Op-Ed | Mashed potatoes, hummus and settler colonialism
Published: Monday, November 19, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 19, 2012 12:11
There’s something about November that never fails to transport me back to my days in elementary school. I remember the excitement boiling up in my stomach in anticipation of that ambiguous period known as “the holidays.” It was finally time to dust off the age-old story of Thanksgiving and cut feathers out of red, yellow and orange construction paper for my headdress. My heart would always flutter at the thought of being able to reveal to yet another group of people that I am related to William Bradford — “the guy who invented Thanksgiving” I would boast.
At the same time, however, we were all aware that there was something off about the holiday. We knew that there were people here before us and that we shouldn’t refer to them as Indians because that was racist. Instead we call them Native Americans. That gave them the credit they deserved. There was also something about a trail and tears and blankets and smallpox.
Of course, at the time I did not know that “settler colonialism” was the phrase used to describe what my ancestors had done to the indigenous population. At its most basic form, settler colonialism can be defined as a specific deployment of colonialism that involves the settlement and subsequent reproduction of a foreign population on another’s land, generally resulting in the eviction of the indigenous population.
Our annual retrospective of the First Thanksgiving presents us with a narrative of the Pilgrims’ courage and triumph that distracts from this blatant example of settler colonialism. We applaud the first settlers for finally succeeding in cultivating the “New World,” yet rarely do we mention that this eventuated the violent expulsion of Native Americans. Even when we do choose to acknowledge the blood on our hands, we speak of it as something of the past, as something that our ancestors did, as something that we can’t change.
Unfortunately, it is insufficient for us to limit our understanding of settler colonialism to just “that unfortunate part of our history” because it did not end with the physical occupation of New England and the ethnic cleansing of the natives. Rather, it has become a mindset that has been dangerously internalized by our society.
Why do we fill our stomachs with mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, turkey and pumpkin pie? The answer is simply that they make us feel American. I am not talking about the same American-ness that we feel when we go to a baseball game. Instead, these foods have an indigenous air around them, and by eating them we feel a sense of belonging. Therefore, the consumption of such foods provides us with a vehicle through which we legitimize our claim to this land.
My intention is not to stop people from eating mashed potatoes. Quite the opposite; by eating foods native to North America we can perhaps curb the detrimental effect of globalized food consumption, and mashed potatoes are delicious. Instead, I seek to highlight how we have internalized this settler colonial mindset to such a degree that we see nothing wrong with celebrating these foods as “authentically American.”
Settler colonialism in the United States has been so effective that we do not even recognize a frighteningly similar narrative at play in the Israeli context. On Thursday, Friends of Israel held an event in the Carmichael Lounge called “A Taste of Israel.” According to the event’s flier, the dishes offered that night were “Moroccan salad, Yemenite jachnun, Bedouin baklava, falafel, and hummus,” among others. Certainly, these foods can be found in Israel, and dishes like Moroccan salad and Yemenite jachnun are linked to the cultural heritages of many Mizrahi Jewish Israelis. Additionally, there is certainly a population of Bedouins that resides within Israel, and I’m sure their baklava is delicious. However, how can we celebrate this dish under a title such as “A Taste of Israel” when hundreds of thousands of Bedouins were violently expelled from their land during the 1948 war, and some continue to fall victim to home demolitions and forced resettlement at the hands of the Israeli government? The point is not whether Israelis eat this food. Rather, there lies within the spirit of this event a problematic implication that these largely Arab foods somehow contribute to a national Israeli culture, even though the state of Israel refuses to allow its Arab citizenry to participate in the national experience as equals.
What may be seen as a benign celebration of the plurality of identities within Israel instead serves to distract from this egregious display of settler colonialism. Events such as these contribute to the Zionist effort to assimilate within the Middle Eastern context and realize the colonial dream. As we begin to view Israel as anything less than a colonial power, it becomes easier for us to compartmentalize the human rights violations committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians, such as those that we have witnessed over the course of the past week. We are also better able to accept the fact that Palestinians and other populations are continually marginalized by the Jewish state, simply because they themselves are not Jewish. By allowing supporters of Israel to conflate colonizing power with indigenous population, we are committing a type of violence against those that fall victim to Israel’s oppressive and racist policies.
It is upon us as those who prosper from a land that is stained with the blood of Native Americans to confront further instances of settler colonialism. We have already pushed the indigenous populations of North America into reservations that we cannot see and do not have to confront. Is this really what is in store for Palestine? Are we going to sit here idly and watch as the Israeli government forces Palestinians off of their land and imprisons them within the confines of a wall in order to physically and mentally compartmentalize their existence?