(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some 450 Israelis saw proof that Israelis and Arabs - Jews, Muslims and Christians - can work together on Thursday night, at Beit Hagefen, the Arab-Jewish community center in Haifa.
Chefs for Peace prepared the food for the semiannual dinner, and the guests included Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and Moshe Katz from the Education Ministry.
The group is the brainchild of Kevork Alemian, an Armenian. It has an executive board of 10 to 12 chefs, with a broader membership of about 30 chefs, Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Alemian started Chefs for Peace to highlight to politicians and to the broader public that Israelis and Arabs can work together.
"The whole idea of Chefs for Peace is to show that here we are, working in one kitchen, Muslim, Christian and Jew, working with one of the most dangerous utensils, a knife, and we don't kill each other. Instead we cook with love. This is our message," he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
In recent years the organization has been hailed around the world, holding cooking events in Europe, South America and the United States. At home in Israel, it tries to operate everyday.
Moshe Basson and Sufian Auiech are living out the Chefs for Peace dream. Basson, a Jew who came to Israel as a refugee from Iraq, and Auiech, a Palestinian Muslim whose family comes from Hebron, are co-owners of the Eucalyptus restaurant in downtown Jerusalem's Russian Compound. Both are members of Chefs for Peace.
For them, Chefs for Peace and Eucalyptus are all about deconstructing harmful images of "the other."
The restaurant and its dishes are meant to highlight the importance of togetherness. Many of its dishes have been cooked in family kitchens for generations. Basson and Auiech explained that when members of different cultures sat together around food, they start to talk about their lives.
"This one says his mother made it this way, the other says no, my mother made it that way. And next thing you know one invites another to his home to try the dish there. Once you eat, you start to talk, and then you get to know each other," Auiech said.
Basson said his favourite dish was hafuch, a Palestinian dish with chicken, vegetables and rice that is turned upside down before being served. He talks about how each ingredient suffers: "The chicken is boiled, and the vegetables are deep fried, and then they come together."
But being brought together and turned upside down is not enough for Basson. It is the fact that while the ingredients come together, they each maintain their own identity but collectively add to the dish's taste.
"All together it's a very special taste," he said. "For me, this is peace. If you separate it, it becomes a completely different dish. Boiled chicken is boiled chicken and potatoes are just potatoes."
Auiech likes to tell how he became friends with a Hebron settler because of the restaurant. Through a mutual acquaintance, it was arranged that a representative from Hebron's Livni Winery would come to the restaurant to see if they were interested in adding their products to the menu.
"He was Hebroni Hebroni," said Auiech, referring to the fact that he had a kippa, sidecurls, tzitzit, and even a handgun on his hip. "When he realized I was the owner he didn't want to meet with me anymore. But I managed to get him in and convince him to sit down."
Once the representative saw Auiech hugging and kissing the restaurant's kashrut inspector, he grew more reassured, even taking some food. In the end, Eucalyptus became the first restaurant in Israel to sell Livni wine. "And today [the Livni representative] is my friend. He comes to visit the restaurant and update us on the wine," Auiech said.
Eucalyptus and Chefs for Peace are attempting to build an image. "The idea is to start with yourself," Auiech said. "You have to show people that you are a human being and that you see them as a human being."
They hope that continued exposure to their work and camaraderie will show people a different side of "the other."
"I know that this will take a long time, and that we have a long way to go, but here we are starting," Auiech said.
Eucalyptus is located at 7 Horkanos St. in the capital.