by Yael Raviv
“Food permits a person […] to partake each day of the national past.”
Roland Barthes, 1961
In his study of nations and nationalism (1990), E.J. Hobsbaum states the importance of giving due attention to the "view from below" when studying questions of nationalism, yet he says that it is extremely difficult to discover the view of ordinary people as opposed to governments or activists. I argue that the study of food affords us such a view: it allows an examination of national identification through a new perspective, one which gives voice to “ordinary people” and to formerly marginalized groups within the nation. Food offers a tangible and concrete window into the illusive concept of national identity. It is useful particularly because it is not a pure category , but rather, it is implicated in and influenced by historical changes, political and ideological shifts, and economic considerations.
David Bell and Gill Valentine, in Consuming Geographies (1997), see a certain paradox in the discussion of nation and food since the two seem “so commingled in popular discourse that it is often difficult not to think one through the other” (168-69) Calling the French “frogs” or thinking of the Chinese as rice eaters are typical examples. Yet, all so-called “national foods” are products of movement, cultural exchange, colonialism, and trade. One speaks of “Italian food”, but there is inherent contradiction between, the complex , multi-faceted past and the national impulse to present a “united front” or a common history as it appears in food habits. This can provide a window into the complexities of a nation’s past and a way to better understand its present.
I would like to focus here on the case of Jewish national identity and the Zionist movement in Israel as an example of the role of food habits in the construction of the nation. The Israeli case is unique for several reasons. The small geographical space of Israel, its social structure which limited class differences, and the transplanting of Jewish people from other countries to a new area creating a clear historical break--all these contributed to limiting the influences of region and class variations on food habits to a minimum. This permitted a more focused investigation of the tensions created by the unifying impulse of the nation. An important feature of foodways in Israel is their roots as ideologically marginal. I argue that the early Zionist pioneer ideology of frugality and asceticism influenced food habits but so did a subsequent world view which savors individual comforts and fosters consumerism.
Agriculture, Food, Imagery
Yael Zerubavel, in her discussion of collective memory and national tradition in Israel, asserts “the power of collective memory does not lie in its accurate […] mapping of the past, but in establishing basic images that articulate and reinforce a particular ideological stance.” Accordingly, the Zionists view of Jewish history presented antiquity, i.e. biblical times, as a positive period, a time of direct bond between the Jewish people and the land, a time of political sovereignty. The period of Exile, on the other hand, acquires a very negative image, viewed as dark and full of suffering.This view was reinforced while maintaining the claim for historical continuity between the ancient Hebrews and contemporary Jews (1995, 8-21). Agricultural labor presented itself as a concrete tool for enacting both the connection with ancient times and the formation of a new Jewish identity, one that is as far from the Jewish image in Diaspora as possible. Because of the central place of agriculture in Zionist ideology and propaganda, food begins to play an important part in Zionist imagery.
I will present here three examples to illustrate the role food played in the articulation of national identity before and after independence: the campaign for the purchase of “Tozeret Haarets” (literally, products of the land, i.e. local products) that began in the 1920s, “Falafel: Israel’s “national” food (?)”, and the Israeli Defense Forces.
“Totzeret Haaretz”- (Local Produce)
In her article “Zionism in the Kitchen” Sulamith Schwartz writes in 1940 of her struggle to remain devoted to purchasing only “Tozeret HaAretz” food products: food grown or produced locally, by Jewish labor. She explains that the theory is simple: “The more we use the products of Jewish fields and factories, the more we encourage the development of Palestinian Jewish industry and agriculture, thus creating room and work for tens of thousands of new immigrants, strengthening the Palestinian Jewish economy, making it sounder and more self reliant.” Practice, however, can be another matter and Schwartz concludes by saying: “The practice in our own kitchens in Jewish Palestine makes housekeeping nothing more nor less than a complicated kind of religion.”
Schwartz is not referring here to the issue of consuming kosher food according to Jewish religious laws, but to the idea of purchasing food products as a conscious act for the sake of the national future. In the case of the Jewish community in Palestine, this often means using not what is most readily available, freshest, or most economical, the usual housekeepers’ practice , but making a special effort to support new crops, new settlements, and food produced by Jewish farmers, whose work is more expensive. Buying and eating certain food products becomes synonymous with an act of patriotism.
