Did Yale remove the word ‘Israeli’ from a campus couscous dish? Yes and no

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Did Yale remove the word ‘Israeli’ from a campus couscous dish? Yes and no

Sophomore Sahar Tartak posted on X that a dish offered on campus named “Israeli couscous salad with spinach and tomatoes” had been renamed to remove the word “Israeli.”

A bowl of raw organic Israeli couscous. (Getty Images)
A bowl of raw organic Israeli couscous. (Getty Images)

Fights over Israel and the Palestinians on campus have taken place on quads across the country, in classrooms and, recently, in the halls of Congress.

This week, at Yale University, the debate moved to the dining hall. And from there, of course, to social media.

On Monday, sophomore Sahar Tartak posted on X, formerly Twitter, that a dish offered on campus named “Israeli couscous salad with spinach and tomatoes” had been renamed to remove the word “Israeli.” Her tweets on the change were shared thousands of times.

“Imagine returning to your dining hall to find that salad labels were renamed to remove mention of the salads being ‘Israeli,’” wrote Tartak, who has written in recent weeks about facing hostility on campus as a pro-Israel student. “That happened at Yale this week. It’s the subtle changes and redactions that are the most pernicious.”

The claim was amplified by Libs of TikTok, the massively popular right-wing social media account run by Chaya Raichik, who is Jewish, and who included images of the Israeli couscous salad label before and after the name change.

Whether the change had actually taken place, however, was unclear. The following day, Viktor Kagan, another student, shared an image of the salad bar on Dec. 12 that showed that the word “Israeli” had returned to the name of the dish, spurring allegations that the whole story had been made up.

Neither Kagan nor Tartak responded to JTA requests for comment. But it turns out they were both right. A representative from Yale’s office of communication told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that in July, Yale Hospitality, which oversees campus dining, decided to remove ethnic and geographical markers from food labels.

“Authenticity of the food and naming of the recipes have been a concern brought to us by students in the past. There were times that they felt our food did not ‘authentically’ represent the country or ethnicity referenced in the name,” the spokesperson said in an email. “To that end, our team made the decision to remove names of countries and ethnicities from recipes.”

But the statement added that because “Israeli couscous” is an ingredient in the dish at issue, it was an exception to the rule: The word “Israeli” had indeed been removed, but would be put back.

“In this case, Israeli Couscous is indeed an actual ingredient and is explicitly listed on the ingredient list,” the email said. “Considering it is the main ingredient, it is appropriate to remain in the title, and we will correct this oversight.”

The kerfuffle not only played into the heated debates over the Israel-Hamas war that have beset universities nationwide and led to the resignation of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school.

It also reflected how food — what it is called, and to whom it is credited — has long played into discussions of Israeli and Palestinian culture and history.

Nir Avieli, a cultural anthropologist at Israel’s Ben Gurion University who studies food, said debates over which foods are Israeli and Palestinian serve as a proxy for which people has a stronger claim to nationhood. That, in turn, ties into who should control the territory encompassing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

“When you deny Israel for the unique cuisine, you’re saying this is not a real culture. How could they have a cuisine? They are not a culture, they are not a people,” Avieli said. “This denial of the existence of Israeli cuisine is parallel to the denial of Palestinian cuisine by Israelis.”

“If a cuisine exists, it means that the culture exists,” he added. “It means that there is a people with a history, with terroir. And then if you deny the existence of these people, how can they have a cuisine?”

Those debates are especially charged on campus, he said, where students are used to spending their time discussing world affairs and see those conversations reflected in what dishes they choose in the dining hall.

“Food is politics. And you see why people get upset,” he said. “They go to lunch, they want to have a rest. They’ve been studying in classes, they’re doing political science, they’re debating. They are pro-Israel, they are anti-Israel, they are antisemitic, they are whatever they are. But when they go to lunch, they want to have a break. And they go and they want to have a break and then they get Israeli couscous and they get very upset. Because they get a political thorn on their side.”

For what it’s worth, Israeli couscous is not really couscous at all, in fact. In Israel, the dish is called “ptitim” and was an invention of the Osem company during the early 1950s, when Israeli food was rationed, at the behest of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Ptitim are a wheat-based rice substitute, extruded through a round mold and then cut and toasted. It is sometimes referred to as “Ben-Gurion’s rice” because its original shape was oblong and rice-like. Today, ptitim come in both oblong and pearl shapes.

Ptitim resembles a similar Palestinian dish called maftoul made from bulgur and wheat flour. It is also similar to an Eastern European Jewish egg noodle called farfel; a Sardinian semolina-based pasta called fregula and other foods.

“Nothing is original. Always things evolve. And they evolve in contact with other cultures,” Avieli said.

“One big mistake that people have with their perception of culture [is] that culture, and specifically food, is static, is my grandmother’s,” he added. “The whole idea of something being claimed to be pure and of a specific culture is completely wrong historically. But of course, it’s political.”

Ptitim didn’t even get the name “Israeli couscous” until 1993, when Israeli-born chef Mika Sharon, who worked in the kitchen of Tribeca Grill in New York, invited executive chef Don Pintabona home for dinner, and he took a bite of the ptitim Sharon served to her daughter.

Pintabona soon added it to the menu at Tribeca Grill, serving it alongside seared sea bass and calling it “Israeli couscous.” The dish took off over the next decade, according to the publication Taste.

In recent years, it has been common for online discourse to veer into arguments over who really invented “Israeli salad,” or questions about whether hummus and falafel can be considered Israeli or Palestinian, or whether they are Egyptian or Jordanian or Syrian or Lebanese.

Avieli remarked that the war between Russia and Ukraine could also be bringing up parallel ethnic tensions when it comes to food. (Borscht is a classic example of a disputed food that Russians say is Russian and Ukrainians say is Ukrainian. Its English spelling, with a “t,” is attributed to the Yiddish pronunciation, which was brought to the United States by Ashkenazi Jews.)

He recalled watching on live television when a right-wing nationalist member of the Israeli Knesset, Rehavam Ze’evi, crossed off the word Arab in front of “Arab salad” on a restaurant menu, and wrote “Israeli” in its place.

In 2018, Virgin Atlantic removed the word “Palestinian” from an in-flight couscous salad that included a mix of maftoul and couscous, tomatoes, cucumber, parsley and mint after complaints from pro-Israel supporters who threatened to boycott the airline and accused Virgin Atlantic of being “terrorist sympathizers.” The name was changed to “couscous salad.”

“This battle over identity through food is something that is ongoing everywhere, not only here,” Avieli said.

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