John Kerry’s culinary coup

John Kerry Shawarma, John Kerry, Ramallah

Secretary of State John Kerry enjoying a shawarma sandwich in Ramallah, May 23, 2013. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

There’s been a resurgence recently of a longtime affliction of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship: culinary anxiety.

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It pretty much runs like this: Palestinians accuse Israelis of stealing their cuisine. Israelis, nonplussed, answer, Stealing? How is it stealing if we call it “Arab food?” Frustrated foodies like myself stand on the sidelines and shout, ignored, that some of the dishes are indeed Palestinian or from the broader Arab world — and some are not (they are Turkish, Greek, Balkan, even Indian). Some even are Jewish in origin.

I’ve treated this before, and I won’t re-rant. Bottom line, food and how one enjoys it is fungible, so get a life. But there was a nice little twist on it this week when John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, visited the region and made an unscheduled stop yesterday in Ramallah for a turkey shwarma.

What’s telling is that a lot of Middle East hands raised their eyebrows at the choice of meat. Turkey, quoth the hands? What manner of madness this? Shawarma is made from lamb, no?

Lurking beneath this chiding may have been repressed memories of Kerry’s Philly cheesesteak fiasco, when, while campaigning in 2004, he asked for (gasp!) Swiss, not Cheez Whiz.

In this case, Kerry might have bridged a cultural divide rather than fell into one. Shawarma, absolutely, is Palestinian. Making it from turkey, though, is an Israeli innovation, stemming from the country’s austere first decades, when lamb and beef were barely available.

This utterly sensible practice (turkey also is healthier) spread to the West Bank, and has persisted there despite the apparent collapse of any other signs of Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

A lot of folks are making fun of Kerry for his persistent optimism when it comes to reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks. But in Ramallah, this week, he may have bitten off exactly what he could chew.

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.