The Ethics of Hummus

By / Food / August 17th, 2022 / 2

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.

I don’t have many rules around the food in our house.

I’m not committed to organic or free-range, so long as the ingredients are quality enough. Only on hummus do I have laws important enough to share them with my wife for whenever it’s her turn for a grocery run. She knows never to bring home gimmick hummus, the likes of which now includes gingerbread and key-lime pie flavours, not that she would ever bring home such aberrations.

Personally, I don’t think hummus needs anything more than a well-balanced blend of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon, and oil, but I’ll allow myself the occasional roasted red pepper blend for a taste of something resembling muhammara (a more delicate and supreme Middle Eastern dip only recently appropriated by Whole Foods). When it’s my turn to shop for hummus, I try for the small batch hummus you might find at a Lebanese grocer, but only if I have time to drive halfway to the other side of the city.

But my firmest hummus rule is that, whatever the recipe, it wasn’t made by Sabra, the world’s top brand with up to 60 percent of North America’s $601.39 million market share, or Tribe, Big Chickpea’s number-two brand.

My reasons are not to do with quality, at least not entirely. Tribe is too thick and soft on the lemon and garlic, but Sabra closely resembles the hummus my mom used to make before it became a grocery store section. My problem is with their ethics. Tribe and Sabra are two of one-hundred-plus products com-piled by BDSguide.com, an exhaustive directory of pro-Israeli companies and groups to avoid as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Israel movement. It was modelled after similar anti-apartheid actions against South Africa in the 1980s.

While I don’t follow the BDS call, Sabra and Tribe are considered by many to be particularly bad offenders. Osem Group, an Israeli company that acquired Tribe from Americans in 2008, is tied to Jewish National Fund, a century-old colonial project responsible for the forced expulsion of thousands of Palestinians. They’re also set to launch more eviction proceedings of hundreds of families in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Sabra, for its part, has supported the Golani Brigade, a notorious Israeli military unit likened to a “renegade militia” by Haaretz after multiple stories going back decades in the Israeli newspaper and the New York Times exposed “hate crime,” “abuse,” and “widely publicized murders” against Palestinians. Its parent company, Strauss Group, proudly stated its support for the brigade with food and funding under its website’s “Corporate Responsibility” headline (since removed).

This has led activists to call Sabra and Tribe “apartheid hummus,” even going so far as to sticker in-store products and billboards with the label. I wouldn’t go that far, but when I see an open tub of hummus at a party, probably being vandalized with baby carrots, I always search for the lid before scooping it on my paper plate.

My ban on Tribe is new, resulting from 2021 expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah and accompanied protests. But my Sabra ban has been in effect since 2017, after spending a week in the Holy Land, where I witnessed relentless intimidation and humiliation of Palestinians, and heard stories of imprisonment and torture from teenagers. From then on, no Sabra shall enter the gates of my mouth. Tribe, too.

Of course, it’s not just about their support of initiatives likened to ethnic cleansing by a growing number of advocates and journalists. Probably dozens of BDS products go in and out of my kitchen without a second thought. It’s the symbolism of hummus. Sabra and Tribe actively contribute to the oppression of Palestinians with a staple of their diet, a food that was learned from them, and that Israelis themselves one avoided because it was too Palestinian.

“In the first two decades of the state, the Israeli people didn’t really eat local food,” Israeli food journalist Ronit Vered told NPR. “It’s also a political issue. If I eat Palestinian food, in a way, I acknowledge that they exist, that there are other people here who have food of their own.” Only after the Israeli army started serving soldiers hummus in the late 1950s did hummus gain acceptance as Jewish cuisine. Now, it’s a subculture with hummus festivals and International Hummus Day Celebrations to “discover the rich tapestry behind the Israeli national culinary treasure that is hummus,” in the words of its office of tourism.

The government is careful not to call it Jewish cuisine, but some do claim it as an ancient Jewish delicacy, based on a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible, which purports that the son of Salmon dipped his bread in mashed chickpea, not vinegar. The theory, first published in an article titled The Hummus is Ours, fails to ponder whether Boaz’s recipe in fact came from the Israelites, and not the Moabites, Canaanites, and so on. Unlike the Holy Land today, borders in the time of Boaz were very open. But never mind that. As Israeli food journalist Gil Hovav once put it: “Food is about memory and identity. … Claiming ownership over a food is a way to assert a nation’s narrative. Israeli Jews have made hummus their own.”

The effort to stake a flag in this humble food has been dubbed the “Hummus Wars,” and it has as many fronts as Israel has borders. But food flows like the wind, and for that reason I can’t accept claims of Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, or Lebanese origins either. Especially Lebanese, as I know well my people’s tendency to lay claim to everything, even Salma Hayek.

In 2008, the Lebanese government was so incensed by how hummus had become marketed in Europe as Israeli that they petitioned the EU to only allow their exported hummus designated as such, akin to Parma cheese and Champagne. Rejected, Lebanese instead engaged with Israelis in a years-long war of Guinness World Records for the largest hummus spread (Lebanon currently holds the title). Palestinians merely take credit for making hummus a symbol. Certainly, they made it political. But the fact is, no nation owns hummus any more than one owns wine.

What we commonly call “hummus,” and what Arabic-speaking people have for centuries called hummus-bit-tahini (“chickpea with tahini”), is a regional cuisine that could have been “invented” by any number of Middle Eastern and North African ethnicities, including Jewish. Israel was colonized by many Mizrahi Jews, people once identified as “Arab” or “Oriental” Jews before the great divide that purged them from their Arabic homelands. They spoke the same language as their Arab expellers, read the same books, and, more to the point, cooked the same dishes.

Lost in all the decolonization discourse around hummus is the fact that Israeli, Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian borders were sketched by the same European imperialists. If hummus-bin-tahini is, as most scholars agree, a dish invented somewhere in the Levant, then it’s no more Arab than it is Israeli or Jewish

But Sabra and Tribe is a pulse too bitter for me. I would rather eat gingerbread hummus, or none at all.

Photo Credit: Supplied

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Omar Mouallem is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. His second film, The Last Baron, documents the unlikely link between fast-food and Lebanese refugees. His second book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, was released this past fall. Omar is also the “fake dean” of Pandemic University, a virtual school he founded in support of writers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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