I have been reading The New York Times all my life. It’s my hometown newspaper. Sometimes, I enjoy or agree with its opinions (and there are nothing but opinions in it now). Sometimes, I cannot bear its biased and wildly unbalanced coverage of Israel and Jews.
How does propaganda work? Sometimes, it consists of Big Brazen Lies—no apology, no context, no facts. It’s all narrative-driven with a malevolent purpose. More often, it’s a steady, low-key diet of info-bits that are meant to normalize the larger lies. The New York Times does this brilliantly.
For example, in the Times’ Sept. 11 Book Review, Karen Armstrong, who has been the Times‘ go-to person on Saudi Arabia, was featured. Armstrong, who is an ex-nun, stated, “My understanding of religion was transformed nearly 30 years ago by the great Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). Sadly, he is little known in the West.” She often quotes from al-Arabi.
Armstrong emphasized that people who are ignorant of other faiths do not understand that God cannot be “confined to one creed.” To prove it, she said that Al-Arabi quoted the Quran: “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.” Her audiences in Pakistan, she said, are always “relieved to hear it.” Al-Arabi wrote “Allah,” not “God,” but I quibble.
When Armstrong was asked which three writers she would invite to a dinner party, she answered: “My guests would be Confucius, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad because I would like them to tell me … what they had in common and what was most needed in our world today.”
Hmm… but there is no Moses, no Jewish ethics or laws, no desire to invite Moses for dinner.
Such a small thing, and something said by an interviewee, not by the interviewer—and yet, small things eventually add up to the disappearance of Judaism and Israel from the map of memory.
In the Times magazine, also on Sept. 11, an article titled “Journey to the Plate: The back story of this spicy dish of shrimp and greens traces a line of authenticity and discovery” by Yotam Ottolenghi appeared. The recipe in question is a Filipino dish in which taro leaves are cooked down with coconut milk. The leaves and other ingredients are not easy to find in the New World—but Elaine Goad, who grew up in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Britain, came to work in the Ottolenghi kitchen in West London. Elaine’s “comfort zone” is the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea.
Get ready for it.
Ottolenghi wrote, “So, to pair the laing (leaves) of her childhood with cod, she flicked through ‘Falastin,’ the Palestinian cookbook written by my colleagues Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, and there she found a spice mix for fish. The mild sweetness of the mix, which has cardamon, cumin, paprika and turmeric worked perfectly.”
Another very small thing, but one that normalizes the false narrative that there always was a “Falastin” and that the recipes of the indigenous Arab world, which consisted of Christians and Jews as well as Muslims and a host of other religions, were somehow specific to “Falastin.” By the way, Ottolenghi wrote the introduction to the Falastin cookbook.
There’s more from the Paper of Record.
On Feb. 12, 2020, Ligaya Mishan, the Times’ food critic, wrote about the increasing number of cookbooks for Palestinian/Falastinian food. Rarely does one read food reviews that politicize recipes, let alone to such an extreme and persistent degree.
Mishan wove one lie after another into her food narrative. She wrote, “How to speak of the cuisine, given the political context? Alongside recipes, must there be testimony to the daily tolls of life under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of local olive trees over the past half century?”
Mishan did ask whether the rockets lobbed into Israeli territory, the rise of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, etc., “can make a case for suffering on both sides.” Still, she continued to refer to certain dishes as Gazan or Ramallah-specific, which they may be, but this does not mean that they are “Palestinian” as opposed to regional Arab and Mediterranean dishes.
In addition, Mishan blamed the alleged loss of a Palestinian food identity on an Israeli occupation in which land has been seized and “85% of Gaza’s fishing waters placed off-limits. Palestinian farmers have been separated from their fields by barrier walls; the flow of water is restricted and Palestinians are currently forbidden to dig or restore wells without a permit.”
Mishan also wrote, “It’s worth noting that the term ‘Israeli cuisine’ is of fairly recent vintage … and appears to have more currency outside Israel. … The Israeli journalist Ronit Vered, who writes for the newspaper Haaretz, suggested that because the country is so young, ‘we don’t know yet what is Israeli and what is just part of the region’s diet’—but there is a willful refusal by some Israelis, she said, to acknowledge Arab influences.”
Along the way, Mishan denigrated Jewish dishes in Israel that have European origins. But why?
Finally, Mishan cited some demographics: “Around 1.9 million Palestinians live within the borders of Israel, 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the breathlessly crowded 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Six million, nearly half the total population, make up the diaspora. They are a people who have no country to call their own, like the Basques in Spain, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Roma in eastern Europe and, for millenniums, the Jews.”
What is such propaganda doing in a piece written by a food critic? Is this now typical of all food writing—or is it specific to attempts to bolster a narrative that a country that has never existed is really first among nations and has always existed?
In March of 2022, Mishan continued her politicized food column vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the Times. She featured the very creative food artist Mirna Bamieh, who “stages dinner performances.” Bamieh accused Israel of stealing or “appropriating” Palestinian cuisine: “hummus, falafel, couscous, etc. We are not allowed to collect wild herbs.”
Enough. Mishan and Bamieh were writing about a lentil dish. I have noted that lentils were “one of the first farmed crops in the entire Middle East region.”
My God! Lentils are used in recipes by Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Saudis, etc. and by Jews in Israel and the diaspora of all these countries.
But, more importantly, a reader does not have her guard up when she is reading a food column or a recipe. This means that dropping propaganda, drip by drip, like honey into a recipe, is more likely to enter one’s bloodstream. This is what makes the small info-bits quite insidious.
Phyllis Chesler is an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness and A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killings.