Israel's Guide to Foodwashing Palestinian Culture

חנין מג׳אדלי - צרובה
Hanin Majadli
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Founder Naama Shefi at Asif in Tel Aviv.
Founder Naama Shefi at Asif in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
חנין מג׳אדלי - צרובה
Hanin Majadli

At the start of this month, Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel opened in Tel Aviv. Nice. The center seeks to explore, taste and “celebrate” Israeli cuisine, according to its founder, Naama Shefi. Shefi also insisted on the phrase “food in Israel” and not “Israeli food” to avoid cultural and culinary appropriation of Palestinian cuisine. There is more “proof” of this polite multiculturalism: On the center’s Instagram page, “Asif” is written in Arabic, appearing proudly alongside the Hebrew and English iterations. A congratulatory post was even written for Eid al-Adha, which took place this week. Is there anything more leftist than that?

When we look past the cultural etiquette, we see that this center is another hasbara arm – this time, culinary – of Jewish Israel. Although the center openly expresses interest in collecting Palestinian food traditions, Palestinian cookbooks and holding “local,” “Galilean” and “Druze” food workshops, in the end it is packaged under the word “Israel.” And if you look at who stands behind all this Israeliness, you discover, as always, the same Zionist Judaism.

The 'Asif' culinary center in Tel Aviv, this month.Credit: Amit Giron

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Shefi means well. In an interview with Shany Littman, she admitted that local Palestinian cuisine, along with Middle Eastern cuisine, have a strong influence on Israeli food. She also explained what led to the idea: “I wanted to eat food that was exotic to me and also to become familiar with other people and cultures because the kibbutz was very Ashkenazi and monotonous.” The insights instilled in her from a young age became a career, culminating so far in the founding of the Jewish Food Society in New York, where she has lived for the past 15 years. The "Jewish" in the title is no accident.

Asif’s major financial backer is the philanthropist Terry Kassel. Kassel is the chairwoman of Start-Up Nation Central, a public benefit corporation funded by Paul Singer. Singer, a 75-year-old Jewish American tycoon, lives in New York and is considered one of the great Zionist philanthropists of our time. He is also considered one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party. Singer donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration ceremony. In many ways Asif – located in the same building as Start-Up Nation Central on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv – is another “Zionist” toy for his collection.

Shefi admits that “cultural appropriation exists, but this doesn’t mean we can’t say Israeli cuisine.” Right. Instead of the word appropriation, we get “influences.” For example: “This cuisine has many influences. Before the State of Israel was established, there was a single geographical-cultural space here, and we shared certain ingredients and ancient traditions. Jews, Muslims and Christians ate similar things.” This is probably why Culinary Institute of Israel – which emerged from “one geographical-cultural space” – is run by a woman living in New York, funded by philanthropists from America and even the institute’s name, Asif, was suggested by Hebrew literary scholar Yonatan Sagiv, who resides in London.

Asif may be a food and culinary project, but it is also an ideological food campaign. It appropriates Palestinian cuisine as well as Jewish cuisines from Arab countries and North Africa. This appropriation was made with Jewish-Zionist-American funding and is part of the attempt to cover up the injustices of the occupation, discrimination and cultural erasure of the Palestinians in Israel. In short, "foodwashing."

Visitors at 'Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel' in Tel Aviv. Credit: Amit Goren

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