World chefs urge colleagues to withdraw from Tel Aviv junket

Israeli settlers steal the harvest from Palestinian olive trees near the village of Janiya in the occupied West Bank, 15 October. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

Prominent chefs from 10 countries are urging their colleagues to withdraw from an Israeli government-sponsored propaganda initiative that uses international cuisine to whitewash Israel’s image.

This comes as Palestinian farmers face theft and harassment from Israeli settlers and soldiers as they harvest their olive crops.

Starting later this month, about a dozen international chefs will be flown to Israel by its foreign ministry to take part in the so-called Round Tables, where they will cook at local restaurants for a well-heeled clientele.

“Round Tables – dubbed ‘gastro-diplomacy’ – is part of the Israeli government’s ‘Brand Israel’ propaganda campaign, launched in 2005 to distract the world’s attention from Israel’s oppression and denial of Palestinian human rights through the use of culture and arts,” the chefs state in an open letter to Round Tables participants.

“While the Israeli government sponsors international chefs to cook delights in Tel Aviv, just a few miles away it continues to deny Palestinians their livelihoods, push families from their lands and limit access to water,” they add. “It also continues to besiege nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, where it uses a ‘calorie count’ to control the amount of food each Palestinian is permitted to consume.”

“This year’s edition of the Round Tables festival features farm-to-table food,” noted Thaer Shaheen, a Palestinian chef at Darna in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, who signed the letter. “Whose farms, and whose tables? Israel has systematically destroyed Palestinian farms and farming as a whole and continues to deny farmers access to their lands.”

Attacks and theft by settlers

This week, Palestinians reported that Israeli settlers protected by soldiers raided groves in several parts of the occupied West Bank and stole the fruit from dozens of olive trees that reach ripeness at this time of year.

The activist group Rabbis for Human Rights posted this video of Israeli colonists from the Itamar settlement near Nablus stealing from olive trees:

The group also documented two incidents on Sunday of settlers stealing from Palestinian farms near the village of Janiya, in the central occupied West Bank.

In August, the UN stated that there has been a near doubling of attacks by Israeli settlers since last year which have “undermined the physical security and agricultural livelihoods of tens of thousands of Palestinians.”

Dozens of attacks resulted in injuries to Palestinians. The UN cited the lack of action and enforcement by Israeli occupation authorities as one of the factors facilitating the settler rampages.

Corporate complicity

In addition to financial support from the Israeli government, Round Tables is sponsored by American Express and French vodka brand Grey Goose.

“Round Tables by American Express claims to be introducing international chefs to ‘the multicultural and ethnic culinary heritage of Israel’ while Palestinians are not only excluded from the table, they also continue to be violently denied access to their homes and farmlands,” said Ora Wise, chef at New York’s Harvest & Revel, who also signed the open letter.

Wise personally urged New York colleague Andy Ricker, chef at Pok Pok NY, to pull out, telling him that “nobody can produce or enjoy good food within an apartheid system that destroys the very things any respectable chef believes in – celebration of distinct cultures, sustainable agriculture, preservation of local food traditions and fair and dignified labor conditions.”

Previously, more than 180 civil society groups wrote to the participating chefs urging them to withdraw from the Round Tables.

Following a campaign by activists in Ireland, JP McMahon, the proprietor of Galway’s Michelin-starred Aniar, last month pulled out of the Round Tables.

Palestinian activists are urging people to contact the chefs who are still heading for Tel Aviv and are encouraging the use of the hashtag #ApartheidRoundTables.