The massive Palestinian protest rally in the clip above took place this past Tuesday, on the day Israelis celebrated as Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). What’s particularly notable about this rally is that it didn’t take place in the West Bank or Gaza, but rather in Israel proper. More precisely, it took place on the site of the village of Lubya in the lower Galilee, one of hundreds of Palestinian villages depopulated by Jewish militias in 1948 to make way for the founding of the State of Israel.
This protest was part of an annual event known as the “March of Return,” which has taken place inside Israel for the past 17 years. Organized by a coalition of Palestinian groups, the march annually promotes the conviction of Palestinian citizens of Israel that Israel’s independence is irrevocably bound up with the Palestinian collective tragedy known as the Nakba.
By all reports, this was the largest March of Return yet; an estimated 10,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel defied Israel’s anti-Nakba law, driving and hiking past angry Israeli-Jewish counter-demonstrators and police who confiscated their Palestinian national flags. Then they gathered together at Lubya to hear from a variety of Palestinian politicians and activists. Most notably, this year’s commemoration included explicit calls for a recognition of the Palestinian right of return.
Several years ago I wrote that I believed Yom Ha’atzmaut should much more appropriately be observed by Jews as a day of reckoning rather than a day of unmitigated celebration. Watching the clip above, I am all the more convinced of this than ever. Can a nation truly celebrate itself, as its national anthem would have it, as an “am chofshi be’artzeynu” (“a free people in our own land”) when it includes a minority such as this in its midst?
Meanwhile, here in Chicago, a prominent synagogue observed Yom Ha’atzmaut through public readings of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which an organizer referred to as a “sacred text:”
Most of the holidays are mentioned in the Bible or were created in ancient time and there is already a tradition…Every Jewish holiday, usually, you have a text. This is something special about the Jewish culture or religion.
As a religious Jew, I personally take great exception to the use of the term “sacred text” in reference to such a patently political document as Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For me, it is yet another sad example of how political advocacy for the State of Israel has become so firmly (and idolatrously) ingrained in the religious life of the American Jewish community.
The organizer of this event took pains to add:
It’s very important that we keep on making sure that people that are not Jewish will get equal rights and the same opportunities…The declaration gives us a very good vision, as a start of the discussion.
It’s a noble statement, but it belies the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not actually enjoy “equal rights” and “the same opportunities” as Jewish citizens of Israel. There are, in fact, more than 50 Israeli laws that structurally discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in virtually all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures. (Click here for an extensive list of these laws.)
This statement also belies the fact that the Israeli political establishment increasingly views Palestinian citizens of Israel as a “Fifth Column.” For his part, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who openly promotes the transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens across the Green Line, responded to Tuesday’s March of Return commemoration with the following statement:
To those Arabs that took part today in the “Nakba Day” procession and waved Palestinian flags, I suggest that next time they march directly to Ramallah and they stay there.
With such clear and increasing polarization on both sides, I submit that it is still too early for Jewish citizens of Israel to truly declare themselves to be an “am chofshi be’artzeynu.”
Al Jazeera has just published a “point-counterpoint” dialogue on Zionism between me and Rabbi Ari Hart, Assistant Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and founder of the orthodox social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek.
An excerpt from Rabbi Hart’s piece:
The state of Israel is the single best expression of the dreams of the Jewish people to have been realised in thousands of years. Since it was founded in 1948, it has meant that thousands of persecuted and displaced Jews from Ethiopia and Arab countries have been able to find safety and that millions of oppressed Russian Jews have been able to freely practice their faith. It has resulted in an explosion of Jewish culture and life unlike anything we have witnessed in millennia and led to a flourishing of the Jewish faith, with more people studying the Torah than at any other point in Jewish history.
And it has not only been positive for the Jewish people: the state of Israel has produced scientific, literary, medical, agricultural, and academic advances that have benefitted billions of people across the planet.
I am always confounded by my Jewish brothers and sisters who do not recognise that the state of Israel has represented the realisation of a dream for our people, and how vital its health and security is to our continued flourishing.
And from my counterpoint:
While Rabbi Hart is certainly correct when he asserts the ways the state of Israel has benefitted the Jewish people, I am struck by the fact that he is relatively silent on the precise nature of the “nightmare” it has created for the indigenous people of the land.