The campaign for the purchase of “Tozeret Haaretz” products begins in the 1920s, through the work of the Zionist Department of Commerce and Industry, before some 25 years the creation of the state of Israel. In 1936 the “Union for Tozeret Haaretz” started operating at the initiative of the “Jewish Agency,” “The National Committee,” the “Union of Industrialists,” and the “Hebrew Workers Union.” All these pre-independence Zionist agencies, regardless of class orientation, had economic interests in promoting the purchase of locally made products. Since Palestine was under the rule of the British Mandate at this time, they had to operate within its confines and the British government’s own economic agenda and to rely on propaganda and trade agreements with importers and traders in order to stimulate the purchase of local, Jewish products.
Flyers distributed by the Union for local produce to owners of eating establishments in December 1936 read: “Subject: a complete cancellation of the use of canned milk, milk powder etc. of foreign sources … As of today, December 1, there will begin strict control of all coffee houses, restaurants and eating establishments regarding the use of milk … the experiments and tests done by Tnuva supplied satisfactory results, and all coffee houses, restaurants and eating establishments must begin using Hebrew milk immediately.” Similar flyers appealed to produce stores, grocery stores and shopkeepers regarding the purchase and sale of produce from cucumbers to strawberries.
The Agricultural Department of the Union for “Tozeret HaAretz” published a survey of its actions for the summer of 1938, stating satisfaction with the results of the practice of labeling produce with a tag marking them clearly as “Hebrew.” For example, every watermelon grown by Hebrew labor was marked with the Union stamp “Hebrew Watermelon.” According to the report, watermelons not graced with this stamp could not be sold in the Jewish market and the “Hebrew” watermelons won better prices. The report continues to discuss the advantages of clear labeling and distinct packaging for recruiting the public’s help in promoting the sale of “Tozeret Haaretz” products.
This “nationalizing” of foodstuffs is not limited to watermelons: there were ads for “Hebrew Banana” and “Hebrew Egg” as well. “Hebrew” became a preferred brand name for marketing purposes. This form of labeling transformed these foodstuffs from everyday objects into national symbols. Through this campaign, food products were presented as part of the national project in a very literal way. Consuming a “Hebrew Banana” can be a conscious political statement, a deliberate action, whereas eating a plain old non-nationalized piece of fruit was an unmarked everyday act.
It is significant that local Jewish products are defined not only as ones produced locally, but also specifically by Jewish labor. Therefore they offer an interesting example of the use of food as an instrument for the articulation of national identification both internally (as an instrument of unification) and externally (distinguishing between “us” and “others”). Ella Shohat notes the use of “self-labor” in Zionist propaganda in positioning Jewish settlement in Palestine as a non-colonial enterprise: they were not exploiting the “natives” and were therefore morally superior to European colonialists (1988,13). But in effect Hebrew labor meant boycotting Arab work.
The fact that a campaign for the purchase of “Hebrew” products was titled “Product of the Land” (i.e. local products) is significant. In its very title the campaign attempts to ignore the existence of any other people on this land. The campaign not only promotes local products at the expense of imported ones, but also Jewish labor at the expense of local Arab workers. When Schawrtz states the importance of buying “Tozeret Haaretz” products for the Jewish local economy and creating room for a multitude of new Jewish immigrants, she disregards the effect on the local Arab economy and population. Growing watermelons was one of the agricultural branches that were adopted by the Jewish settlers from the local Arab population. The watermelon becomes “Hebrew” and its “ancestry” is erased. In a similar manner as the Arab origins of the quintessential “Israeli” food, the falafel, were obliterated it became synonymous with the new Israeli nation.
Falafel is one of several foodstuffs that were adopted from the local Arab population, and became entrenched in the Israeli diet. Basically balls of ground chickpeas, deep fried and served with tahini sauce, pickles and/ or salad in pita bread, the falafel became synonymous with the Israeli figure. It is a quick, messy, spicy, no-frills street food, which packs plenty of nutrition and value into a small portion. Adopting it as a national food matched an ideology that attempted to negate the Diaspora in favor of a new and vital Jewish existence in Israel. The fact is that this low prestige street food is in step with the ambivalent attitude toward the local Arab population: treating it as a role model on the one hand, but also as a primitive society in need of modernization and acculturation on the other.
