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A bad taste in the mouth

Reading through restaurant reviews, I didn’t think (because there was no reason to) that the Gaza war would show up, but it did.

Newspaper left on a park bench. Credit: un-perfekt/Pixabay.
Newspaper left on a park bench. Credit: un-perfekt/Pixabay.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

For several years now, my media consumption habits have been guided in part by what I call my “escape routes.”

As someone who spends his days immersed in reports and analysis of news events that are extraordinarily depressing—war and conflict in Europe and the Middle East, the inexorable rise of antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, the historical precedents for the difficult political questions we confront today and much else on similar lines—I need these escape routes for the good of my mental health. They also remind me that while I’m paid for the privilege of writing and thinking about politics and international affairs, millions of people pursue careers and projects that have nothing to do with my concerns, which is precisely why I use the term “escape routes” when I read about their endeavors. They are a window onto the calmer and more leisurely world that exists out there, and my visits fortify me when I go back to the issues that matter to me both professionally and personally.

It’s why I read the sports pages, to monitor the teams I follow and read what the coaches and players are saying. It’s why I read music reviews, to check up on whether my favorite bands are in the studio or if they are touring, and hopefully, discover some new gems. It’s why I adore restaurant reviews, not just of establishments in the cities where I live or work but of eateries further afield. This—all of this—is a harmless escape, a chance to read some decent writing that isn’t about politics, allowing me to return to my own writing feeling refreshed.

But I have to tell you, this method isn’t really working anymore.

In the last six months, since the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel unleashed a war that has dominated the media, I’ve seen my escape routes pulled into my professional concerns. The sports pages have been littered with reports of discrimination against Jewish athletes, such as the firing of South Africa’s U-19 cricket team captain because he is Jewish, or the refusal of the Irish women’s basketball team to stand respectfully for the “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, immediately prior to a contest in which, happily, they were trounced by their Israeli opponents. Music has become a cesspool of artists, including some whose songs I love, with them signing up to various boycott initiatives targeting Israel alone, leaving cutting-edge Israeli acts—like the electronic duo Red Axes, whom I interviewed recently—feeling isolated and rejected. And now, I’ve discovered that even restaurant reviews, of all things, are no longer immune from any mention, let alone criticism of, Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The disapproval and the resentment are pervasive, seeping into the corners of websites and news outlets that would normally have no business discussing Israel and the Palestinians, or any other conflict (and, of course, they don’t tend to discuss those other conflicts.)

Over the last week, I’ve encountered two items on the food pages like this. The first was the eagerly awaited New York Times list of the top 100 restaurants in the city. I clicked on that in order to see whether I’d visited any that made this year’s selection, as well as choose some of the establishments where I’d like to go. I didn’t think (because there was no reason to think) that the Gaza war would show up here, but it did.

The food critic at the Times, Pete Wells, classified one restaurant—Falafel Tanami, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, at number 65—as “Israeli.” In the accompanying paragraph describing the food, Wells didn’t mention the word “Israel” or talk about the conflict once. Instead, he waxed lyrically about the quality of the falafel balls served there. But that wasn’t the case with the restaurant that came in at number 74—Ayat, an eatery that is also in Brooklyn that Wells classified as “Palestinian.” In this case, Wells used half of his allotted paragraph to tell us that its main location features a mural of “Palestinian children behind bars under the Aqsa Mosque, between the phrases ‘down with the occupation’ and ‘live in peace,’” adding that as “Ayat has multiplied locations, it has kept up its paired messages of peace and support for the people of Palestine.” I came away from reading that wondering whether the recommendation was for the food or for the politics. Needless to say, none of the other cuisines emanating from countries that are also global trouble spots—Nigeria, Mexico and Korea, among them—warranted similar treatment.

After the Times, it was The Guardian. That paper, which is known for its harsh coverage of Israel, published a review last weekend of a non-kosher, Ashkenazi-style deli in North London by its food critic, Jay Rayner. I knew that Rayner was Jewish, in part because I’d seen some good-natured joshing from some of his Jewish readers about his fondness for pork and seafood dishes. But that didn’t prepare me for what I read.

Rayner did spend most of the review talking about the food, which he said he enjoyed, while noting that the chicken-soup broth needed more salt. But then came the clincher: “Could I really write about a Jewish restaurant given the current political turmoil? Would I get abuse for doing so?” Rayner wrote. “Surely better to keep shtum. At which point I knew I had no choice: I had to write about it. The horrendous campaign of the government and armed forces of Israel in Gaza cannot be allowed to make being Jewish a source of shame.” He proceeded to berate Israel for allegedly making “life for Jews who live outside Israel and have no responsibility for the decisions its government takes, so very much harder,” before concluding: “And so I sit here with my terrific salt beef sandwich and my chocolate mousse, indulging that bit of my Jewish identity which makes sense to me. It’s not much, but it’s all I have.”

It’s nearly impossible to imagine Rayner, or any other food critic, mentioning the persecution of the Uyghur minority by the Beijing regime in a review of a Chinese restaurant or asserting that a reviewer of Chinese origin is obliged to invoke this crisis of conscience in a discussion of Peking duck. Not so with Jewish cuisine, especially when some Jewish writers are all too willing to join in the chorus of opprobrium. One has to ask, if a Jewish restaurant was serving Sephardic staples like kubbeh or chicken with couscous, instead of Ashkenazi ones like chopped liver or latkes, would a review of that establishment contain a barb about how these dishes have been appropriated by the Jewish colonizers from the Arabs, without mentioning the long, largely unhappy sojourn of Jewish communities in Arab countries? If so, it’s safe to say that none of the editors would bat an eyelid upon receiving such copy.

I am not, of course, asking for sympathy now that my media escape routes have been closed down; there are far more pressing matters of life and death to worry about. My point is that if we have really reached a juncture where a discussion of eating out necessitates critical mention of Israel but no other country—a trend likely to worsen following the tragic deaths of seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid workers in Gaza last week—it’s further proof that the Palestinian issue dominates the Western conscience more than any other. And because of its naked one-sidedness, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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