Lunch served in the cafeteria at Harvard Business School usually doesn’t make international news. Except last month, when a Harvard graduate student posted to Facebook a picture of the menu items on the “Israeli Mezze Station” (mezze is a term used in the Mediterranean for a series of small plates) along with a 700-word rant about why she found the menu offensive.
Ingredient by ingredient, she made a case for why the food shouldn’t be considered Israeli, but Arab. For example:
“Hummus is an Arabic word meaning ‘chickpeas,’ ” she pointed out. “The earliest documented recipe for something similar to modern hummus dates to 13th Century (CE) Egypt. --> Since Israel was created in 1948, Israel is NOT 13th CENTURY EGYPT! And Hummus is therefore NOT ISRAELI.” Within days, the post was “liked” almost 5,000 times, received hundreds of comments, and was shared by over 3,000 people. It was picked up in publications across the globe, including the Jerusalem Post and Al Arabiya News.
There are legitimate bones of contentions to be picked on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. But food should be left out of it. Meals have had the power — for centuries — to do what no amount of mediation could ever do: soothe tensions, create common ground, bring warring families together.
What’s more, tracing the lineage of food for the purpose of cultural appropriation can be a tricky business. In her post, the student argues that because a main ingredient of the sauce harissa is piri piri, which originated in Africa, it can’t be Israeli. If that’s the case, marinara isn’t Italian, since tomatoes didn’t originally grow in Italy.
To use food as a wedge is to miss the point of eating. In this instance, food has been used to further divide two arguing sides instead of bring them together. It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.