Hummus is not a Jewish Food

Jalil Dabit (Palestinian from Ramleh) and Oz Ben David (Israeli “who grew up Jewish in Beersheba” own a hummus joint in Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

One of the most galling manifestations of Israel’s “existence” to Palestinians is its appropriation of Palestinian history and heritage. The Palestinian struggle for liberation is about dispossession and theft of Palestinian heritage now falsely claimed as “Israeli” — i.e. Jewish.

Take, for example, the case of the humble hummus (also spelled hummos). In the U.S., grocery stores are stocked (sometimes exclusively) with Israeli brands. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched a boycott campaign two or so years ago aimed at removing Sabra hummus from college cafeterias and other venues.

Israel wants to pass itself off as a “normal” Middle Eastern country with a “Middle Eastern cuisine”, when, in fact, it is a thorn in the heart of the Muslim Arab world. As a state, Israel is anything but normal. If by “Israeli” we mean “Jewish”, as the term is commonly used in the media, hummus is no more Israeli, than say, pizza is American.

Israel wants you to think hummus is Jewish food. A site called “My Jewish Learning”, for example, has this to say:

It’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which makes it an awesome time to eat some Israeli food…. Even babies loves [sic] Israeli food! Here is my daughter enjoying her own bowl of French fries dipped in hummus in Tel Aviv a few years ago. I mean, I really just wanted to share this adorable photo of my kid shoving hummus in her face.

Another example: Jalil Dabit and Oz Ben David own a hummus joint in Berlin. The enterprise is rather bafflingly introduced in an article about it as follows:

… it’s the result of a unique partnership between its 30-something owners, Oz Ben David, who grew up Jewish in Beersheba, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramle.

The duo met in the German capital, where they are trying to turn a culinary dream into reality. Before the men ever met, they had separately nursed the same idea: to draw upon their heritage to create a delicious, modern cuisine. And, of course, to earn their living doing it.

What does the phrase “to draw upon their heritage” here mean? What heritage? Their Christian and Jewish heritage? That makes no sense.

What is known as Jewish food in America, such as bagels, knishes or borscht, are the foods of Ashkenazi Jewry, and these are mostly foods associated with non-Jews of Eastern Europe as well. Borscht, for example, is a soup consumed across Eastern Europe and Russia.

When Ashkenazi Jews led by Theodor Herzl in 1897 created the organized Zionist movement that resulted in the Jewish colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs and partitioning of Palestine to establish the Jewish state now called Israel, they brought along with them their European languages, foods and cultures. In terms of language, the Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern Europe could lay claim to Yiddish, as a Jewish spoken language, a hybrid language based mainly on medieval German and only secondarily on Hebrew and Aramic, Slavic, old Italian and French. (Yiddish is still spoken in Israel by the oldest generation and in the Orthodox and Hassidic communities).

The Hebrew language as a spoken and written language, hitherto used only in Judaism as liturgy or a Biblical language, had no native speakers. It was reinvented as a spoken language in Palestine in the late 19th Century and is now the first language of Israeli Jews.

In re-creating partitioned Arab Palestine as a Jewish state, these Zionist Ashkenazi Jews, who continue to be the ruling elite in Israel today in the security sector, sought to recreate an authentic, native culture in Palestine for future generations of Jews to inherit/adopt as a national identity. At the same time, they needed to continue the physical erasure of the Palestinian Arab — erasing, not only the people themselves from hundreds of villages and towns, but also the structures in them and the Arabic names on maps. What they couldn’t erase such as certain cultural manifestations of Palestinian heritage like foods (example, hummus), dress (example Palestinian embroidery or the kaffiyeh), they appropriated. Thus the Palestinian Jaffa orange, for example, became Israeli.

The Mizrahim in Israel, Jews who originated in (were nationals of) Arab countries — Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, and of course, Palestine — brought with them Arab culture and cuisine from their various national Arab cultures that may have included hummus.

The Zionist underground, for example, smuggled Iraqi Jews by the thousands out of Iraq in 1948 and 1949, because Iraq had banned immigration to Israel during that time, not wanting Iraqi Jews to replace the non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs the Zionists had driven out of hearth and home.

… in the first cookbook in the history of modern Iraq Recipes from Baghdad, 1946, is a basic hummus recipe for an appetizer… (See:

These Mizrahi Jews faced discrimination from the Ashkenazim in Israel to begin with, but

… the Israel of the 50s, where European and Middle Eastern culture undoubtedly clashed, is not the Israel of today. Shabi’s claim that “Mizrahi ethnic music is banned from public playlists” strains credulity when Mizrahi artists such as Sarit Haddad, David Broza, Dana International, Avinoam Nini and Ofra Haza are all thoroughly mainstream. Chaqshooka, falafel and mujadera are staples of Israeli food. Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of political life. Israel has had Mizrahi ministers, a president, and senior military figures.

The Mizrahim who today dominate Israel’s right-wing government call for an end to the rule in Israel of the “old elite” (the Ashkenazi Jews who colonized Palestine) — not in order to restore their own Arab culture that they brought along with them to partitioned Palestine when they immigrated into Israel, but in order to intensify “Jewish national pride”. In effect, they have turned their backs on their roots and have to work even harder than their Ashkenazi brethren to prove their loyalty and allegiance to the zionist regime/Jewish state.

The following headline (computer-translated from the Hebrew) describes their dilemma:

Petition to the Supreme Court against the Nationality Law: Anti-Arabism also harms Mizrahim
Some 50 prominent Mizrahi [Arab Jews] activists, including Sami Michael, Prof. Henriette Dahan Kalev and Yossi Tsabari petitioned the High Court of Justice, claiming that in addition to harming the [Palestinian] Arab minority, the nationality law removes the history and culture of immigrants from Arab countries and strengthens their discrimination” — By: Orly Noy

In the Israeli government today, Mizrahi Jews are populist right-wing politicians who wish to entrench and expand Palestinian dispossession and erasure rather than simply manage the status quo as the “old elite” (Ashkenazi Jews) has been doing.

Hummus is not Israeli in the sense of Jewish. It is Palestinian in the sense of native — native to Palestine, just as surely as the olive trees are and the olive oil that goes on the hummus is. Those Israelis who understand the history of Israel understand this. The Palestinian citizens of Israel know it.

In “To Set the Record Straight about Hummos”, Nahla Beier, a Palestinian Jerusalemite in exile, writes,

My father often woke up early to buy “the best hummos in Jerusalem” every summer we visited. My mother had died young, so my American husband never tasted her hummos. But Baba swore that Abu Ali’s came close, and by the time we were up and ready for a bite, he had set a table laden with labneh (yogurt cheese), saber (cactus fruit), za’atar (ground thyme mixed with sesame seeds and spices), pita toasted on the gas range, and in the central place of honor, a plate of soupy hummos mixed with whole chick peas.
… My children broke my heart by initially hating hummos. “But my students love it, and your cousins virtually live on it,” I wailed, deeply betrayed. But then their palates developed, or their guilt over neglecting their culinary heritage deepened, and they blossomed into hummos connoisseurs. My youngest told me, grinning, that he had recently taken some that he had labored over to a party, and his host said, “Yeah, Man! You’re the real deal!”

The “real deal” is Palestinian. It’s false to claim Palestinian heritage (hummus is the example here) as Jewish heritage by calling it Israeli.


Note: Much of the above was originally written (28 Dec 2018) as an answer on Quora to the following question: What is the difference between legitimate criticism of the government of the State of Israel, and antisemitism?

Rima Najjar is an activist for justice and equality in Palestine.