Yesterday, the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies hosted a discussion about the role of hummus in Israeli-Arab politics. Food lover Max Rettig enjoyed some Middle Eastern cuisine and listened in to Dafna Hirsch.
“My Hummus is Bigger Than Your Hummus.” Literally. Between 2009 and 2010, chefs from Israel and Lebanon squared off with each other for the world-record largest dish of hummus, which Lebanon currently holds. But according to Dafna Hirsch, a professor who concentrates on the sociology of food, Israel and its various Arab neighbors have been at odds with each other over the ethnic ownership of hummus since Israel claimed the popular Middle Eastern food as its own in the late 2000s.
For as long as its been made, hummus has been an authentic Arab dish made mostly of chickpeas. Over time, modern Israelis adopted it as their own, citing an intense passion for both making and eating the dish. Hirsch mentioned that in a survey of Israelis regarding their hummus habits, only 6.6% said they do not eat hummus at all, while most of the respondents claimed that they eat hummus at least once per day.
Since Israel’s birth, Israelis admitted hummus and other authentic Arab dishes into their national diet and conscience. As Eastern European “diaspora” Jews settled in Israel, they looked to leave their histories behind and saw the adoption of hummus and similar foods as a way to become more local, or “rooted in the land.” In the last 10-15 years, Hirsch noted, hummus has become more popular as a staple than ever before, and Israeli chefs began producing their own, mixing in native ingredients like olive oil or za’atar (an herbal spice). That’s when the Lebanese chefs sought out to prove the original was better, even in outsize proportion.
To be sure, Lebanese businessmen drew the ire of Arab neighbors with an attempt to patent hummus as uniquely theirs when other Arab nations claimed an equal share in the food’s history.
But when Israel claimed hummus as an Israeli dish, Arabs—including those in Lebanon, who had been producing it for generations—saw the move as an affront to their heritage, culinary and otherwise. Hirsch provided two explanations for this: Israeli colonialist settlement, and capitalistic food production. On the part of colonialist settlement, women’s Zionist organizations began recommending hummus to Israelis as part of their diet because of its known health benefits: it’s made of only vegetables but has the satiating properties of meat. On the part of capitalism, more and more companies have recently begun industrially producing hummus on a global scale. One particularly well-known brand is Sabra.
Just like with the myriad other issues between the two nationalities, the Arabs see an Israeli claim to hummus as appropriation, Hirsch said. She differentiated, however, between symbolic and material appropriation—Israeli adoption of hummus as a national food is symbolic appropriation in the sense that it bears ethnic pride and often great economic benefit for both Israelis and Arabs, but the chickpea is grown in various regions around the world, allowing anyone in those regions to make their own version of hummus.
Hirsch suggested that the contention over this food instead plays into the greater Arab-Israeli conflict, exploring how Israeli appropriation of an Arab ethnic dish can have unseen effects on an occupied population. One such effect Hirsch mentioned? Israel’s claim on hummus could be seen by Palestinians to metaphorically and perhaps even literally starve them of one of the only things they can still say is their own.
In the midst of battles both verbal and physical in nature between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a shared love of hummus would seem to be common ground. But as Hirsch describes, even this delicious dish bears political consequences. The battle between Israeli and Lebanese chefs vying for the world record was friendly in nature, but hummus, a dish best served cold, is a more recent source of heated contention.
Serving suggestion via Shutterstock