Become What You Eat: The Development of an Israeli National Identity Expressed Through It’s Culinary Tradition

Elsien van Pinxteren finished her Bachelors in Middle Eastern Studies with Hebrew and Arabic at the University of Cambridge. She is starting her Masters in these studies at Harvard University from September 2013. Elsien is mostly interested in the development of identities and group behaviour in conflict areas. This leads her to focus her studies not only on languages, but also broadens her scope with history, anthropology, international economics and law, human rights studies and anthropological linguistics.

It has been said that “Food permits a person [.] to partake each day in the nationalist past1, and as there is a strong connection to food and nationality. This piece looks at how culinary traditions reflect and construct ideas of cultural identity, nationality and statehood in Israel, trying to define what the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Israeli’ really mean. Throughout Israel’s short history, it has had to change its attitude towards these concepts. Through considering the development of an Israeli nationality and its reflection in the changing Israeli cuisine, I will investigate what is considered naturally and inherently Israeli,2 in contrast to what is considered as belonging to the ‘Other’.3

Most striking in this discussion is the representation of ethnic food and attitudes towards Arab culinary contributions. These two elements are important, as many different Jewish ethnic groups, who all had, and arguably continue to have, their own culinary traditions, gathered in Israel to form what is now considered Israeli society and culture. These different Jewish groups settled in a land with a primarily Arab indigenous population that influenced the emerging Israeli cuisine. The representation and attitudes towards these influences are a valuable insight into how concepts of cultural identity and nationality developed.

With the new socialist ideology of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), wave of immigration to Israel, and Third Aliyah (1915-1924), food became an ideological tool. Agriculture became an important means of establishing and justifying the Jewish presence in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. In addition, it identified the ‘new Jew’. Whereas in the first Aliyah (1882-1904) the immigrant adopted food-products of and traded with the local Arab population, these relations came under pressure during the following immigrant waves, because of the new ideology these immigrants brought. While the self-reliance of the kibbutz, a socialism inspired commune, allowed women to take a more prominent role in collective life, they were overall considered as most befitted for kitchen-work. With the new wave of immigrants, who adopted a bourgeoisie lifestyle, came the need for both individualization in the kibbutz, and the understanding that a nutritious diet, with varied food, benefitted the productivity of the workers.4

The Fourth Aliyah (1924-1926) comprised new immigrants from Central Europe. Unlike the Second and Third Aliyahs , the Fourth Aliyah consisted of a bourgeois class. This immigration wave settled in cities, working as small businessmen and merchants.5 As this new wave introduced a greater level of diversity, the Yishuv6 felt the need to find a way to unify themselves through creating a narrative to establish a Jewish society in the land of Israel. This new wave thus had an impact on the ideological climate of the Yishuv. This instigated the national movement’s ‘active “recruitment” of the kitchen to further its political agenda’.7

In the mid-1920s women’s organizations began to actively involve women in the Zionist cause, through initiating kitchen programmes in the form of columns, booklets, food shows and cookbooks.8 Partly a response to the underdeveloped diet of the moment, they formed a unifying factor in forging a national culinary tradition. Attempting to change eating habits and kitchen work, women’s organisations helped with the formation of an integrated national culture.9 We can see this starting with the idea of a renewed cooking-style that was believed should be adopted in Palestine, as well as in the totzert ha-aretz10 campaign, which was the organisation of Jewish inhabitants in the land of Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel. The term referred to approximately 25 000 Jews at the time it came into use in 1880. The Fourth Aliyah introduced a new field of science to the Yishuv which especially befitted the Zionist cause: the science of nutrition.11 A newspaper article from Davar (August 1925) called “The Science of Nutrition” stresses the importance of this science in order to adapt to the new conditions in Palestine.12

As such, the unified narrative which was created by the existing Arab way of life, is deemed more appropriate for the new climate, yet also considered less rational and more instinctive, as a variety of newspaper articles and women’s magazines demonstrated, such as in La’Isha. A proper Jewish-Israeli cuisine may then be created by adopting this ‘instinctive’ cuisine with a scientific approach, which suited the new conditions. This approach both replaced the ‘Diaspora Jew’ culinary tradition and allowed the presentation of foodstuffs as ‘”productive” and “useful”: not a bourgeois luxury. By working toward the creation of a unified system of nutrition, they tried to present food as a possible unifying force, an instrument of nation-building, instead of a distraction and hindrance’.13

