Interchurch Community — “The Politics of Hummus: Jewish Voice For Peace and Allies Create Alternative Interfaith Spaces”

Dan Grossman, NUVO February 13, 2019

You might not think of politics when buying a tub of hummus at the supermarket or when making it at home with your preferred proportions of chickpeas, garlic, tahini, and lemon.

But hummus can inspire debate. That is because it’s a traditional Palestinian food that has become everyday cuisine in Israel. Like just about everything else the two peoples share, it has become fodder for contention.

A recent local food fight, as it were, occurred at a hummus tasting event during the November 2018 Spirit & Place Festival. The event, co-sponsored by the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, wasn’t the first interfaith conversation to become contentious, and it wasn’t the first to leave members of groups with left-of-center views regarding Israel/Palestine feeling excluded.  

As a result, the Muslim Youth Collective, American Friends Service Committee, and Jewish Voice for Peace are now joining together to create alternative interfaith events not only for breaking bread, but also for prayer and politics. This includes a monthly interfaith shabbat service that debuted in January 2019, and is described by organizers as “non-Zionist.”

It also includes community events like Hanukkah and the Politics of Food, which took place on Dec. 3, 2018 at The Church Within. The evening started with discussion, followed by a Hanukkah singalong, menorah lighting, and a potluck with Jewish and Palestinian dishes.

There were pointedly political things said during this discussion that echo events happening on the national level.  

When the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute cancelled—and then subsequently restored—plans to bestow activist Angela Davis a human rights award because of her support for the Palestinian-led Boycott Divest Sanctions movement (BDS), they inadvertently inspired a similar conversation.

Politics and Food

“What we’re hoping to do tonight is, number one, celebrate Hanukkah,” said Malkah Bird of Jewish Voice for Peace during the Politics of Food event. “We at JVP are always looking for ways to do Jewish stuff and be in community with Jewish people and non-Jewish people without having to be in spaces that are explicitly Zionist spaces.”

Bird’s comment reflects JVP guiding principles that state Judaism, or being Jewish, is not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israel.

It’s a principle supported by another attendee that evening, Muslim Youth Collective co-founder Umaymah Mohammad who sees a built-in bias to many interfaith conversations and events.

“Zionism or pro-Israeli or whiteness isn’t seen as political, but brownness and blackness is seen as political,” she says.

Hanukkah and the Politics of Food was organized in response to the Spirit & Place Festival hummus tasting event called Hummus and Happiness that took place a month earlier.

Held at the Indiana Interchurch Center on Nov. 5, 2018, the Spirit & Place event was co-sponsored by the Muslim Alliance of Indiana (MAI), CANDLES Holocaust Museum, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).

Lindsey Mintz, executive director of the JCRC, describes the genesis of the event Hummus and Happiness:

“Several times a year, CANDLES takes a delegation to Poland to travel to Auschwitz, Jewish communities, and other concentration camps with [Holocaust survivor] Eva Kor,” she says.

One stop on that trip is a restaurant in Krakow, Poland called Hummus and Happiness. The city had a large Jewish population, pre-World War II, murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. The Jewish owner of the restaurant stayed in Krakow to, in Mintz’s words, “bring people together.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council and its partners

The core mission of the Indianapolis JCRC, according to its website, is “to safeguard Jews here in the U.S., in Israel, and around the world, by combating anti-Semitism through relationship-building and education.”

The JCRC frequently builds relationships with like-minded partners, advocating for progressive causes like hate crimes legislation, in addition to responding to anti-Semitic acts in the community.

The JCRC also sides with some Muslim groups on local issues. Last year, they released a statement expressing support for the Al Salam Foundation’s push to build a mosque in Carmel, for example. But this bridge-building does not extend to Palestinian Muslims’ political aspirations.

That is, they generally support the current Israeli government in their position statements. They keep watch on pro-Palestinian activism on local university campuses and criticize some of that activity.

But the JCRC’s having a different point of view with the Muslim Alliance of Indiana on the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, for example, didn’t prevent them from partnering to present Hummus & Happiness.

“With the Intersection theme of Spirit & Place, and CANDLES [we thought this might be] the perfect time to do this hummus-making competition and a movie and have people of all different backgrounds together sharing their stories,” said Amin. ‘Because to get a lot of those people in the same room at one time is very rare. And to get those people to actually come in with an open mind and see what the other person is saying is even harder so food brings everyone to the table.”

The goal of the evening, according to Mintz, was not political in nature.

“We wanted to bring all of these people together,” says Mintz about Hummus and Happiness. “We wanted to show some sort of film. We wanted to have a hummus making competition. We wanted to judge it and award it. We wanted to have a thoughtful conversation. That’s a lot to try and do in an evening … Now is food political? Everything is political. So we knew that had to be a thread that was acknowledged and honored but it was not the goal to have a conversation about the political complexities on the ground in Israel or Palestine today.”

