed them for many years.

Second, the Arab Jewish alibi is historically dubious as a path for Israel’s “discovery” of foods that are ubiquitous in Palestine. As Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad notes in his 2006 book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, the standard Zionist response to accusations of cultural appropriation is

that these foods … are also shared by Arab Jews who immigrated to Israel and therefore are not appropriated from the Palestinians. This, however, flies in the face of the facts that there are very few Syrian, Palestinian or Lebanese Jews in Israel (the majority of Syrian and Lebanese Jews immigrated to the United States and Latin America, especially Mexico, while there are very few Palestinian Arab Jews left anywhere). The vast majority of Arab Jews in Israel come from Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, countries where hummus and falafel are not eaten.

The same applies to the other most frequently appropriated foods such as tabouleh, zaatar, labneh and indeed sahlab.

Is it really more likely that European settlers in Palestine learned about these foods from Jews who came from other countries than from the local population to whom they were staples?

Even if it were true that large numbers of Jews from Arab countries brought with them a taste for falafel and hummus, this would still not justify recoding these foods as “Israeli.”

Rather, the attempts to do so underline that the Zionist project has been not just about erasing local indigenous cultures, but Jewish ones as well. Under Zionism, the variety and diversity of Jewish diasporas must be forced into a homogenized and deracinated “Israeli” identity.

The “ancient” ruse

According to the logic of Zionism, Pop Tarts may have “biblical roots.”

An earlier, 2010 article on “sachlav” in the Forward acknowledges its Arab and Turkish heritage, but uses another common ruse to allow Zionists to claim it: the assertion it has ancient “Roman” and therefore non-Arab and possibly non-local origins.

Such claims are often based on assertions that a specific ingredient or plant was mentioned in the Bible or some other ancient source.

This ruse has been used with the quintessentially Palestinian peasant food zaatar, a mix of thyme and sesame seeds eaten with bread and olive oil, in order to assert allegedly “biblical roots.”

In that case, the Forward has claimed that because the plant hyssop – which it says may be the plant used as the basis of zaatar – is mentioned in the Bible, that zaatar therefore has “biblical roots.”

But the Bible does not describe zaatar, and certainly not the way it is prepared and eaten in Palestine and Greater Syria. In fact, the Forward says that hyssop was not eaten at all:

There is no reference to its having been eaten, although the New Testament Gospel of John does tell us that Jesus’ followers gave him a “sponge of vinegar” and “put upon it hyssop” to ease his thirst when he was dying on the cross.

The absurdity of this ruse can be seen if applied, say, to bread. No one disputes that the Romans used grain and made bread, and of course the Bible contains many mentions of bread including the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes.

But no one asserts the “ancient Roman origins” or “biblical roots” of pizza, German pretzels, British cucumber sandwiches or American Pop Tarts in order to rob those foods of their specific historical and cultural contexts.

Zaltzman also deploys the “ancient Roman origins” ruse in her follow-up post on sahlab.

Why it matters

Zaltzman attributes the criticism of the “sachlav” post to “cultural purists and Palestinian activists,” suggesting an unreasonable sensitivity and even intolerance for cultural diversity and fusion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I never have any problem acknowledging that many of the foods in question are enjoyed over a wide region of Greater Syria and Turkey, often with variations that tie them to particular locales.

I have no problem speaking proudly of the merits of Chicago pizza over, say, decidedly inferior New York varieties, while never denying the Neapolitan origins of the dish.

The issue with Israel is much more serious than that. For more than a century, the Zionist movement has colonized Palestine, and since 1948, Israel has engaged in the systematic physical destruction of Palestine, ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and the erasure of Palestinian folkways.

This has included the systematic renaming of places with Hebrew and pseudo-biblical names, again, as part of a process of erasure and replacement.

At the same time, Israel recodes indigenous peoples’ cultures as its own and Palestinians correctly see this as an attempt to complete the erasure: the Palestinians were never there, but the ancient traditions of the land were there and were always Jewish or Israeli.