A good example of the attitude of the time is presented in Dr. Erna Meyer’s “How to Cook in Palestine” (1936, Eikh le-Vashel be-Eretz Israel). The book clearly states that it shall instruct a “proper” way of cooking in the new climate as ‘[s]ome of [the] habits are not only injurious to the health of the family, but, in addition burden the housewife with unnecessary work’.14 Presenting the old habits as “incorrect”, she suggests a “healthy Palestine cooking”, which should be fostered ‘not merely because we are compelled to do so, but because we realize that this will help us more than anything else in becoming acclimatised to our old-new homeland’.15 She draws a connection between a healthy diet and rootedness to the land. This new style of cooking is based on the ‘natural products of Palestine’, promoting new vegetables such as vegetable marrow and aubergine, synthesised with European knowledge.16

During the 1940s, the 1950s, and after the Second World War and the creation of the State of Israel, two rationalisation programmes were formed in Israel. Due to scarcity, food substitutes, mostly protein, were found in eggs, dairy and chicken. This increased the already heavy emphasis on nutritious values and the concept of a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ menu. Simultaneously, in this period large immigration took place. Between 1948 and 1950 alone, 700,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel, most of them coming from Asian and African countries. Whereas pre-1948 immigration to the newly created stated, comprised mostly of Europeans.

While the clashes with Arabs at the time contributed to higher sales of Yishuv products, there were an enormous number of new immigrants, combined with different ethnic food cultures. Recipes, especially from Sephardic Jews, were adopted as a ‘good’ habit, but needed some adjustment, such as changes to the cooking techniques. Generally, communities were encouraged to learn from each other and to adopt beneficial practices to diminish differences within the Jewish population and create a unified cuisine. Arab food, once again, was presented as a model, described as naturally fitted to the climate, yet primitive. However, the Arab, who was now the enemy, was never mentioned by name.17

The programme created by the newly formed Israeli government also influenced the national unification and cultural homogenization, both influencing the cooking traditions of the Halutzim (Pioneers) and the new Olim (new immigrants). These Olim were, generally, more religious, less ideological and educationally disadvantaged by their lack of Hebrew. Women’s organisations tried to absorb them into the already established culture the previous immigration waves. Raviv notes how the irony, as the Oriental Jews’ dishes, such as traditional Oriental slow-cook stew recipes, were often the most suited to Israel’s climate. In fact, many Arab dishes were adopted and adapted, such as falafel and tehina, as they are cheap and rich in protein.18 Desiring to keep the menu ‘Jewish’ these dishes were often ascribed to Yemenite Jews. However, these dishes are not consumed in Yemen and were only adopted by the Yemenites upon arrival in Palestine in earlier Aliyot.19 Similarly, the government affected eating habits. With the tzena subsidies, part of the post-1948 governmental rationalising project, were given to new immigrants for basic foodstuff, however, these were given, for example, on European-style bread, but not on pita.

Perhaps most influential was the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Not only were they obliged to create an effective food system, but also the need to feed many different ethnicities resulted in the adoption of falafel and humus. This suited the first generation of those born in Palestine, who had eaten falafel and humus as street snacks. Similarly, the IDF established kosher kitchens to simplify issues of religious food taboos among their soldier.

The 1960s introduced a period of a relative security, a stable pace of migration and a growing economy. As such, Israel witnessed the rise of a new social and ideological environment in which socialism and agriculture became less important. In terms of the cuisine, this translated to an increase in cookbooks and columns, as well as the rise of professional cookery, understanding food as pleasure, rather than simply as an ideological tool.20 These general tendencies are demonstrated in Lilian Cornfeld’s “Israeli Cookery”. Unlike Meyer’s book, Cornfeld, who previously published many articles and books for the Israeli public, released this work in 1962 for a foreign, mostly Canadian and American, audience. The book attempts to represent Israel abroad and functions at times as a guide for foreigners coming to Israel. She guides the reader to where the tourist can best buy their products or find certain typical recipes.21 Introducing the Israeli, she notes what times and where Israelis normally eat,22 and generalises that ‘Israelis will not eat a lettuce salad alone’.23

Israel is presented as a Jewish nation with a multicultural, integrated and renewed culinary tradition, in which ‘recipes [are] authentically and very reliably adapted to kashrut and Israel’.24 Jewish-Israeli food is seen as both a created success story and a natural given, rooted in a biblical homeland, and validating the Jewish presence. The question of what “Israeliness” exactly is continues to cause some friction. If we look at one explanation of tea-drinking habits, in which the tension between the idea of a nation of different groups and the general ‘Israelis’, it is evident.

Tea is popular with all sections of the population in different ways and strengths. Anglo-Saxons, strong with sugar and milk; Russians, weak with lemon; Yemenites boil their tea leaves and add cinnamon and ginger; Bukharians add mint leaves. Most Israelis keep the leaves and use them over and over again. This is wrong, of course, as it extracts too much tannin.25

Attitudes towards the question of what Israel is and how it should be represented have shifted from a melting-pot to a more multi-cultural and religious state representation. Whereas a melting-pot aims to create a homogenous culture based on one culture but allows influenced from different cultures, a multicultural society does not seek to comply with one main cultural influence.

