Arab DNC Leader Denounces Rachael Ray's 'Cultural Genocide' in Calling Food 'Israeli'
James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and a board member of the Bernie Sanders think tank The Sanders Institute, denounced a tweet as "cultural genocide."
Celebrity cook Rachael Ray posted a picture of stuffed grape leaves, hummus, beet dip, eggplant, tabbouli, and sun-dried tomato dip, describing the "holiday feast" as an "Israeli nite."
This unleashed a storm of controversy, with various commentators claiming the feast was actually "Levantine."
Zogby jumped into the fray, declaring, "Damn it Rachael Ray. This is cultural genocide. It's not Israeli food. It's Arab (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian). First the Israelis take the land & ethnically cleanse it of Arabs. Now they take their food & culture & claim it's theirs too! Shame."
Bret Stephens, an op-ed contributor for The New York Times, was aghast. "Please tell me this is a joke tweet, James Zogby," he tweeted. "Or is it 'cultural genocide' when Arabs use Israeli technology? Do you use Instant Messaging? Waze? If so, please stop."
Zogby doubled down. "The equivalent would be if I start using IM & Waze & then declare them Lebanese technology," he replied. "This isn't a joke. It's about a history of cultural appropriation & a systematic effort to erase Palestinian history & culture. Peace is possible, but not on those terms."
Stephens shot back, "Hummus seems to have first been mentioned as a Cairene food in the 13th century or so. Maybe Maimonides came up with it." If this suggestion is correct, hummus would be Jewish — as Moses Maimonides was a prominent medieval Jewish philosopher.
"Who knows? Who cares? Why not just enjoy it instead of declaring 'cultural genocide' and making a fool of ourself?" Stephens concluded.
In response, Zogby retweeted Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, who posted a string of tweets attempting to "explain" why Ray's tweets caused offense.
"Food does not have a religion or nationality. It is food. But it does have a history and a place in the culture of peoples," Munayyer wrote. "Palestinian Jews, like Palestinian Arab Muslims & Christians, along with countless other Mid Eastern peoples from Abkhazia to Aswan and beyond have prepared this food and enjoyed it for centuries prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Often, they enjoyed it together."
He noted that "foods commonly prepared in Israel today, by Palestinians and Israeli Jews, include food that was common in the Levant but also food that came from Europe and North Africa and beyond as part of an influx of diaspora Jews into the land."
"The problem comes when you try to label something Israeli, which obviously existed prior to the state of Israel and still does," Munayyer declared. "This problem is further compounded when you understand that it is happening in the context of Israeli appropriation, not just of food but of a people’s land and history."
He claimed that by calling this food "Israeli," Ray was "participating in a broad process of replacement that goes way beyond what is on a plate and is instead about denying Palestinians even have a place at the global table."
Munayyer lamented the changing of "place names, street names, historical markers." He noted that forests have been planted over the remains of villages, "obfuscating the very remnants of our history and the graves of our ancestors."
"Palestinians, as a people, are often told they do not exist," Munayyer concluded.
Be that as it may, Rachael Ray's tweet presented picturesque food to build her brand. It had no visible intent toward supporting Israel or disparaging Palestine — it merely presented what Ray thought of as an "Israeli nite." If Zogby and Munayyer her guests at such an event, it would have been wrong for her to insist the food was specifically Israeli. Otherwise, they have no claim on how she refers to the food she created.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, had a powerful response to Zogby's "cultural genocide" comment. "In a modern era characterized by unspeakable tragedies & horrific slaughters committed [against] Armenians, European Jews, Rwandan Tutsis, Cambodians, Bosnian Muslims and Iraqi Yazidi, you'd think
@jjz1600 would know better than to hashtag genocide in a reference to hummus," Greenblatt tweeted.
Lastly, hummus and stuffed grape leaves are nowhere near uniquely Palestinian. Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, Persians, and Armenians also enjoy this type of food. It may not be uniquely Israeli, but that eastern Mediterranean cuisine is often associated with one country or another, and Israel is one of the countries in the region.
That said, this tempest in a teapot is quite telling, given that a key leader in the DNC, in the Bernie Sanders coalition, and in the Arab-American community took this picture of food so seriously. Social Justice Warriors may be fun to mock, but this incident suggests their kind of outrage is gaining steam among DNC leadership.
As of Wednesday night, Zogby has not issued a retraction. Indeed, he even tweeted, "I will continue this..."