Therefore, resisting Israeli cultural appropriation and ensuring that things are correctly named is part of the process of resisting the ongoing Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

After all, if culture didn’t matter and was merely a trivial concern for pedantic “purists,” Israel wouldn’t expend so much effort trying to steal and rebrand it.

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Comments

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We European-Americans who live in the American Southwest love our green chile, but we don't pretend that it originated in our culture. Stop defending cultural appropriation on the part of colonists, please.

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I think the degree of American cultural imperialism is so great that Americans tend to the go the opposite way attributing American innovations to other cultures. So for example the Yoga practiced in America has some loose ties to India but mostly evolved in the United States of the 1930s and has been migrating to India not from it. Yet we present it as Indian not Californian. Salsas are being mass produced and canned using American techniques. The original idea was Mexico but very little of how Salsa is made is much different than how dozens of other tomato based canned products are made. The indigenous salsa is being destroyed to replace with the American one.

I wouldn't use the USA as an example. They are playing cultural appropriation game at an entirely different level.

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are we this pathetic to be talking about this? People are dying in Syria right now and we are discussing who ate what and when? This is the lowest of the lows!

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My ancestry is Norwegian, so really can't identify with cultural foods. (haha just kidding Norskis) Anyway, thanks Ali, for identifying what cultural appropriation is and means to the people involved. I was once at a Palestine solidarity rally where a student told me I was appropriating Palestinian culture bc I was wearing a keffiyeh. Another topic that cannot be clarified enough: solidarity! But at any rate, I digress. Thanks again for this, Ali.

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ironic that the European and Russian immigrant occupiers like to assimilate all the cultural quisine and redefine words without actually having the historical roots to go along with them.

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Not everything is about the Palestinians. When people move anywhere they start to pick up the surrounding culture. As Israelis live in the Levant their culture will natural migrate towards Levant culture. Obviously the extensive contact with the Israeli Arabs hurries this along.

Peace is an end to the score keeping. Not erasing but absorbing both Palestinians and Jews till there is nothing but Israelis. So gefilte fish is Israeli not just for the descendants of Jews but also for people whose great grandparents were fierce Palestinian patriots and they freely eat it. Heck maybe they even serve it in Syrian cafes at the last stop on the Golan train. And similarly in the reverse direction with Arabic foods. If the more Israelis are like Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians the better, they need to integrate into the neighborhood.

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This article is just sad. I cannot imagine anyone Israeli or Jewish bothering to write an article pointing out how Islam took from Judaism - the pilgrimage to Mecca came from the Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem, circumcision, the importance of age 13, halal is kosher.

Not to mention calling themselves a diaspora, using Nov. 29th as a date to ask to be accepted as a UN member.

So Falafel and hummus can't be Israeli too? What garbage.

How sad and insecure the Palestinians of Ali Abunimah ilk are.

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Dont mix religious practice with culture. Pilgrimmage, food laws, etc owe their roots to Abrahamic teachings, which Islam, as a religion is a continuation of ( they are practices ordained by God via his messengers to help people lead a virtuous life, if you are religiously inclined). Cultural theft like the one outlined in the article on the other hand is the desparate attempt of a European settler colonial entity to create an identity for itself to substantiate the invented mythology by which it justifies its existence, in this case the mythology by which Jewish Europeans and Slavics want to laughably claim a link to the ancient Hebrews which they have no genetic or cultural link to. Thats whats really sad.

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Since when do we insist that cultures identify as their own only foods traditionally eaten by those to whom they have "a genetic or cultural link"? If Israelis think sahlab is Israeli, then it is (though that of course doesn't mean they invented it or that it's only theirs)! And New York Jews are right to think that in the context of the Jewish community, sahlab is Israeli--among Jews, it was popularized by Israelis, not Americans, Russians, or other Jewish communities. Same is true for falafel and so on.