I believe that as Jews, we must be willing to own this dark history and say it out loud: during 1947 to 1948, Zionist military forces either displaced or forcibly expelled over 700,000 Palestinians then forbid their return, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. Today more than 4,000,000 Palestinians harbour their own dream of return – not to a mythic Biblical homeland but to a land that they remember only too well.
In short, Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with an inherent injustice to the people who had made a home in this land. More critically, it is an injustice that continues until today through policies of dispossession and displacement designed to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the state of Israel.
By now i’ve written more than a few blog posts about Israel’s Prawer-Begin Plan which, if approved by the Knesset would displace tens of thousands of Bedouin from their ancestral home in the Negev desert. Up until now, many defenders of the plan have claimed that this “relocation” was developed for the benefit of the Bedouin. In recent weeks, Israeli government spokespeople have responded to anti-Prawer protests by claiming 80 percent of the Bedouin population actually support the plan.
The patent falsehood of such claims have now been laid bare. A map of the project has just been released to the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee and the massive extent (and injustice) of the plan has now been brought into the light of day.
Ironically enough, according to Michael Omer-man of +972mag, the map was prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office for Housing Minister Uri Ariel, in an attempt to assuage his party’s fears that too much land would be given to the Bedouin. (That’s right – apparently the far right Jewish Home party opposes the Prawer Plan because they believe it is too lenient to the Bedouin.)
According to the report, the bill’s co-sponsor Benny Begin has admitted Bedouin leaders have never even seen the plan until now:
Begin on Monday refuted that he ever made such statements, writing, “I have never said to anyone that the Bedouin accept my plan.”
He couldn’t have made such a claim, he explained, because he never even presented the Bedouin community with his plan, “and therefore I could not have heard their reactions to it.”
“[Because] I was not able to know their level of support for the law, it therefore follows that I couldn’t say that I know anything about their support for the law.”
According to the new map, the state of Israel will take over 250,000 dunams (61,700 acres) currently populated by Bedouins, while the Bedouins will be resettled in an area totaling 170,000 dunams (42,000 acres). Around 40,000 people will be forced to leave their homes.
I don’t know any other way to say it: if implemented, this plan would result in a crime that is truly staggering to contemplate. It will lead to the uprooting and forcible eviction of dozens of villages. Tens of thousands of residents will be stripped of their property and their historical land rights. Thousands of families will be condemned to poverty and unemployment. The communal life and social fabric of these villages will be destroyed.
This plan is decidedly not about the best interests of the Bedouin. If it is about anything, it is about a large swath of land in the south of Israel that government leaders have been attempting to “Judaize” since the days of Ben-Gurion. The only reason the Bedouin are slated for removal, quite frankly, is because they are not Jews. By any other name, such an act would be called ethnic cleansing and I am not hesitant to say so.
If you haven’t yet, please join me and the growing number of Jews and people of conscience who are voicing their opposition to the Prawer-Begin plan in no uncertain terms.
Early in the planning of our delegation, two of our Palestinian-American members, Shafic Budron and his daughter Dima, invited our group to visit to the homes of their family members in the Upper Galilee of Israel. Shafic and his immediate family are dear friends to many of members of the delegation – and of course we graciously accepted their invitation. I think I can safely say this visit was one of the most eagerly anticipated part of our itinerary.
Like many Palestinian families, Shafic’s family was devastated by the Nakba. While many of his family members became internally displaced – and eventually became Palestinian citizens of Israel, others became refugees. Shafic himself was born after the Nakba and grew up in the infamous Shatilla refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon.
Shafic’s personal story is a harrowing one, but he eventually made his way to the US, where he became an American citizen, a successful businessman and a prominent member of the Palestinian community in the Chicago area. Shafic and his family are among the most genuine, open-hearted people I know – indeed his friendship with so many Jewish members of our delegation was a major inspiration for this remarkable trip.
Most of Wednesday was a travel day as we drove north through the Jordan Valley toward the Upper Galilee. When we arrived at our destination in the village of Al-Bi’na, we were literally swarmed by joyous family members, who quickly and graciously welcomed the members of our delegation. Shafic’s uncle Hasan (his father’s youngest and only surviving brother) introduced us to his many children and grandchildren and extended family members as we sat in a circle for a cursory “get to know each other” session. Then we sat down to a sumptuous lunch (above), where we continued to get to know each other some more. By the end of the meal, we felt as if we had become adopted members of the family.
After a visit to the former village of Al-Ghabsiyah (see my earlier post), we went to Shafic’s cousin Dr. Abed’s home in the nearby village of Al-Jedaidah for a dinner that lasted well into the wee hours of the evening. Tired but exhilarated, we were eventually put up in family members’ homes for the night.
