Amid Violence and Fear, Arabs and Jews Seek to Use Food as a Language for Peace

Grassroots initiatives have popped up over the last week hoping to use food to restore sense of trust between the two communities.

Venu Sanat

As fear grips Israel’s residents amid the latest wave of violence, individual Jewish and Arab citizens are trying to use the universal language of food to restore a sense of trust between the two communities.

Several such grassroots initiatives have popped up over the last week.

One, called Peace of Cake, was initiated by six residents of the Jewish community of Harish in the north.

Nearly every day for the past week, the initiators have been going out with signs reading “cakes for peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and handing out cake to passersby. Initially they began by seeking out Arab construction workers within Harish, but the initiative has expanded to include Arab and Jewish drivers on the road, as well as border policemen at a base, many of whom are right-wing Jews, said Efrat Shagal, 41, one of the initiators.

The small town is undergoing rapid expansion - Harish currently consists of two neighborhoods surrounded by construction sites, in Shagal's words - and nearly all of the construction workers are Arab.

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Given the tension between Jews and Arabs, she and her friends felt like their options were “either to sit at home and be scared, or to go out and see that these are people like us.”

The results have been extremely emotional, she said.

Handing out cake is “a very simple act,” she said. “There’s something in this very simple act that immediately opens the heart.”

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The initiators, none of whom are professional bakers, described the response they received when visiting a construction site in Harish last week.

“Everyone who saw us with our sign in three languages immediately came, took some cake and called all his friends and asked to take a picture with us,” they wrote on Facebook. “When they thanked us, it was clear that they weren’t thanking us for the cake but rather for the opportunity to feel affection and human regard during this difficult time.”

Carloads of Arab construction workers continued to stop them after the cake was gone, and when the volunteers apologized, the workers responded, “That’s OK, we just want to see you and thank you,” they recounted.

The initiative is only a week old, but it’s spreading quickly, said Shagal. The initial group in Harish has grown, and they’ve reached the point where they might have to start buying cake - they need more than they’re able to bake themselves. In the meanwhile, there are now groups in Even Yehuda and Kadima that have started handing out cakes to Arab workers in town. Similar initiatives are planned for an Arab village near Tivon and at Kibbutz Alonim, Shagal said.

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Beyond giving Arabs and Jews a chance to have friendly interactions, the main goal as the group sees it is to drive everyone they encounter to think, and to see each other as people.

Other initiatives have come from Arab and Jewish restauranteurs. Some have attempted to encourage friendship building between Arab and Jewish customers, while others are bringing Arab-Jewish partnerships together under the same roof in other ways.

One restaurant, Hummus Bar at the M Mall in Kfar Vitkin, between Netanya and Hadera, announced last week that Jews and Arabs sitting at the same table would get 50% off. The initiative has received major attention online, with  Facebook users around the world commenting and congratulating, and newspapers in several languages reporting on the story.

A similar initiative was launched by Tel Aviv pizzeria Campanello Caffè Delicatessen. The popular pizza place offered 50% discounts to fans of Jewish soccer team Hapoel Tel Aviv and Arab soccer team Bnei Sakhnin during the game last Saturday night.

A slightly larger event is being staged in the Jewish-Arab city of Acre, in Israel’s north. On Thursday night, several Jewish-owned and Arab-owned restaurants in Acre’s old city are teaming up to host a joint meal dedicated to coexistence.

There, chef Alaa Musa of El Marsa is planning to host chefs from neighboring restaurants Savida, Mercato and Kukushka. As part of the event, each restaurant will be presenting two of its dishes, for a total of nine courses including dessert and alcohol. The fish-heavy prix fixe menu includes dishes such as seafood kubbeh and fish shwarma.

“In these days, when the sane and moderate side is less accepted and heard, we decided to take the initiative and show everyone that Arabs and Jews can live in a different way,” the organizers stated.