• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Arabs And Falafel: Schlussel Sees Anti-Semitism

The ever-absurd Debbie Schlussel turns to self-parody as she rails against the anti-Semitic practice of affirming “the false claim by Arabs that falafel, hummus, and other Middle-Eastern food is ‘Arabic’ food”:

In fact, Jews have been eating these dishes for centuries, longer than there has been an Islam or an Arabian empire, as I’ve pointed out. These foods are an intrinsic part of Sephardic [“Spanish”/Orientalist/Asian] Jewish culture and history…Yes, now, those who hate Jews and Israel have resorted even to lying about Mid-Eastern food for their attacks and fraudulent public relations.

And for good measure, for no apparent reason she throws in the claim that “Christians tend to disavow any association with being Arabic”.

Schlussel was moved to outrage by a review of the book Cuisines of the Axis of Evil, by Chris Fair, but her complaint comes as a new conflict between Israel and Lebanon looms:

Lebanese food makers aim to prove that dishes including hummus originated in their country in a campaign to stop Israeli manufacturers from using the names to market the same foods.

“Our battle is to prove that all these names and specialities and foods are Lebanese, as Greece did with feta cheese,” said Fadi Abboud, president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists.

…”The row with Israel is very easy (to win), because clearly Israel did not have a common food culture before it was formed,” said Sami Zubaida, an expert on the history of Middle Eastern food. “What is a problem is to say that they are specifically Lebanese as opposed to Syrian, or Palestinian or southern Turkish,” he said.

Of course, there’s no reason to doubt that Sephardic Jews have been “eating these dishes for centuries”, but that hardly resolves the question of origins – and it’s more sensible to think in terms of a shared middle-eastern heritage rather than “Sephardic Jewish” vs “Arabic” (or vs “Coptic” or “Syriac” etc). Ken Albala (Food Historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California) has written a book entitled Beans: A History, which touches on the controversy over falafel (p. 85):

…The origins of the dish are of course unknown, but one could probably trace an ancestor back to an earlier cuisine, most likely to Egypt where a similar dish is made with fava beans (ta’amiyya). That any one people could own falafel is of course a ridiculous notion, but it nonetheless illustrates a very common tendency – to associate a people with a particular food and then claim it as an integral part of national identity.

In 2004 the word “Falaphilia” was coined, although it failed to catch on.