This was clearly an emotional visit for the entire family, not least for Shafic and Dima themselves. The Budrons have, quite understandably, experienced a myriad of emotions on this trip and during our Galilee sojourn in particular. This was, in fact, Dima’s very first trip to Israel/Palestine. While she has visited her father’s family several times in Lebanon, she has never visited her homeland until now. She tells me she has heard stories about her ancestral home from her parents and grandparents for years – and is overwhelmed to finally make the visit now as a young woman.
It has been a profound and emotional visit for our entire American Palestinian/Jewish delegation as well. As of now, the trip has officially wound down. Several members are already returning home and I am preparing to depart today. There’s so much more to say, so many more experiences to describe. I’ll do my best to share as many of them as I can after I return.
In my next and final post, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts – and I have put out an open invitation to our members to share their thoughts with you as well. Suffice to say for now this has been a sacred journey – one that has strengthened our relationships with one another and our solidarity with those who devote their lives every day toward a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
More thoughts to come…
There are many forms of resistance to oppression. One is memory itself.
On Tuesday our delegation visited the village of Lifta, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was depopulated of its residents by Jewish militias early in 1948. Our tour was led by Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli organization that educates Israelis about the Nakba, actively advocating for the Palestinian Right of Return. It’s truly one of the bravest, most important Israeli organizations I know.
Zochrot’s tours of destroyed Palestinian villages are an critical aspect of their educational work. They are, of course, not your typical tours – in most cases they do not show you what is, but rather what is no more. Most Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba were razed to the ground, leaving little behind but the shell of a building or the occasional foundations of homes. Zochrot keeps the culture life of these communities alive through their tours, underscoring the profound enormity – and collective tragedy – of what was lost.
Lifta is somewhat unique among these villages in that it is the only Nakba-era village that still remains largely intact. In its day it was a fairly well-to-do community, with a population of 2,550.
In the years leading up to the 1948, the village fell under attack by Jewish militias in the area. On the December 28, 1947 six people were gunned down in the village coffeehouse, by members of two Jewish militias, the Stern Gang and the Irgun. In late January or early February, the militias attacked and seized the neighboring village of Qaluba and then invaded Lifta from the West. They occupied Lifta’s new town and the remaining residents took refuge in the old town in the valley. The village was cut-off from the west and anyone trying to leave was killed. The villagers resisted but were defeated after several hours of fighting.
By the time the entire village was occupied, most of the people had already left Lifta and fled into the West Bank, the rest were taken by truck and dumped in East Jerusalem. By February 1948, Lifta had been completely depopulated. It’s not completely clear why the Jewish forces did not raze Lifta to the ground as it had so many other villages. For a time it allowed newly-immigrated Yemenite Jews to occupy the houses, but when the homes proved uninhabitable, they were eventually abandoned
Lifta was the object of some controversy when the Jerusalem municipality announced plans to redevelop the area as a luxury area for Israelis. The plans were dropped after an outcry from former residents and progressive Israeli activists. In the meantime, the remnants of this remains, a testament to the legacy of a rich communal life that was lost during the Nakba.
I can see why Lifta is such a popular spot for Israeli tourists – the town ls nestled in a long valley, with homes and buildings built into either side. The mosque and the Muktar’s house are still in decent condition, testifying to what clearly once was a beautiful, desirable town. At the bottom of the valley is a natural spring that still attracts swimmers, particularly ultra-orthodox who attribute spiritual significance to it. As Eitan showed us the area, the swimmers glared at us as if we were interloping in their own “sacred territory.” They clearly had no comprehension of the actual profanity that had occurred here in 1948.
On Wednesday evening, we visited another Nakba site: El Ghabsiya, located in the upper Galilee (where were visiting members of delegation members Shafic and and Dima Budron’s family – more on this later). Our tour of El Ghabsiya was led by Muhammad Kaial of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, and Daoud Bader, an original survivor of the original village.
The story of El Ghabsiya, like Lifta, is an example of how the Nakba is not only a historical event of the past, but an injustice and a struggle that occurs even in our very day. In March 1948, fearful that uncertainty in Palestine’s future could endanger the people of the village, prominent members of El Ghabsiya made an agreement with Jewish militia leaders. In exchange for his cooperation, the militia promised not to invade the village. (At that time, the population of the village numbered about 700 people.)