The local Arab and Bedouin population was often portrayed in Zionist propaganda as living a life that resembles that of the ancient Hebrews in biblical times. As such, they present models for the new Jewish settlers aspiring to recreate that “golden age.” That very belief shows the paternalistic attitude of the Jewish settlers toward the local population, projecting them as primitive and in need of modernization. The adoption of certain practices from the Palestinian population is done not only without acknowledging their source, but is actually implemented through an erasure of these sources. Because of the ambivalent attitude toward the products of the Arab population and culture, these products must be divorced from their Palestinian heritage if they are to play an important role in Jewish-Israeli culture.
Since falafel became such an emblem of Israeli cuisine the tendency to erase its Arab ancestry grew. A recent Israeli government publication, a booklet of recipes distributed in the United States by the Israeli Embassy, described the falafel as a dish that became popular in Israel with the growing immigration from Yemen. The same publication attributes shishlik (shish kebob) to the Jews in Biblical times.
Today, falafel is so common in Israel as to be taken for granted. “Israeli” cookbooks no longer publish recipes for it, and aspiring Israeli chefs do not create “chicken a la falafel” or other variations using it. Is falafel beginning to lose its place as a symbol of Israeli identity, just like the once prestigious orange (which has also a complicated relationship with the Palestinian national identity and self-image)? Or has ‘Falafel’ found a permanent home, like rice in the Japanese kitchen, maintaining its symbolic value as a marker of national identity beyond actual consumption in daily life?
After Israel’s independence new instruments for the articulation of Israeli identity became available. The “Israeli army” IDF became one of the most important socializing agents for new immigrants and a powerful unifying force for the whole Jewish population. Because of the threat to its survival, security was a central concern for the young Israeli. Due to the national consensus regarding this threat and the compulsory service of the majority of the Israeli population in the army throughout the years, the army has been seen as “a staple of the Israeli experience and a key to the Israeli-Jewish identity.”
The army often offered the first encounter with a “common” Israeli culture for veterans and new immigrants alike, provideding a setting for the creation of a shared cultural experience. In the realm of food, as in other spheres of day-to-day army life, soldiers were presented with choices dictated from above often, exposing them to unfamiliar foodstuffs. In the army, a common ‘Israeli’ diet, mostly oblivious to ethnic differences and preferences, was created.
Zeev Kline, wrote in “IDF: Encyclopedia for Army and Security” that the IDF’s influence on creating an “authentic Israeli kitchen” is greater then that of any other element in Israeli society. He claimed, in 1983, that the food in the army is “universal” and represents the entire ethnic spectrum in Israel: “few are the soldiers, whether from Russian or Moroccan origins, that finish lunch hungry or dissatisfied.”
Whether this statement is accurate is not as important as the idea that a common diet seemed as important to the establishment of a national culture as a common repertoire of songs or literature.
Luf, (canned chopped beef), the IDF’s Spam, has recently been taken off the army kitchen’s menus. Several nostalgic articles lamenting the “passing of an era” accompanied this decision. Luf became part of the Israeli army mythology since the mid- 50s, and has been the subject of countless jokes as well as recipes that attempted to improve it under field conditions. One example calls for opening a can of Luf, slicing it and frying the pieces in a pan on an open fire, then adding a strained can of peas to the pan. A sophisticated 90s version calls for a final addition of plenty of fresh ground pepper, basil, tarragon and Herb de Provence.
Despite constant complaints about this product it became synonymous with army food. An Israeli did not need to actually consume it in order to understand its cultural meaning and context. Luf, for good or bad, acquired the characteristics of a national icon. It speaks of a shared experience and conjures up a common meaning for all Israelis.
A Shared Cuisine
Whether it is individual foodstuffs that are held up as markers of national affiliation, or the idea of a common, shared cuisine, food plays an important role as a cultural product, defining who we are. Food can be employed to draw borders and create distinctions between “us” and “others,” or it can serve as a tool for bringing together people with diverse background and as an instrument of unification.
Because of the historical importance of agriculture for the Jewish nation in Israel, food production and consumption played an important part in the construction of national identity. Israel, comprised of a multitude of ethnic groups, had to construct a shared national culture, and food became a useful instrument in this endeavor.Rather than a view that portrays food as ideologically marginal, the above examples demonstrate its importance in constructing a literal tie between the newly arrived Jewish settlers and the land and in unifying them in opposition to the Arab “other.”
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