Back in 2002 I began working on a project with the Council of Europe to explore whether food can be used as a tool to promote tolerance. The volume on Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue grew out of this project, but I was eager to move beyond the printed page, to see if some of our ideas about shared culinary identities could be put into practice. So last summer I traveled to a site of fierce, continuing conflict to discover whether food could possibly help to instill trust in an atmosphere of increasing hatred. What I found in Israel and Palestine left me feeling both optimistic and full of despair.
The sources for my despair are both obvious and subtle. After a visit to the occupied territories I felt devastated. Current governmental policies attempt to erase Palestinians from the historical narrative. I saw ancient olive trees being bulldozed to make room for illegal Jewish settlements. Their loss threatens not only the Palestinians’ livelihood but also their core identity. The fact is, the less Palestinians have to be proud of, the less investment they will have in anything good, and the more likely they will be to act in anger and desperation (their horrific use of bulldozers as a weapon in Jerusalem is an irony that generally escapes American commentators). The Palestinians need to be bolstered in order to become equal partners in peace. Their sense of cultural erasure could be mitigated by recognizing their food and their deep connection to the soil. Palestinian food represents a cuisine of poverty, but it is rich in its use of such simple products as tehina, olive oil, and labane, a kind of yogurt cheese—not to mention the nutritious and aromatic wild greens that are gathered throughout the winter. Israelis enjoy these foods, too, and those in the know seek out artisanal products of Palestinian origin. Food can thereby open dialogue by helping to build a common cultural identity between Israelis and Palestinians.