The agreement was not to be honored. In May 1948, Jewish militias surrounded and entered the village. Families living near entrance to the village greeted the soldiers with coffee; in return father and his son were taken out into the nearby woods – Daoud told us that they have never been heard from to this day. When the soldiers entered El Ghabsiya, a community leader named Daoud Zainl climbed to the roof of the mosque and raised a white flag. The militia ignored his act of surrender, opened fire, and killed him on the spot. In all, eleven Palestinians were killed during the attack on El Ghabsiya and the subsequent expulsion of its residents, despite the fact that there was no local resistance.
The inhabitants of the village escaped to surrounding villages, becoming “internally displaced refugees.” Unlike other internally displaced Palestinians, the people of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return to their homes less than twelves months later – but two years later, on August 2, 1951, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the village a “closed military zone” and the villagers were again forced to leave their homes.
The people of El Ghabsiya fought for their right of return all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court and on November 1951, the court ruled that they did indeed have the legal right of return to their village. Armed with this ruling, the villages gathered and headed back to their homes – and were met by Israel military forces the blocked their way and refused to recognize the decision of the court. In succeeding years, government bulldozers destroyed all of the houses in the village – the only building left standing was the village mosque.
For the next forty five years, the Israeli Land Authority allowed the mosque to sit in disrepair and desecration, used as a stable for horses and other animals. Finally, in 1995 residents and descendents of residents of El Ghabsiya initiated a clean-up project and began weekly attempts to pray at their mosque. In response, the Israeli Land Authority sealed the windows and doors and ringed the mosque with barbed wire.
Still, the people of El Ghabsiya have not given up. Most live in villages near their ancestral village and they still make regular attempts to gather to pray at their mosque. Above you can see the sign villagers have placed in front of the mosque: “I will not remain a refugee – we will return.” (You can also see that the sign has been vandalized, sadly enough, with a Jewish star.)
After hearing this story, our group toured the mosque and gathered in the courtyard. On of our members Kalman Resnick said that as a member of the Jewish community and a man whose own family fled persecution, he felt shame at hearing this story of dispossession, that continues to this day. I then led the Jewish members of our delegation in the recitation of Kaddish for those who were killed on this site in 1948. In return, Daoud, the original resident of the village, emotionally expressed his appreciation for our presence and our solidarity – a profoundly moving moment for us all.
After our visit, our group discussed ways we might help support the people of El Ghabsiya in their quest for justice – and their simple desire to pray in their ancestral mosque. More info on this effort will be forthcoming.
We’ve just returned from our Friday demonstration. It was, quite simply, an indescribable experience – I’ll do my best to describe it in my next post…
I’ve been following with great interest an ongoing campaign by Palestinian citizens of Israel to reestablish their village of Iqrit, which was depopulated of its inhabitants in 1948 and destroyed by the Israeli military a few years later. In its way, I think this story shines an important light on the reverberations caused by the founding of a Jewish state in historic Palestine – and how they continue to resonate profoundly even today.
Iqrit was a Palestinian Christian village in northern Galilee which was emptied of it inhabitants in November, 1948. Unlike residents of other Arab villages in Palestine, Iqrit’s inhabitants weren’t forcibly expelled and they did not flee. Rather, they surrendered to Israeli military forces with the promise that they would be able to return in two weeks at the end of military operations.
Most of Iqrit’s 490 inhabitants were transferred to a nearby village, taking only basic necessities – shortly thereafter, the area was declared a military zone and the villagers were forbidden from returning. The villagers took their case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which ruled in July 1951 that they must be permitted to return to their homes. On Christmas Eve of that year, however, the Israeli military demolished the village and took it over for “state use,” leaving only the church and the cemetery intact. Since that time, Iqrit’s former inhabitants have been allowed to hold services in the church and bury their dead in the cemetery, but have not been allowed to return.
Now decades later, the villagers and their descendants are seeking to return and rebuild their ancestral village. In the words of Walaa Sbait, a young music teacher who lives in Haifa: “At the moment Iqrit people have the right to return only in a coffin, but we want to live here.”
Sbait is among a group of remarkable young activists who have literally been returning to the village from which their grandparents were exiled. Last summer set up a makeshift camp in Iqrit and have been staying there in shifts, living in an improvised annex to the church that houses a sitting area and kitchen. Nearby tin shacks provide showers and toilets. (They also planted saplings and built a chicken coop, which were subsequently demolished.)
