Prominent foodblogger who celebrated Israeli cuisine was hosted by org aimed at turning around country’s image by Eleanor Kilroy July 3, 2012
I overheard a woman on my London bus talking about her all-expenses paid trip to Israel and celebrity food blogger David Lebovitz. Because she spoke so loudly on her mobile phone, I figured she had nothing to hide and I approached her to confirm she had been sent by Vibe Israel, and to ask her to remember the Palestinians.
I read to her excerpts of Mondoweiss posts on Lebovitz - in particular the comment on his failure to mention that a restaurant he was taken to in Jaffa was Palestinian. She was surprised to hear that too, and in her defence said that they didn't tell her. In fact they didn't tell her anything of this kind. A friendly and sympathetic-seeming woman, she nevertheless said she believed she was in a difficult position as Vibe Israel/Kinetis had paid for everything.
I questioned this notion, saying this did not mean she couldn't criticise the host country. She countered that she didn't actually see any human rights abuses, as if the only ones that matter are those you witness with your own eyes, and even then you need to know where to look and how to identify them. The apartheid wall was not on her itinerary.
I spoke about Israel's appropriation of Palestinian culture, which includes their food. The food writer stressed that her subject matter was 'apolitical', and I talked to her of 'Brand Israel'. She did say that she had heard that Lebovitz had encountered criticism of his blogging on Israel. As she got off the bus, she turned and said that she had only discovered afterwards that trip was funded by the granddaughter of Dame Shirley Porter, and beseeched me not to repeat that.
I do so now because the information is already in the public domain. Shirley Porter is a disgraced former Conservative Westminster City Council leader in Britain who has a long association with Israel, lived there for a a number of years, and has been described by one journalist as "the high priestess of Tory sleaze". My fellow bus traveller was one of just five food bloggers including David Lebovitz, invited by Vibe Israel.
From Vibe Israel's twitter updates: "Lovely post by an Israel Buddy" takes you to this post, "Zipping through Jerusalem with the food bloggers," by Sarah, an American foodwriter who lives in Israel, reporting on the trip: Accompanying Pille [Petersoo] were four other high profile food writers from Europe and the United States who came to eat their way across Israel including David Lebovitz, Erin Zimmer, Cambria Bold and the lovely Kerstin Rodgers. The woman I met on the bus is Kerstin Rodgers and is the writer of a new book Supper Club: recipes and notes from the underground restaurant.
She blogs at Ms Marmite Lover and tweets at @MsMarmitelover. I liked her, and I want to emphasise that this is not an attack on her - but as I tried to point out to her, she is being used for the Brand Israel campaign, and food is very political in the context of Palestine/Israel. Kinetis, which is behind Vibe Israel, has a prominent mention in a Jewish Chronicle article from 2010: Diplomat's bid to 're-brand' Israel: For three years, the urbane diplomat [Ido Aharoni] has headed the Israeli foreign service's "brand management team", charged with encouraging people elsewhere to see the country in a more positive light... Much of Mr Aharoni's work is done in Israel, passing the message on to local groups.
As a result, a new organisation has been founded by Dame Shirley Porter's granddaughter, Joanna Landau; called Kinetis, it is modelled on the Association for a Better New York, created in the 1970s to help turn around the city's then poor image. For Israel's friends, Mr Aharoni has the following advice. Political advocacy is important. "But don't let it be the only thing you do. Advocating Israel's positions vis-a-vis the conflict is not going to bring more tourists to Israel or foreign investment.
For bloggers such as Rodgers who are being instrumentalised to show Israel 'in a more positive light', I quote the Artistic Director of Palestinian theatre company Ashtar, Iman Aoun, whom I interviewed in April this year: Culture plays the most important role for us as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In culture we’re creators and we are free – we have fought Israeli censorship for years.
Culture and art is Palestine’s best product. We can really show people that we are capable of life, able to invent and live despite hindrances, and that we have a voice; this is an important part of resistance. Resistance with words, self-expression, prevents your culture, art and heritage from being stolen. Israel tries to occupy everything from land to embroidery to the food we eat.