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Sorry it doesn't work that way and esp not when you're an occupier. Consuming certain foods doesn't entitle you to go around claiming the food as your own. Schnitzel is a staple in Israeli diets (albeit it in far inferior versions to the original Austrian) but I've never seen an article claiming it was Israeli - in fact that would make the writer of the article laughing stock if it should ever be written. The Israelis know very well the origins of the foods they appropriate and market as their own. The problem is they steal them, just like they steal the land and the history, without any acknowledgement of the party being stolen from. They don't mind going to Palestinian villages to copy indigenous practices, food and otherwise, but then they audaciously turn around and claim that it was a land without a people for a people without a land. Its mass illusion at its best.

Its one thing for Israelis to enjoy these foods, and why not? they are delicious and a product of the nature that they now (wrongfully) occupy. They can even market them (deceptively) as Israeli and get away with it in NY or the rest of the US/world where people don't know any better or where fawning Jews who puff up at any mention of Israel get to buffer up their Hebrew homeland fantasy. But when articles are written about them without reference to their origins or backgrounds its cunning dis-information. Face it - Israel is not old enough to have wrinkles let alone an organically formed food culture and when the general masses start to know better these attempts will look as pathetic as they do to the people now in the know.

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Unlike physical foodstuffs, I don't think that recipes, like music, language, literature, styles of art, or other elements of culture, can be "stolen". One culture can borrow or copy from another without the originating culture losing anything. All societies and cultures do this all the time.
Moreover, as a factual matter, are we sure that Israelis learned copied from Palestinians? Did Palestinians invent it? Is it possible that Israeli Jews from other middle eastern lands (or--gasp--Ashkenazi Jews with a taste for "Oriental" food) introduced it to Israeli culture, independent of Palestinian influences? If Syrians or Turks or whoever "invented" the drink, did Palestinians "steal" it? If it was "invented" by a certain Palestinian, can other Palestinians enjoy it without his or her permission, or is that "stealing" it? If Israelis significantly modify the recipe (which I suspect they have, and not necessarily in a good way), can they at some point claim that it's "theirs"?
Israel has done and does a lot of bad things to a lot of Palestinians, including trying to erase their history in various ways, but, as you can tell, I think that adopting Palestinian food (if that is in fact what has been done) without acknowledgement is not one of those ways - it's just the normal way culture diffuses.
And as far as the newspaper article goes, I think you're missing the point. From the perspective of American Jews (including the Forward), sahlab (like falafel) was indeed, as a factual matter, introduced to them by Israelis. Yes, it would be nice if they were aware that these foods are not only, or even primarily, Israeli, but that doesn't change the fact that in the context of the Jewish world, sahlab is an Israeli drink, not an American, Russian, or Ethiopian one. Just like for Americans cowboys are (rightly, from a cultural point of view) associated with the American West, even if the role or word was appropriated from Mexicans or others.

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Great comment. I really like the example of cowboys.

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Thank you Ali Abunimah for a good analysis of why these seemingly small - at first glance - steps at cultural appropriation should be identified and resisted, being part of a broad never-ending process of erasing Palestinian Arab culture in that land. I have only one argument with what you wrote: New York pizza, like the newspaper from the same hometown, is the national and probably worldwide standard - it is the "pizza of record"!

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I'm an anglo-OZ. The foods on the table during my childhood (1950s-early 1960s) was either boiled to death or burnt to a crisp (grilled/broiled)! As I attained adulthood - my culinary horizons broadened to encompass the world. Thank goodness. Nowadays in new world lands we tend to make use of the word "fusion" - to show the connection between what is grown/harvested here with other cuisine styles! We are a culturally diverse land - over one-in-four of us born elsewhere. We might argue with that other neighbouring anglo-land New Zealand as to who first came up with our signature dessert-dish - a tribute to the 1926 visits of Anna PVOLOVA - with roots in meringue cakes elsewhere - but we would not be interested in the nonsense being engaged in by Zionist Israelis claiming ancient Middle East foods as "Israeli" (1948?)! I recall when I was 17 eating Assyrian food in Sydney - the family from across the old Ottoman Empire lands from Istanbul to Damascus and Baghdad - and across to Teheran in Iran. As I grew older I discovered it was found throughout Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria - etc! Now Zionists want to claim all that as Israeli? I don't think so!

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.