It is the 1960s and a systematic effort to create a collective 'Israeli' identity is at its peak. Falafel is nationalised into Israeli culture and used as a symbol of 'Israeliness' as part of its nation-building campaign. Popular songs claiming falafel as an exclusive Israeli provenance, like And We Have Falafel, are composed, while falafel restaurants - reconstructed in Arab street-vendor fashion - are mapped across the state.
Fifty-one years later, Israel's branding of falafel persists, both locally and internationally, from popular postcards labelling falafel "Israel's national snack" to McDonald's recently 'Israelised' menu that includes a kosher McFalafel sandwich.
In the short film Soup over Bethlehem, Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour chronicled the relationship between food and politics to tell the Palestinian narrative. Now, in Falafel Road, a project that stemmed from an art residency with the London-based Live Arts Development Agency, Sansour, in collaboration with Israeli artist Oreet Ashery, visits London eateries, recording what they call "the falafel experience".
Deconstructing the myth
Composed of a series of short videos using a FlipCam, Falafel Road is a sequence of conversations provoked by the initial question of whether Israel appropriated falafel, and almost all segue into a debate on the questions of Palestine and Zionism.
"We wanted to try to show the falafel taste in London. There are Israeli restaurants in London that claim they are the originator of falafel. The whole idea of the project led to complications because we had to explain why Israel wants to claim such a belonging to the land," Sansour said.
Sansour and Ashery's project attracted an international audience, and the discussions were set up so that anyone could join them. They also issued an open call for people to send footage of their falafel experience.
"A lot of the people didn't understand what all the problems were about, but the more we talked about it the more questions they asked, and the more clear it [be]came to us how to clarify it in a better way," Sansour said.
Although the duo predominately visited Arab-run falafel restaurants, they also encountered Israeli-run eateries. In a visit to a restaurant operated by Iraqi Jews, Sansour and Ashery talk about about their discomfort upon hearing militant Israeli music being played in the restaurant.
"This genre of music came from the era of Israeli military bands, and whilst they might sound 'innocent' to everyday Israeli listeners, they are steeped in military and Zionist overtones, and are part of the brain-washing machine that the Israeli national project is. If we had any doubts earlier as to how politicised falafel was, this experience put an end to them," writes Ashery on the Falafel Road blog.
In 2009, Sansour and Ashery, who at 19 left Israel for the UK, published a graphic novel about two superheroes - a Palestinian and an Israeli - who work together to save Palestine. The Novel of Nonel and Vovel was the precursor for working together on Falafel Road. Both maintained a blog of their travels and recordings during the project, which then culminated into an exhibition at Istanbul's DEPO cultural centre in January.
"It was never about establishing falafel's origins. This project is very much about a foreign culture coming in and colonising the culture of the Arabs," Sansour said.
The project has elicited some criticism from Palestinians, including Sansour’s family, who have joined in the murmur of accusations of "normalisation". For many Palestinians, collaborating with Israelis, however progressive their politics, is considered normalisation because it implies equity and a neutral narrative between occupied Palestinians and Israelis.
Despite the wide support for the political and academic boycott, there exists a great deal of discomfort and confusion about the tactics and intentions of anti-normalisation work. While the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, PACBI, calls for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel and its institutions, it does not call for boycotting individuals. More precisely, it does not call for the boycott of Israeli individuals whose artistic and cultural work challenges the polices of the state of Israel.
For Ashery and Sansour, who have been collaborating since 2007, the question of the boycott comes up often, both on their blog and in conversation. It is perhaps inevitable that these questions arise, given the increasing influence of the boycott movement which targets artists it deems to be collaborators.
On the Falafel Road blog Ashery writes: "It became apparent that we can easily fall into the trap of ‘a dialogue’, of what is it like for both sides, something we were always keen to avoid, as it is not an equal situation in reality. Finding a mode of a conversation that usefully represents our position, that of a resistance to the occupation, rather than a 'dialogue based on two perspectives' is the task at hand."
In 2006, Elia Suleiman, the acclaimed director of The Time That Remains, suspended his signature from PACBI's petition for the cultural boycott of Israel. The petition, which has over 120 signatures, ranging from filmmaker Ken Loach to novelist Arundhati Roy, calls on intellectuals both inside and outside of Palestine to "appeal to the Israeli people to give up their silence, to abandon their apathy, and to face up to their responsibility".
While Suleiman supports the academic and institutional boycott of Israel, he was quoted in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir stating his disagreement with how certain notable Israeli filmmakers were being ostracised for simply having an Israeli passport, despite producing work that is critical of the Zionist state.
Sansour admitted that she felt Falafel Road would be easier for a Western audience to accept, without being dismissed as propaganda, if she had an Israeli working on the project.
"People tend to think that such a project tends to re-enforce normalisation, when, in fact, it is anything but. There is a misunderstanding of the boycott , and it is a problem for Palestinians because it becomes like a witch-hunt almost. We made a great effort in our book published in 2009 to show the opposite and even mock the concept, and we make it clear that we abide [by] the cultural boycott," Sansour said.
On February 15, the Israeli knesset approved an initial reading of a bill that would fine Israeli citizens who boycott Israeli institutions or individuals. Under the proposed law, any group or individual can sue boycotters for damages of up to 30,000 shekels ($8,500) without having to prove that damage was caused.
This latest move by the Israeli government is just one of many policies the knesset has put in motion to counter what they fear is a campaign to "delegitimise" Israel. And while the bill primarily targets citizens inside the state, it also calls for foreign nationals who encourage anti-Israel boycotts to be denied entry into Israel.
Just as Palestinians inside Israel are targeted by the state for their activism, the Israeli left is ostracised by both its government and anti-normalisation activists. It is a pertinent question that must be asked: By virtue of having a creative partnership with an Israeli artist, is one guilty of violating the boycott of Israel by Palestinians?