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by Annette van de Kamp-Wright

When the U.S. Secretary of State visits the Middle East, all sorts of things can go wrong. You could insult a politician, insult the local population, be overly optimistic about the peace process, or antagonize various religious groups. Ordering the incorrect shwarma meat, however, should not be among the things you worry about.
Secretary John Kerry must have felt some sympathy for President Obama’s “Pastrami with mayonnaise” debacle when he was criticized for eating his shwarma with turkey instead of the traditional lamb.

“In this case,” wrote Ron Kampeas for JTA, “Kerry might have bridged a cultural divide, rather than fell into one. Shwarma, absolutely, is Palestinian. Making it from turkey, though, is an Israeli invention, stemming from the country’s austere first decades, when lamb and beef were barely available. This utterly sensible practice (turkey is also healthier) spread to the West Bank, and has persisted there despite the apparent collapse of any other signs of Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”

Food as an important part of the peace process isn’t an entirely ridiculous idea. Sometimes, when we eat together, we are reminded of what we have in common, more so than when we monitor what the politicians on either side are saying. The easiest way to make friends is to invite one another for a meal.

Take Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian Sami Tamimi, for instance. Together, they wrote a cookbook titled Jerusalem (where they are both from), building on their shared memories of the city and its food. They operate several delis and gourmet restaurants in London, and have been featured as poster children for peace by the New Yorker, the Daily Telegraph, and even an Anglican minister, who used them as an example for interfaith dialogue. Ottolenghi and Tamimi, who “didn’t go out there to declare a political stance,” nowadays employ over 200 people in their London eateries, simply cooking the food they both like.

More contentious is the ongoing ”hummus war” between Lebanon and Israel. Lebanon took the lead nearly three years ago, with a 22,000 lbs. vat of hummus, doubling the last attempt by Israel, and landing in the Guinness Book of World Records. The “war” was born out of an argument between the two countries about where the dish originated. Fun fact: when Arab-Israeli restaurateur Jawdat Ibrahim set the previous record, his batch was so large he had to borrow a satellite dish from a local broadcast station to contain it. There’s even a documentary describing the chickpea saga: Avital Levy directed Hummus Wars in 2012. You can find the teaser at http://jewcer.com/project/hummus-wars.

Then there’s the non-profit organization “Chefs for Peace.” Founded in Jerusalem in November 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs, who are committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity and coexistence through food, Chefs for Peace has been cooking at a variety of events in a variety of locations. From Toronto to Stavanger, from Salerno to Berlin, and from Lisbon to Ramallah, these chefs have been maintaining their momentum for 12 years. Their mission: “Only real people living and working together, not politicians, will create peace on the ground. For us, peace happens every day, in the kitchen and around the table.” (We should invite them to Omaha!)

Of course, we won’t solve the peace process in the kitchen alone. However, on those days when peace seems far away, when collaboration and coexistence seem impossible ideas, living in a dark tunnel leading to an even darker abyss, stories about small initiatives like these can give us hope. We are reminded that no matter how tough it gets, there are always reasons to believe in a better outcome. We don’t stop wishing for peace just because it is hard, and we don’t give up just because the odds are against us.

Believing that everyday people, through local initiatives, can someday make a better case for peace than the political leaders, may seem naïve and overly optimistic. Yet, the alternative hasn’t given us much reason to rejoice. And in a time when Hezbollah declares war on Al Qaeda, whose side are we supposed to be on anyway? We may as well take a  long hard look at our neighbors, and solve this mess over a nice meal. Watch a documentary about the other side. Read a book that’s written by someone you think you disagree with – and still may disagree with after you’re done reading. If we all keep reaching out,  we may find out that we have a lot more in common than we think.