During the years after 1967, the year of the Six Day War fought between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, attitudes towards food and the idea of an Israeli cuisine shifted. In the 1970s, Israeli cuisine was still presented as a melting-pot. This image became an ethnic cuisine and finally, during the 1990s and beyond, this cuisine became well-established. Now, attempts are made to incorporate the influences of globalisation and economic prosperity creating a refined ‘New Israeli cuisine’. Throughout the years, against a background of constant political conflict, these cookbooks continue to reflect a friction in including the Arab contributions to the Israeli cuisine. Nevertheless, Israeli culture has now become stabilised and can credit its Arab influence more.

Whereas in the 1970s the Israeli culinary tradition began to be defined as a mixture of different Jewish influences and Arab local influences, in the 1990s this definition was subjected to refinement and the inclusion of new influences from other parts of the world. This led to the urge for a ‘new Israeli cuisine’. This cuisine seems to have established its own character, with an emphasis on local products, and is recognised both in Israel and elsewhere. In general, there has been a continuous and fractious negotiation of the components of ethnic diversity and the approach to Arab contributions. The different attitudes towards this cultural identity have been significantly influenced by socio-political and economic factors. From food not being employed as an active unifying factor. Where it reflected the self-identity and lifestyle of immigrants, to food becoming ideologically charged, food ultimately came to represent the desired outlook of the Jewish state to come. With increasing ethnic diversity, diet was one means of creating a unified nation. The ‘melting-pot’ ideology was replaced with a multicultural approach after the creation of the Jewish state. Justifying this Jewish state as an ‘ingathering of the Exiles’, the focus shifted to a Jewish outlook.

Whereas in the early 20th century’s cookbooks Arab contributions to the Israeli culture are minimised, recent works confirm how the adaptation of the Arab tradition helped establish an Israeli cuisine. Though political friction is still apparent, Israeli identity and nationality have become stabilised. This increasingly secured idea of Israeli identity as a natural given allows for the renegotiation of the position of the Arab within the Israeli culture.

In a rare display of unity Jews and Arabs in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem share cheese and watermelons as part of the first annual “Between Green and Red” festival in Jerusalem, August 2012.




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Roden, C. 1985 [1968]. A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. England: Viking.


Appadurai. A. 1981. “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia.” American Ethnologist, 8(3) Symbolism and Cognition. pp. 494-511.
Barthes, R. 1957. Mythologies. Translation: Lavers, A. 2000. London: Vintage.
Hirsch, D. 2011. “”Hummus is best when it is fresh and made by Arabs”: The gourmetization of hummus in Israel and the return of the repressed Arab.” American Ethnologist, 38(4), pp. 617 – 630.
Parasecoli, F. 2005. “Introduction: Food; identity and diversity.” Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, diversity and dialogue, Ed. Darra Goldstein and Kathrin Merkle. Council of Europe Publishing. Germany: Verlagsgruppe Lübbe.
Raviv, Y. 2003. “Falafel: A National Icon.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 3(3), pp. 20-25: University of California Press.
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1 Barthes, 1961. return to main text
2 Barthes. 1957. Mythologies. return to main text
3 Appadurai. A. 1981. “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia.” American Ethnologist, 8(3) pp. 494-511. return to main text
4 Raviv, Y. 2002. Recipe for a Nation: Cuisine, Jewish Nationalism, and the Israeli State. return to main text
5 Raviv. Recipe for a Nation. p.63. return to main text
6 Ibid. return to main text
7 Recipe for a Nation. p.64. return to main text
8 Raviv, Recipe for a Nation. return to main text
9 Ibid p.65. return to main text
10 ‘Products of the Land’; this campaign propagated products grown and/or manufactured by Jewish labour in the Yishuv. return to main text
11 Raviv. Recipe for a Nation. return to main text
12 . return to main text
13 Ibid p.66. return to main text
14 Meyer, E. Saphir, M. 1936. Eikh le-Vashel be-Eretz Israel (How to Cook in Palestine). p.7. return to main text
15 Ibid. return to main text
16 Ibid p.8. return to main text
17 If mentioned at all, Palestinians and Arabs were referred to as ‘local population’. return to main text
18 Raviv, Recipe for a Nation. return to main text
19 Raviv, Y. 2003. “Falafel: A National Icon.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 3(3), pp. 20-25. return to main text
20 Raviv, Recipe for a Nation. return to main text
21 Cornfeld, L. 1962. Israeli Cookery. p.45. return to main text
22 Ibid p.98. return to main text
23 Ibid p.161. return to main text
24 Ibid p.266 emphasis added. return to main text
25 Ibid p.132 emphasis added. return to main text

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