We never lost the connection to this place. Every summer we hold a summer school here for the children to learn about the village and their past. And once a month the villagers hold a service at the church. For us, this was always our real home.
When I visited the website of the Iqrit Community Association, I was deeply moved by the palpable sense of community expressed by the ancestors of this lost village. Reading through their extensive testimonies and reports, it became powerfully clear to me that their passion for return has kept this community intact long after the bricks and mortar of their village were destroyed.
The new camp established at Iqrit is only the beginning. According to a recent article by journalist Jonathan Cook, a residents’ committee is due to publish a master plan for the village this summer, showing how it would be possible to build a modern community of 450 homes, including a school, for the villagers-in-exile, who today number 1,500.
Iqrit’s refugees are also involved in a pilot project to work out the practicalities of implementing the right of return, understanding the legal, technical and psychological problems facing the refugees.
“This really is a historic moment for the Palestinian community,” said Mohammed Zeidan, head of the Nazareth-based Human Rights Association, which has been helping to organise the project. “For the first time, we are acting rather than just talking.
“The villagers are not waiting for Israel to respond to their grievance, they are actively showing Israel what the return would look like.”
For those who scoff at the Palestinians’ desire for Israel to honor their right of return, this case represents an important challenge. Indeed, it is all to easy to dismiss the claims of refugees, who have precious little political clout. It is far more difficult, however, to brush off similar claims of Palestinians who are actually citizens of the State of Israel.
According to Cook, there were some Israeli government attempts to set aside a small area for Iqrit to be rebuilt in the early 1990s. However in 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that the promise to the villagers of Iqrit (and another village, Biram) could not be implemented because it “would set a precedent for the return of other refugees and threaten Israel’s Jewish majority.”
It seems clear to me that beyond this “demographic slippery slope” argument lies a more fundamental issue: by granting the Iqrit’s villagers’ request, Israel would be making a tacit admission that it committed an injustice by depopulating and destroying a Palestinian village and refusing to allow its residents to return. And if it does so in this case, it would also be forced to admit that it did so in literally hundreds of others cases throughout historic Palestine in 1947/48.
Jonathan Cook’s article thoroughly explores this critical point, noting that the Iqrit villagers’ campaign to rebuild is occurring just as Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees from 1948 is coming under renewed public scrutiny. In particular, recent files unearthed by Israeli researchers have confirmed suspicions that Israel’s chief historical claim for denying the refugees’ right of return – namely that Arab leaders had ordered the Palestinian villagers to leave – was essentially invented by Israeli officials:
The files, located in the state archives, reveal that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s prime minister in 1948 and for many years afterwards, set up a research unit in the early 1960s to try to prove that Arab leaders had ordered the Palestinian villagers to leave.
Israel’s move was a response to growing pressure from the United States president of the time, John F Kennedy, that it allow several hundred thousand refugees to return to their lands.
I encourage you to read Jonathan Cook’s article in full and to visit the website of the Iqrit Community Association. I cannot help but be struck by the Palestinian dream of return – and the obvious resonances it evokes for me as a Jew. The concept of return is part of the spiritual DNA of my religious tradition – but I fervently believe we are being challenged to honestly confront what has the Zionist “return” has wrought. How do we understand a Jewish “right of return” to Israel that grants automatic citizenship to any Jew anywhere in the world while denying that same right to the very people who actually lived on this land not long ago?
And can any “return” truly be complete as long as it denies that right to others?
Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
“A People Without a Land,” is a feature-length documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It) grew out of our frustration with the narrowness and lack of depth that characterizes so many discussions about the conflict. We wanted to make a film that would both broaden the conversation and articulate a vision for a real and lasting solution. Unlike many films about Israel/Palestine, we do not limit our field of vision to Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A People Without a Land examines the questions that lie at the heart of the conflict: Why has the peace process failed? What does it mean that Israel is a Jewish State? What should happen to the millions of Palestinian refugees? How about the Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the West Bank settlers? We believe that by directly addressing these questions, we can jump-start a conversation that will ultimately lead to a just solution.
This project promises to be pretty special: among those interviewed are Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, Eitan Bronstein, founder of Zochrot, Middle East scholar Ghada Karmi and Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. It will also feature the music of klezmer great Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird as well as a score by Alan Sufrin of Stereo Sinai.
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
Now that the dust has cleared from Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense,” Gaza has sadly faded off the media radar screen once again. In the meantime, if you’re interested in some new essential reading about this significant but chronically misunderstood region, I have just the thing: a cookbook.
