Seeming to give credence to Orwell’s observation that some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals (or at least Harvard graduates) believe them, Sara el-Yafi, a Lebanese graduate of Harvard, posted an October 28th protest on her Facebook page to the university of descriptions of various foods appearing on the menu of the Israeli Mezze Station at Harvard Business School’s dining room. Apparently, the reality that this group of ethnic foods is today normally associated with Israeli cuisine was too much for the vigilant Ms. El-Yafi, who saw a nefarious jingoism in the taxonomy of the buffet items, as opposed to an innocent marketing effort created by the outside food service that provides the food to HBS.
“That ‘Israeli Mezze Station,'” el- Yafi indignantly wrote, “is the ultimate multicultural, multireligious ‘f*** you’ in the face of ALL Arabs at once from North Africa to the Levant.” What Ms. El-Yafi apparently overlooked is the fact that Jews have had a presence in the Levant for some 4000 years, including fifteen hundred during which they prepared indigenous foods before the birth of Mohammed and Islam, and which they harvested and ate identically to their Arab neighbors. El-Yafi also conveniently ignores the fact that some 856,000 Jews were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries upon the founding of Israel, two-thirds of whom eventually settled in Israel, and brought with them their culinary traditions with to the newly-created Jewish state.
But el-Yafi’s discourse about the food buffet is obviously not about history; it is about politics, and what she frames as a discussion of yet another aspect of Israel’s existence that its ideological foes in academia and elsewhere find defective. In her mind, the mislabeled food on the Israeli mezze buffet is more evidence of Israel’s original “theft” of Arab land, the historically inaccurate view that Israel has no legitimate right to exist in the first place because it usurped the lands—and culture—of Arabs. “Israel already has a hard time keeping face in the Arab world for the way it has ‘appropriated’ its lands since 1948,” she tellingly wrote on her Facebook post, “don’t make it worse for them by having them appropriate other peoples’ foods as well.”
Here, el-Yafi reveals what the disingenuous discussion about the menu items is actually about. In a world where no sensible adult would ever protest to a university the presence of American Chop Suey on a cafeteria menu as an affront to Chinese students whose indigenous cuisine has been appropriated by a culturally imperialistic America, it is now common on campuses for anti-Israel ideologues to distort history and fact in a campaign to demonize, slander, and delegitimize Israel and to sever any historical ties it has to the Levant. Israel was not created through the “appropriation” of Arab land, as el-Yafi contends; it was granted to the Jewish people by the League of Nations and 51 member countries “as of right and not of sufferance,” and “given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
El-Yafi is distorting the narrative about Jews and Israel, a trend that is common in an academia laden with pro-Palestinian sentiment. Barnard’s Nadia Abu el-Haj, for instance, wrote a book (that earned her tenure) which claimed, against all accepted evidence and history, that the Jewish link to the Levant was “invented” by devious Israeli archeologists who fashioned a historical connection of Jews only by selectively evaluating the findings of their digs.
A graduate student at the Hebrew University, Tal Nitzan, wrote a thesis with the breathtaking conclusion that the low numbers of rapes of Arab women by Israeli soldiers was not due to their restraint and humanity, but due to their inherent racism, since, in her view, they are so racist that they will not deem to even rape Arab women—who they perceive to be culturally and physically inferior to them. This morally incoherent bit of scholarship even earned her a prize from the University’s Shaine Center.
So eager are academics to devalue anything positive Israel may do in trying to elevate the Palestinian cause that they invert truth in this campaign. Sarah Schulman, a professor at the College of Staten Island of City University of New York, this year published a New York Times op-ed piece in which she assailed what she termed Israel’s “pinkwashing,” that is, that Israel uses its positive record on gay rights—something that would ordinarily endear it to liberals—as a “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
It is also ironic that, when it is convenient for the cause of campus anti-Israel activists—as is not the case with the HBS episode—they are more than willing to designate certain foods as being Israeli in character and origin: witness the 2010 campaign of Princeton University’s Committee on Palestine to institute a campus-wide boycott of Sabra hummus, owed in part by an Israeli conglomerate, or a similar University of Pennsylvania boycott call this year against Trader Joe’s brand of Israeli couscous.
In response to the Facebook complaints about the menu, an HBS spokesperson announced that the School is “deeply troubled” for having offended Arab sensibilities due to the mischaracterization of items on the Israeli Mezze buffet. But the School should not be troubled by the inadvertent, and unintentional, labeling of items on a dining room menu. The more serious issue here is whether there should have been an apology at all, whether there is, in fact, even a rational reason why anyone’s sensibilities could have been offended in the first place—and, even if they were, if there is any merit in that offense if the outrage is based on a misreading of history and fact. Perhaps the School should also be apologizing to Jewish and Israeli students, who have been accused now of usurping both the lands and culture from which the Jewish state was created in the first place.