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.