Why an Article About a Middle-Eastern Spice Prompted an Internet War

In the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, not even garnishes are safe.
Zaatar banner.jpg
Flatbread encrusted in za'atar. (Wikimedia Commons)

TEL AVIV - I can't remember the first time I ate za'atar, but I know I've been eating it my whole life.

It's a tasty spice blend, deep green in color, and until this week, I had never given it much thought. For me, an Israeli-American, born in the U.S. and now living in Tel Aviv, 20 minutes from the town where my father was born, za'atar was just what you sprinkle on your salad for an added pop of flavor. It's a mix of dried herbs -- usually oregano, thyme and marjoram -- and it makes a great dusting on top of hummus or labaneh, the thick, super-strained yogurt I routinely enjoy for breakfast. It often has sesame seeds and some chunky crystals of salt blended in, making za'atar a handy spice rub for lamb or other grilled meats. It's just food: harmless, delicious, and totally benign. It's certainly not political.

The feud between Israel and its neighbors is complicated, but the food that they share need not be.

But then last week I wrote a short, simple, 200-word piece on the herb blend for an Israeli newspaper, explaining the spice to tourists who visit the country and might be curious about it. And suddenly, faster than you can say "retweet," I realized that in this part of the world, it's not just land that's contentious. It's the very contents of your lunch.

I filed the text, describing the spice blend as a Middle Eastern favorite enjoyed by Israelis. An anonymous web editor was left in charge of selecting a photo and writing a headline. The piece ran with a title calling za'atar "The Spice of Israel" and a picture of an Arab, headscarf-wearing woman hand-sorting the mix.

Within moments, the armchair outrage of online commentators began clogging up my Twitter feed.

"In the latest step of its ongoing psychological war with Hezbollah, Israelis claim za'atar," tweeted Foreign Policy's David Kenner.

"Za'atar, the spice of Israel. Oh dear, this could start a war," wrote the Guardian's Brian Whitaker.

Can you say hashtag hyperbole?

And from Muhammad Karim, a marketing manager for the BBC: "WTF?!? -à 'Za'atar, the spice of Israel,' this could spark some violence. They're stealing the whole culture now..."

Karim comments became somewhat of a refrain. A user going by the name Farah Filasteen (get it?) wrote: "I present to you: Za'atar, the spice of #Israel! What else are you now going to steal?"

I had no idea what the headline was when I saw these comments. Clicking on the story and clucking my tongue, I wrote the editors at the newspaper and asked them both to change the headline and swap out the photo. After all, za'atar is a spice enjoyed across the entire region. It is no more Israeli than hummus or shwarma. It's one of those rare, lovely things we actually share.

The editors admitted the headline was unfortunate, but didn't want to change it, saying it would be seen as a "victory" for the other side. Eventually, however, they demurred.

The headline and photo were not just unfortunate. They were incorrect. But they didn't happen because of a deep-seated Jewish desire for historical revisionism or because of some sinister plot to repackage Arab culture as our own. They came because the editor on the desk was probably tired, and under-caffeinated, and didn't take the piece too seriously. And why should he have? We're not talking about the Green Line. We're talking about a handful of green herbs.

Israeli food, like much of Israeli culture, has long been ladled from a steaming melting pot. Food staples here run the gamut from Yemenite baked dough ( jachnun) to Austrian pounded meat (schnitzel, which is stuffed into pita bread at the same rate as the ubiquitous falafel) to the mushy, hardy ghetto fare of Eastern Europe that reminds our bellies of the ghosts who never made it out.

But despite our tensions with our neighbors , Israel is in the Middle East. Our soil is as Levantine as that of the Muslims who surround us, and while Israel is young, its culinary traditions are ancient and they are linked to the land. We eat za'atar here because its ingredients are grown here, weaned from the earth just as the biblical seven species -- barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and wheat -- are.

That doesn't make za'atar Israeli, but it also doesn't make it Palestinian or Lebanese. This is a high-density zone, with a history of tectonic migration and displacement. Nothing is steady here, least of which the passing of flavors and foods.

There are major issues in this region, some of which may never be solved. But if I learned anything this week, it is this: Sparring over who came first to a fistful of oregano and thyme is absurd. Once upon a time in this broken sliver of land, the bloodline of Israelis and Palestinians began with two brothers who broke bread together in Abraham's tent. Our feud is complicated, but the food that we share need not be.

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Debra Kamin is a writer and editor living in Israel.

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