JCRC staff insist they tried to make the event inclusive:

“I just wanted to add that when we went through the screening process, we invited a Muslim Palestinian American to join to have that perspective, so we were really trying to include all the different perspectives,” says the JCRC’s programming and communications coordinator Aaron Welcher.  

 Welcher was referring to Ala’a Wafa, who sits on the CIC board, and who was a panelist during the post-documentary discussion.

“I think that’s what was important to me about … having Ala’a speak on the panel was that it really highlighted the Palestinian narrative which often isn’t uplifted in American society,” continues Welcher.

Hummus and Unhappiness

Originally, the Hummus and Happiness event was meant to include a screening of the documentary Hummus the Movie.

While the event was in the planning stages, Erin Polley, program coordinator of the Indiana Peacebuilding Program for AFSC, saw the trailer for Hummus the Movie and noticed it included a map that showed the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as indistinct from Israel.

Polley brought the map issue to Charlie Wiles, executive director for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, a co-sponsor of the event.

Screenshot of Hummus the Movie

“We took that back to the committee, and we looked at it and agreed [it was problematic],” says Wiles. The JCRC and the Muslim Alliance of Indiana also concurred that the suggested film was problematic, and a different film was chosen.

But when Life & Hummus, a documentary following a young Jewish American filmmaker through Israel and the occupied West Bank in a quest to find the best hummus, was screened at the Spirit & Place event, reactions were not all charitable.

Polley, for one, feels that Palestinians get short shrift in the documentary.

“The whole movie is about hummus,” she says. “[The young filmmaker] goes to the West Bank to try hummus during Ramadan when all the shops are closed and never tries any Palestinian hummus. He interviews Palestinians; there’s some Arabs in Jaffa [in Israel] that work at jobs that he interviews as well. But they’re identified as Arabs, not Palestinians.”  

“The other film [Life & Hummus] honestly might have been more biased but it wasn’t disingenuous,” says Wiles. “It was a young Jewish kid from L.A. who wanted to go over there and learn. At least he’s being true to his narrative, I felt. Here’s a young Jewish kid from L.A. saying ‘I love hummus.’ I want to go find the best hummus in Israel and to his credit he went into the West Bank and he obviously said some things that are problematic but at the same time … if you could build some empathy for his narrative; going into the West Bank is not just a cakewalk. I appreciated the fact that he did that. In that way I was able to take some of his remarks in context.”

During the screening, there was chatter in the audience that reflected the discomfort with the film.

“Several members of JVP were there,” says Mintz. “AFSC—they made their concerns very clear by passing out materials during [the movie] and by making some event goers uncomfortable in speaking throughout the movie and making comments.”

AFSC’s Polley confirms that her group had literature available during the event, and and several people were wearing shirts reading “Leave Hummus Alone.”

“There are two people who work with JVP and AFSC; an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman,” says Polley. “As they were watching the film, they were commenting on things they were seeing. Because it’s in Israel and Palestine, the were commenting on places where they lived and visited. It wasn’t a planned sort of disruption; it was just them talking.

“But it agitated Lindsey [Mintz] very much,” Polley says.  “And she was talking to people around them, asking them if they wanted to move.”

Respectful Convos or Faithwashing?

The rift between some organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council stems from profound differences with the JCRC over Israel.

JVP, MYC, and AFSC all support the Palestinian-led Boycott Divest Sanctions movement. The goal of BDS is to inflict various forms of boycott against Israel until it ends its occupations of Arab lands, grants equal rights to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, dismantles the separation wall, and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel.

On Feb. 5, the U.S. Senate passed the Combating BDS Act of 2019, a measure that encourages states to allow economic punishment of those who support boycotting Israel.

The Jewish Community Relations Council opposes BDS which they believe aims to undermine the legitimacy of Israel.

“There’s nothing [we] could do to that would pass muster,” says Mintz. “If we have an event that does not meet their organizations’ goals or missions, then it’s not going to be satisfactory.”

Polley acknowledges the efforts made by the JCRC and others in trying to find common ground, but remains critical of what she sees as the silencing of views that don’t fall in line with those held by the JCRC.

“When you say you want it to exclude politics,” says Polley, “you’re essentially silencing a voice of people who feel like hummus is very political and has been culturally-appropriated, and there’s a lot of history behind that.”

And Polley has a term for this.

“I think there was sort of a faith washing over this conversation about hummus,” she said. “Using hummus as a way to normalize this Israeli culture and [present it as] this beautiful thing everyone can come around and experience together.”

