The Culinary Sphere as a Political Arena

by Nir Avieli, author of Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

In a recent talk on my book Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel during a visit to the US, I was asked whether my findings were not in contradiction with Jewish morality, and whether my text would not make for ammunition in the hands of anti-Semitic critics of Israel. For example, wasn’t my definition of the Israeli cuisine characterized by large, cheap portions of low quality resonating with the classic anti-Semitic perceptions of “the Jew” as stingy and greedy? And wasn’t my argument that the accusations by Israelis of Thai migrant workers for systematically hunting and eating Israeli pet dogs implying that Israelis were racists?

Food and Power is indeed a political project. It deals with the misuse and abuse of power in modern-day Israel, and exposes antidemocratic, xenophobic, and racist tendencies that taint the political and public arenas. In this sense, it is a stern critique of contemporary Israeli society. It is not, however, a post-Zionist or anti-Israeli project. Rather, it is a critical analysis of an extremely important cultural realm: The Israeli culinary sphere, which has not been approached thus far as a political sphere, enmeshed in power relations.

Do my findings contradict Jewish morality? While I could have argued that academics were not an authority when it comes to moral standards, I responded that there is no monolithic or agreed upon Jewish morality but, rather, multiple interpretations of what Jewish morality was, some of which can only be described as contradictory. And oddly enough, this is exactly what my findings indicate; that different people in different contexts understand and enact Jewish morality in very different ways: Eating as much as you can no matter the quality may be understood as a manifestation of greed, but also as an expression of vulnerability and fear. Accusing the Thais of eating Israeli dogs may be pure racism, but my findings suggest that this myth has emerged as a partial solution for the shame many Israelis feel regarding the employment of foreign workers in a country that cherished “Jewish labor”.

So while Food and Power approaches some of the negative features of Israeli society, including gluttony, greed, ethnocentrism, racism, patriarchal machismo, and other forms of power abuse, I have dedicated this book to my children,  hoping that the prevailing ethno-messianic and neo-liberal ideologies which have been increasingly dominant since the mid 1990’s will eventually collapse due to their essential immorality, internal contradictions, and lack of practical solutions for the problems and difficulties Israel faces.


Nir Avieli is a Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University, Israel.


Visit Us at AAA to Save 40% on New Titles

Attending the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.? No doubt your schedule is already jam packed, but make sure to stop by the UC Press booth (#305) to save 40% on new and bestselling titles in the field. Beforehand, head on over to our conference landing page to see what’ll be on display and take early advantage of our conference discount.

Check Out These AAA Sessions Featuring UC Press Authors:

Wednesday, November 29th:

2:15PM-4:00PM: Politics and ‘The Good Life,’: Negotiating and Making Claims on State Institutions (Alvaro Jarrin)

2:15PM-4:00PM: Mindful Matter (Alaina Lemon)

2:15PM-4:00PM: Detained on Trumped-Up Charges: Migrants and the Ascendant U.S. Security-State (Deborah A. Boehm, Sarah Horton, Angela Steusse)

Thursday, November 30th

8:00AM-9:45AM: The Ethics of Entertaining, Everyday Technologies of Self-Presentation (Alaina Lemon)

Friday, December 1st:

8:00AM-9:45AM: Open and Closed Futures (Jon Bialecki)

Saturday, December 2nd: 

2:00PM-3:45PM: What is ‘analysis’? Between theory, ethnography and method (Eduardo Kohn, Nurit Bird-David)

2:00PM-3:45PM: The Moral Economy of Protest in East Asia (Kevin J. Carrico)

Sunday, December 3rd: 

8:00AM-9:45AM: Did the Olympics Change Rio? Anthropological contributions to the public debate about Olympic legacies (Susan Brownell, Erika Robb Larkins)

10:15AM-12:00PM: How Food Matters in Contested Sovereignties and Resistance (Nir Avieli)