Are the Jews/Israelis appropriating Arab Food Hummus, Falafel etc..?

  • 1 minute read
  • • by Sharon Koifman
  • • May 2, 2023

Israel had 2 million Arabs and 3-4 million Jews descended from refugees of the Arab World. Of course, there is Arab culture in Israel.

And some of those dishes come from Biblical times and from Ancient Jewish cuisine. For example, the dough-wrapped meat known as Kubbeh was created to preserve the meat for a few more days in the dough so we could eat it on Shabbat without slaughtering any animals that day. It is no cultural appropriation to eat from your own indigenous cuisine.

I can’t, but I must, but I can’t, but I must because I promised you that I would answer any question and challenge brought by our opponents, even if it’s clearly petty, hateful actions, taken by one nation against another in bad faith. 

I still recall sitting behind a Hillel booth offering people falafel during a multicultural day at my university where an Arab guy and his posse approached our table and started shouting, “This is not Falafel balls, this is shit balls,” Which I replied while chewing, “this is some pretty good Shit, I recommend you try.” You might assume this is a one-off extreme case, but no. There is quite a lot of resentment among some Arabs, that Israel shares food with them. 

In 2008, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists was suing Israel for claiming Hummus and Falafel to be also Israeli dishes. This happened for real! But while this Lawsuit sounds almost as bad as if the Chinese would sue the Italians for Noodles, I’m happy to break down why these accusations are not only petty but completely baseless. So let’s start with the first question: if the Lebanese are claiming that Hummus and Falafel are exclusively Lebanese food, why aren’t they suing other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, who Also have these dishes as part of their culinary experience? Actually, the first time a falafel recipe was written down was in a medieval Egyptian cookbook, so chances are it’s not Lebanese at all. Yet the fact that the Lebanese are going against the only Jewish state questions whether they are truly concerned about culinary heritage. 

Now some would challenge that the Association of Lebanese Industrialists is suing Israel on Behalf of the Arab Ethnicity. Besides that, about 21% (2mil) of Israeli’s population are Arabs. To top it up, more than half of the 7 million Jews in Israel are descendants of the 850K refugees that were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries. In other words, more than fifty percent of the country is of Arab Heritage. You simply don’t get to kick out people and complain that the traditions came with them.

But here’s the kicker, even the other half of European-descended Jews have a perfectly legit claim to this food. We already tackled in other questions that Ashkenazi Jews are equally descended of Judea 2000 years ago and are very much indigenous, there is the proceeding inquiry if the local food that is known as Levanting food actually preceded the Arabs that live there today.

Based on New archeology research focusing on Ancient Israelites’ food, Fellow Activist Dani Ishai Dehan has compiled a list of food that is often being accused of being appropriated but might have actually been appropriated by the accuser.

Here’s the breakdown

Hummus – A chickpea paste meshed with Tekhina (tahini) that is often, but not always, cooked with lemon juice and garlic. Although the earliest surviving record of this recipe is from an Arabic cookbook, all evidence points to it being far older.

Firstly, chickpea cultivation in the Levant goes back to 8000 BCE, at the latest. Chickpeas were a daily source of protein in ancient Israel and were consumed in all manners, including blending them into pastes (hummus) and frying them in patty form (falafel, more on that in a bit).

Secondly, we have what is seemingly a direct reference to hummus in Ruth 2:14: “And Boaz told her when it came time to eat, ‘come forward and eat the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.”  Yet the Hebrew term for “vinegar” (“hometz”) which sounds virtually identical to the modern Arabic term “hummus” and to the modern Hebrew term “himtza”, which means “chickpeas.” It is unlikely that hamitz or hometz actually meant “vinegar”, since vinegar is an acid that, while often used in cooking, is not served on its own. Certainly not on a romantic date. Hummus, by contrast, is very much a dip. The Arabic term “hummus” is most likely just a bastardized form of the ancient Hebrew word for chickpeas.

Falafel – As with hummus, the oldest surviving reference to falafel is from a medieval Egyptian cookbook. However, the Egyptian version is markedly different from the Levantine one. Namely, the Levantine version is made with chickpeas (see above), whereas Egyptian falafel is made with fava beans. Chickpeas were being fried in oil form, as patties, long before the Arab conquests, so the odds of them having “introduced” it to the region are nil. 

Basbousa – A semolina cake drenched in date syrup. In ancient Israel, semolina was often used for baking cakes and other desserts, which would then be sweetened with date honey/syrup. Then, as now, various nuts (particularly almonds) would be added in.

The connection between ancient Israelite semolina cake and basbousa seems fairly straightforward.