Polley went on to express some frustration with feeling excluded from the wider faith community, although AFSC has partnered with CIC and Muslim Alliance in the past.

“Muslim Youth Collective, American Friends Service Committee, and Jewish Voice for Peace are faith organizations also, and we are connecting with people of faith,” she says.

“We have a different perspective than the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, the JCRC and the Muslim Alliance, but in the spirit of being inclusive and having real interfaith conversations, why aren’t we invited to the table?”

Malkah Bird says JVP, a national organization with several hundred on its e-mail list locally, is seeing more people of Jewish background at events they help organize.

“There were more Jews than when we started,” she says. “And part of the reason why we’re creating Jewish spaces is because there are lots of unaffiliated Jews who don’t actually feel like they have a space in the mainstream Jewish community.”

MalBird of Jewish Voices for Peace

Shabbat for All

The first monthly interfaith Shabbat For All took place on Jan. 25 at The Church Within, and will repeat at this location on a monthly basis. There were approximately 40 participants, both Jews and non-Jews.

There was a short evening service, marking the commencement of Shabbat with the Niggun, or welcoming song, followed by a pitch-in dinner. Attending the service were both Erin Polley and Umaymah Mohammad, whose organizations were cosponsors of this event along with Jewish Voice for Peace.

Darren Chittick, reverend at The Church Within, says that the Israel/Palestine conflict wasn’t on his radar until he heard Malkah Bird speak at an event.

The fact that the conflict in the Middle East is complex does not intimidate Chittick, and he decided to make space in his church for events such as Hanukkah and the Politics of Food and Shabbat for All.

“For me the, idea that there’s no way to be supportive of the Palestinian people without being considered anti-Semitic doesn’t make sense,” he says.

“And so when I started reading more about JVP and what they were doing, learning from Malkah and Mark, I realized this is information that we need to be processing and being exposed to.”

At the Shabbat dinner, Jewish Voice for Peace chapter leader Mark Sniderman gave a talk on Zionism and why JVP was creating alternate spaces. Sniderman co-founded the Indiana Chapter of JVP in 2014, in the aftermath of the Operation Protective Edge incursion into Gaza.

This conflict left 1,483 Palestinian civilians dead, including more than 500 children, according to the UN. Five Israeli civilians were also killed, including one child, by rocket attacks from Palestinian groups in Gaza during this period. The disproportionate civilian casualties in Palestine—and particularly the deaths of children in the conflict—distressed Sniderman, a married father of two.

Previously, he co-founded J Street in 2008, a liberal Jewish organization dedicated to a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. During the time he was still on the JCRC board.

A member of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, Sniderman was surprised by pushback from the organized Jewish community.

“They viewed J Street as a mortal threat for many reasons,” he says. “One: you’re not supposed to criticize Israel out loud. Jew to Jew, it’s permitted, and has been for a long time, but this has been one debate in the Jewish community that’s got a pedigree. Jew to Jew yes, but the other people won’t understand. We can’t weaken Israel by having this argument out loud.”

He resigned the JCRC on Oct. 17, 2011, “after years of cognitive dissonance and reflection,” he says.

Previously, he thought that a two-state solution was possible, per the 1993 Oslo Agreement. But his hope began to erode as Israeli politics drifted to the right—along with the positions of the JCRC, he says.

As a liberal Zionist, he had needed to believe in a two-state solution; once that belief was gone, he said, he could no longer be a liberal Zionist, or a J Street organizer.

He sees his work with JVP in keeping with his Judaism. “This is what Jewish principle commands us to do,” he says.

It’s a sentiment shared by JVP’s Malkah Bird, who grew up in a conservative Detroit Jewish congregation and says when she moved to Indianapolis, she wanted to provide Jewish community for her children.

“I started looking around at the different options, the synagogues and the JCC realizing that they were Jewish spaces but they were deeply Zionist. You walk down the hallway at the Jewish Community Center, for example,  and there’s an entire hallway lined with Israeli flags,” says Bird.

“I just wanted Judaism for my kids that was not a Zionist Judaism.”

Together, Bird, Polley, Sniderman and other allies say they are working to make that type of Jewish experience available to disaffected Jews and others, and to make the interfaith community in Indianapolis more inclusive of diverse points of view and more politically aware.

And whether such experiences include a Hanukkah celebration or a shabbat service, there will almost certainly be hummus on the table.  

Did You Know?

WHAT // Shabbat for All — Angela Davis Solidarity Shabbat

WHEN // 6:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 15

WHERE // The Church Within, 1125 Spruce St.

TICKETS // Free, but you are encouraged to bring a dish to share.

Spoken Word Too Black will speak during the Shabbat for All event.

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