On the day America withdrew millions of dollars from Unesco because Palestine was accepted into the organisation, four chefs promoted Middle East peace in Johannesburg.
An Arab-Christian, An Armenian, a Jewish Israeli and Muslim Arab all from Israel use the event “Taste of Peace” to show that their home country is not as divided as they believe is often portrayed. The men from four different ethnic groups and religions have travelled around the world for two years cooking for people in the name of peace and cooperation.
The Sandton event was hosted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organisation that says it has planted 240-million trees since its inception to combat global warming and green dry desert areas. The JNF is one of the civil society organisations attending the COP17 conference in Durban at the end of the year.
The invitation was open about the purpose of the event: “This tour will receive maximum media publicity and it is hoped that it will go a long way to ameliorating the negative perception of Israel portrayed by our media.”
Money raised from the evening that was designed to promote working together was ironically to be used for “security plantings”. This is a row of trees that work as a “green buffer to protect residents and visitors to the area from artillery fire”, according to the JNF press release.
But while the crisis in the Middle East was mentioned, the night really was about the food.
Head chef Johnny M Goric explained each course before guests tucked in.
The first course included thin slices of beets and salad drizzled in hazelnut vinaigrette. Next guests enjoyed the subtle flavour of aubergine in a buttery pastry with herbs and basil pesto.
Goric does not fit into the two main opposing camps usually portrayed in the media. He is neither Muslim-Palestinian nor Jewish-Israeli. But is a Christian Arab and is proud of the tattoo on his right arm which has the words “Jesus Christ” inscribed in Aramaic, underneath a gothic-style cross.
In Israel, 1.3-million Arabs live there rather than Gaza or the West Bank and work alongside and with Israelis. They are exempt from serving in the army so that they don’t have to fight against Palestinians Arabs.
Goric believes the fact that the Arab and Jewish chefs can work peaceably in the stressful environment of the kitchen without ethnic tensions coming to the fore shows that opposing groups can overcome their differences. “If it [co-operation] works in the kitchen, it can work well in the nations”.
The real tensions that exist in Israel were referred to throughout the glamorous evening but seemed far removed from the realities of rocket attacks.
Soccer boss Irvin Khoza speaking to guests made reference to inequality between people in South Africa and inequality between Israel and Palestine.
“There are lots of similarities between Israeli society and South Africa”.
One table responded noisily to his reference to Palestine’s standard of living but most people sat quietly drinking their wine and eating.
Khoza was at the event to pay tribute to gravely ill 82 year-old Jewish businessman Abe Krok, who was honoured during the evening as a patron of the JNF. Krok had sold soccer team Mamelodi Sundowns to mining mogul Patrice Motsepe, who also attended the evening.
Khoza, in his speech made reference to problems in Middle East.
“All people need to live protection and safety” said Khoza.
The host of the evening, president of JNF South Africa Chaim Cohen, also referred to the tensions between Gaza and Israel.
The trees that would be planted with the evening’s funds will act as a green buffer against the “evil rockets being fired at a farm on the border”, said Cohen. Trees can be used to stop snipers from seeing targets clearly and help absorb shrapnel, he added.
But after the speeches, it was all about the business of getting down to enjoying the food.
Violinists played Eastern European Klezmar music and guests ate lamb and chicken. The chicken was so tender it didn’t even taste like chicken and the spiced rice and sultanas were full of flavour. The lamb was on the rarer side with a tasty merlot jelly sauce drizzled over it.
Although violence, inequality and tensions in the Middle East were referred to, the evening was so well-coordinated and glamorous; it was hard to think of more than food, Israeli wine and live music.
The evening ended with desert: Chocolate and halva in crispy light phyllo pastry sticks and homemade pistachio ice cream.
And then guests left with a gift, a large indigenous tree provided by JNF.
But hopefully the message of chef Goric who has so enchanted them with food, had made a mark.
“Breaking bread and sitting around the table sharing food can bring peace and harmony. Peace shall conquer, let’s hope” he said.