Halva – Although the precise origins of halva are still a matter of debate, there is sufficient evidence that Jews have been eating Levantine halva since Biblical times. This version is made from tahini, a type of ground sesame paste that was allegedly introduced to Israel by the ancient Persians either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. However, sesame and honey (the main ingredients for halva) have existed in Israel since the Natufian period. The Babylonian Exile predates the Arab conquest by more than 1,000 years, whereas the Natufian period predates the Arab invasions by 9-10,000 years, so halva is obviously not an Arab food. According to archaeologists, sesame in a “cake-like form” (halva) was eaten by Jews in ancient Israel. Some scholars have even theorized that Levantine halva may, in fact, be the fabled manna mentioned in the Torah. Other optional ingredients (e.g. pistachios) may also be included.

It is commonly assumed, based on the etymology of the term “halva” (Arabic for “sweet”) and the fact that the earliest recorded mention of halva is in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook, that halva is an Arab food. This view is flawed for a number of reasons. One, ground sesame (tahini) forms the basis of the Israeli halva. Although sesame is native to the Levant and Mesopotamia, it does not grow in the Arabian Peninsula (as the environment there is too arid to support such a crop). Furthermore, ground sesame is mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian texts going back at least 3,000 years (at a time when Israel and Mesopotamia were closely linked), so the concept certainly did not arise in Arabia. As with hummus and pita, the idea that no one in the Levant ate tahini before the Arabs arrived is ludicrous.

Second, Levant style halva is apparently old enough that it had been eaten by Ashkenazi Jews in Europe for well over 1,000 years, even in areas that had never been touched by the Arabs or the Ottomans. Third, and most importantly, it was customary for Arab colonists to attach Arabic names to foods, clothing items, instruments, and even cities taken from indigenous peoples. The fact that halva is an Arabic term is by no means conclusive proof, or even evidence, of Arab origin. If anything, it is consistent with the pattern of Arab colonialism and the appropriation of indigenous cultures.

The most likely explanation is that Levantine halva is an indigenous (albeit Persian-influenced) southern Levantine food that had been eaten by Jews since antiquity, but had an Arabic name grafted onto it either during or after the Arab conquests.”

Za’atar flatbread – A flatbread or cake peppered with za’atar. In Hebrew, za’atar is known as “ezob” and was used as both a condiment (for everything ranging from meats to cakes and, yes, flatbreads) and a ritual purification agent.

Again, fairly straightforward.

Kubbeh – According to Mor Altshuler, our ancestors in Israel invented kubbeh so we could eat meat on Shabbat without slaughtering any animals that day. The meat would then be wrapped in dough so it wouldn’t spoil before Saturday. It is referred to in some other parts of the Middle East as “Jewish kofta.”

Speaking of…

Kofta – Referred to in Miriam Feinberg Vamosh’s book as “Martha’s meatballs,” kofta is made from cooked chicken/lamb/beef/goat mixed with spices and sometimes other ingredients.

Shawarma – Thin-cut meat (usually cooked lamb or goat, but could also be chicken or beef) with leafy vegetables wrapped in flatbread.

Those familiar with Torah will know that this essentially describes Hillel’s sandwich.

Kebab – Meat and vegetables skewered on a stick. Although a universal concept, kebabs are named outright in cookbooks on Biblical cuisine. However, as with many other foods on this list, kebabs were likely only consumed by upper classes and kings. 

Dolma and Globi – Cheese wrapped in cooked vine leaves and cooked in fried sweetened “ball” form. Like kofta, these dishes are both mentioned in Miriam Feinberg Vamosh’s book.

Baklava – Although the origins of baklava are uncertain, the earliest form of baklava (layered dough, chopped nuts, cinnamon, and honey) is believed to have originated in Assyria circa 800 BCE. From there, it made its way into Israel/Judea where it was consumed by ancient Jews.

Lentil soup – A soup made with lentils (obviously), peas, beans, and sometimes meat. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, and is referred to as “Nezid”/”Meraq Adashim” in Hebrew.

Molokhia – An ancient Egyptian stew derived from an inscription on a pharaonic tomb, Molokhia quickly made its way to Israel where it was regularly consumed by Jews.

For the most part, Arabs (and, to a lesser extent, Turks) did not bring anything exotic with them on their conquering sprees. Instead, their custom was to take local cultures – be it art, history, music, or cuisine – and attach their own names to them, thus rechristening it as “theirs.” The same has been and is being done in Israel, to the Jewish people.

So what do you say, Lebanon? Are you ready to return Kubbeh to the Jews? 


Typos, correction, improvements, you think the content sucks You think we suck. Press the button on the right for private messages or comment below

Related articles:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Can't think of a question? Browse the answers to the most recent questions posted to us.

Answered Questions