Everyone loves to say that food is political. It’s a lens through which to experience culture, tradition, history, and economic realities. But sometimes it feels as if there is a limit. Many of those working in the restaurant industry, or surrounding industries, have been told to “stick to food” when attempting to deliver a more overt message.
After Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, Israel’s war on Hamas has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza: Israel has shut off the region’s power and water supply and blocked aid from entering, making it nearly impossible for Gaza’s civilians to escape its ongoing bombing campaign. In response, a Palestinian-led coalition of food professionals are using the restaurant industry as an organizing space to call for a cease-fire and share Palestinian culture.
Hospitality for Humanity, organized by chefs including Reem Assil of Reem’s, Omar Anini of Saffron De Twah, and Marcelle Afram of Shababi, in partnership with Jewish American chef activist, Ora Wise, and Asian American food writer and land worker, Kimberly Chou Tsun An, is calling on industry professionals — chefs, servers, writers, and farmers alike — to sign on to their pledge to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, support Palestinian voices, and boycott Israeli products. The pledge has over 800 signatories so far, including well-known chefs like Samin Nosrat, Stephen Satterfield, Sohla El-Waylly, and Bryant Terry.
“As cultural stewards in this country, we have the power to counter the dehumanization of Palestinians,” says Hospitality for Humanity in a press release. The goal is to do this by calling on signatories to emphasize Palestinian foodways and reject press events and trips to Israel, a nonviolent act they hope will pressure Israel to end its military occupation and its “horrific human rights abuses.” “We are all in this industry to affirm life and dignity for everyone,” they write. “As those who care for others, it is our moral imperative to actively contribute to the care that Palestinians need right now as they struggle to survive and get free.”
Assil notes this coalition didn’t happen overnight — it’s the result of years of organizing in the hospitality industry, among a “multicultural, multiracial, multireligious, people of all walks of life.” She spoke to us about how Hospitality for Humanity is trying to harness the cultural influence of food professionals to educate the public on the history of Palestinian cuisine and the realities of Palestinian oppression, and where and how food gets to be political.
Eater: How did this coalition first come together?
Reem Assil: This is a culmination of organizing over the last 10 years. In 2017, there were a series of these kinds of white-washing trips to Israel for the Round Table culinary festival, which featured prominent chefs and called itself “farm-to-table.” And we thought that that was really ironic, as Israelis were razing farms right next door. We wanted to put pressure on these chefs, because they are influencers in a way. So I did a series of dinners [in partnership with FIG, Amanny Ahmad, and organizers from PACBI] called the Asymmetrical Table to say, let’s use this as a moment to put Palestinian culture and food at the forefront. They were attended really well by communities and allies, with folks from Indigenous communities really drawing the parallels of food appropriation and food theft and how that adds to the dehumanization of Palestinians. Then the following year, when those series happened, we did a petition pushing Gabrielle Hamilton to pull out of the Round Table festival, which she did.
I am from Gaza. I have family in Gaza. The first week of this war was just heart wrenching. But I think the thing that hurt the most was the silence that I was feeling in the food community. I think people were scared. But the food community has the power to influence people. Chef Marcelle and chef Omar and other Palestinian chefs, we just came together and called on our allies. We were like, first and foremost, we need a cease-fire. We need the bombing to stop. So we got together and strategized this pledge.
How did you approach determining the goals and the asks of this pledge?
We are people in food. It is quite clear that we are cultural stewards. We influence culture and therefore influence voters. So we knew that just asking for a cease-fire is not enough, because we cannot go back to the status quo. We needed to be bold at this moment. We know that [the oppression of Palestinians after the establishment of the Israeli state] has been happening for 75 years. I think what was particularly important to me and a lot of us who work in the industry is that our industry comprises Black and brown folks, communities of color, working-class folks who are just struggling to get by, who can’t pay for childcare, who don’t have universal health care. And the U.S. spends almost $4 billion a year on the Israeli military. There’s a power here to say actually, one of the things to improve our industry is to divert U.S. funds from this war into our people. It’s very interconnected in that way. This is not about a global conflict. This is about us right here, right now. We know that our foreign policy is very connected with our domestic policy, and that it actually impacts every single person in the food industry.
The pledge also calls for divestment from Israeli products. Are there common products used in restaurant kitchens that this ask could really affect?
We’re really following the lead of this amazing, nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. It was started in 2005 by Palestinian civil society. I think it’s over 170 organizations that got together [to ask for a boycott of Israeli goods as a form of civil resistance]. The prominent [Israeli brands] that come to my mind are Sabra. SodaStream is another one. We’re trying to take lead from folks who’ve been doing this work.
Practically, what that looks like is really questioning these products. How are they being sourced? Asking at restaurants, where are the products coming from? Equally as important in our pledge is to invest in Palestinian products, to order products like Canaan that are really trying to build self sufficiency in the extremely hard conditions of being occupied. We’re trying to show what an egalitarian, people-centered society can look like. So just being able to support Palestinians and being able to claim our own foodways, which quite frankly, are currently being destroyed.
You get into appropriation of Palestinian food by Israel in your statement. Where does supporting Israeli restaurants in the U.S. fall here?
We’re really calling on Israeli-identified restaurateurs and chefs to join us, to invest in the support of Palestinians, and to not be profiting off of Palestinian cuisine and culture. There are Israeli chefs who are all over the political gamut. I think those who are using this moment to center Israel are a problem. We invite them to actually use their platform to say no to genocide, to say no to war, to say no to weaponizing Jewish grief to justify these [recent] atrocities.
What has been the overall response to this coalition? Were you surprised at how many signatories you got, or was that number expected?
It’s a little bit of both. Our relationships are our greatest resources. This is coming off the back of a pandemic and civil unrest and racial awakening. I think the food industry has unprecedented levels of solidarity and generosity and cooperation, and I think people are quite directly seeing that the oppression of folks here is deeply intertwined with what Palestinians are experiencing, especially as it relates to food. I’m not surprised, because asking for an end to the mass slaughter of civilians is a simple demand. [As of publication, at least 8,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.]
But I’m really delighted. When we released it on Friday just in our personal networks, we had about 250 signatories, and this morning it was over 700. What this tells me is that people are not afraid. People are losing their jobs over speaking the truth, on campuses they’re weaponizing support of Palestine and trying to call it antisemitic. But what this tells us is that there is power in numbers. That feels amazing. I feel hopeful that more people will stand up and that we will look back and say that the food industry was part of that story.
There is so much solidarity in the food industry, but also as we saw with the Black Lives Matter movement and other calls for change, it’s easy for people to just move on. What are you doing to ensure that this coalition has a lasting influence?
I come from a grassroots organizing background, as do probably a half of the coalition right now. We know that this is unfortunately not going to be an overnight thing. There’s a lot of deeper work to do in education, doing more events. There’s a deepening of relationships and trust components, exchanges between communities that are in struggle. I was reached out to by a group wanting to do a dinner between Cambodian people who have experienced genocide and Palestinian people. There are lessons to be learned between communities who have faced repression, so doing some of that work, and using food as a conduit.
Then there’s the political power part. The U.S. is creating these “gastrodiplomacy” programs. What are those guests or programs actually doing? How do we leverage the political power that the food industry has built, especially after the pandemic? And how do we continue to uplift Palestinian voices, the voices of people who’ve been dehumanized for so long?