Yes, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” by Palestinian blogger Laila El-Haddad and Madrid-based writer/researcher Maggie Schmitt, newly published by Just World Books, is far and away the most important book I’ve read on Gaza in some time – and I’m not even a cook.
I’ve been a huge fan of Laila El-Haddad’s work for years. Her blog “Gaza Mom” provided me with my first real “beyond-the-headlines” insights into Gazan life and culture and I remain a devoted reader. For those unfamiliar with her work, her “Gaza Mom” anthology (also published by Just World Books) is the perfect introduction – if it leaves you hungry for more, then you must check out “The Gaza Kitchen.”
If you had any doubts that this was not your typical cookbook, the authors of “Gaza Kitchen” will explicitly lay them to rest for you in their Introduction:
“(This) is a hybrid sort of book: it is mostly a cookbook which recovers and compiles both traditional and contemporary elements of a rich and little-known cuisine. But it also attempts to do a little ethnography, a little history, a little political analysis. Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history and economy. What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces of a history from below made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food. Our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed.
Indeed, history has indeed left an indelible imprint on Gazan cuisine. Gaza was historically an important station along the spice route, providing a link between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean – and eastern spices continue to shape Gazan cuisine to this very day. Food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins illuminates this point vividly in the Foreword:
In many ways, food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon), and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds. You can see this immediately in Gazan-style falafel, those those delectably crisp, deep-fried morsels of ground chickpeas with spices, universal street food throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the banks of the Nile. In Gaza, however, the addition of chopped chilis and fresh green dill gives a special twist to felafel. (Only in Greece is dill used to the delicious extent it is in Gaza.)
More recent history has also impacted Gazan cuisine. After the Nakba of 1947/48, Gaza was filled with a massive population influx of Palestinian refugees. As Jenkins points out, this event turned the newly-created Gaza Strip into “a repository of traditional foods and dishes from all over historic Palestine, a living legacy of the refugees who flocked here, driven from their homes in the north and the east.” All this to say that “The Gaza Kitchen” succeeds not only because of its delicious recipes, but through its illumination of the social-cultural-political context from which they emerged.
Moreover, sprinkled among the dishes the authors include brief essays that consistently debunk the image of Gazans as either “hapless objects of pity or as vicious objects of fear.” It is impossible to read this book and not be powerful affected by the lives of ordinary Gazans (notably Gazan women) who struggle to maintain their cultural dignity amidst an almost total socio-economic isolation from the rest of the world.
In addition to learning new recipes, we meet Gazans themselves: we eavesdrop on neighbors sharing Arabian fables while kneading dough for hulba (feungreek cake); we meet Fatema Qaadan, a widow and single mother who supports her family by rearing rabbits through the help of a local community center; and we learn about al-Muharrarat (“Liberated Lands”), a Hamas government-sponsored initiative that responds to blockade shortages through a variety of innovative agricultural projects.
The authors also do not flinch from exploring the political impact of Zionism on Gazans and their cuisine. One interesting short essay entitled “On Schnitzel,” points out that many Gazan fast food joints serve schnitzel – the classic pan-fried “Wienerschnitzel” brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants. The authors continue:
Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Though their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.
I personally consider the legacy of Israeli cuisine to be a complex and painful one. Reading through this book through the eyes of an American Jew, I was constantly reminded that so many of the foods that we assume to be uniquely “Israeli” are in fact dishes that have long been indigenous to Palestinian culture.
It is certainly true that there is really no such thing as uniquely “Jewish food.” To be sure, Jews have lived (and cooked) in a myriad of societies and cultural contexts over the centuries – and our cuisine has traditionally emerged from a (pardon the expression) fusion of Jewish sensibilities with our respective host cultures. Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”
(An interesting case in point occurred when the Harvard Business School cafeteria recently featured an “Israeli Mezze station” with such “authentically Israeli” dishes as Cous Cous, Za’atar Chicken, Fattoush, and Tahini Sauce. In response, Lebanese Harvard graduate Sara el-Yafi posted an impressively researached and widely shared Facebook comment that sought to set culinary record straight once and for all. Also highly recommended reading).
For their part, El-Haddad and Schmitt have now created their own cultural reclamation project. It deserves to be read, served up and shared widely. Bravo to my good friends and colleagues at Just World Books for making this delicious document available to the world.