NEW YORK — The celebrity foodie and chef Anthony Bourdain’s food tourism show, “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” took viewers to Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank in its season premiere, with the episode airing on CNN in the US Sunday night.
Focusing on what he called “the most contentious piece of real estate in the world,” Bourdain used the episode to reveal his own Jewish heritage: “I’ve never been in a synagogue. I don’t believe in a higher power,” he told viewers. “But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, I don’t think.”
During the show, Bourdain puts on tefillin by the Western Wall, takes a walking tour of the Old City with famed international chef Yotam Ottolenghi, eats a meal with an American-born settler, chats with members of the first all-Palestinian race car team in Ramallah, and eats fire-roasted watermelon and other Palestinian foods in Gaza.
“Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” which Bourdain characterized on the air as “a series of stand-alone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it came from, but not always,” is in truth half food and half travelogue, with exotic locations around the globe providing both cuisine and colorful backdrop.
Bourdain had traveled to destinations ranging from Myanmar to the Congo, but he had never been to Israel, anticipating, as he said in the Jerusalem episode, that his presence would be “pissing somebody if not everybody off.” After all, he said, everything in Israel is contentious: “Where does falafel come from? Who makes the best hummus? Is it a fence, or a wall?”
The show, in fact, errs on the side of caution, walking the fine line between Israelis and Palestinians while not delving too deeply into the history of the conflict on either side.
Although Bourdain had never been to Israel prior to making this episode, he is no stranger to the Middle East, or to politically rocky terrain. When he went to Lebanon in July 2006 to film an episode of his previous show, the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” he found himself in the middle of a regional conflict — the Second Lebanon War — as the Jewish state retaliated against a Hezbollah attack in northern Israel.
Bourdain watched from his hotel balcony as Israel destroyed the Beirut airport — in part to prevent the delivery of arms — which left him stranded in a war zone.
Before being evacuated with his crew by boat with the help of the US Marines, Bourdain turned his proverbial lemons into lemonade with a fascinating episode. He turned the cameras on himself and his crew, reporting on the toll the war took both on them and the land they’d come to as food tourists. The Lebanon episode included interactions with Hezbollah supporters and stranded tourists alike, and earned Bourdain an Emmy nomination.
In the first season of his show on CNN, Bourdain traveled all over the globe to destinations ranging from Los Angeles’ Koreatown to Libya.
In an interview with Forbes, Bourdain said the Jerusalem-themed episode was “certain to be controversial.” And in the episode itself, he preemptively listed accusations he anticipated would be lobbed at him in the show’s aftermath, including “terrorist sympathizer,” “Zionist tool” and “self-hating Jew.”
Bourdain has not previously identified as a Jew, but as he is approached in the show to put on tefillin by the Western Wall — and does so, reciting the requisite blessing — he discloses that he had one Catholic parent and one Jewish parent, though he was raised without religion.
‘I’ve never been in a synagogue. I don’t believe in a higher power. But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, I don’t think’
Bourdain notes at the episode’s onset that he “doesn’t know what to think” of Israel.
“It is incredibly beautiful here,” Bourdain observes at one point. “I don’t know why I didn’t expect that.”
In Jerusalem, Bourdain is taken through the Old City via the Damascus Gate by internationally-renowned chef Ottolenghi, who discusses “food appropriation” over freshly-cooked balls of falafel next to the Via Dolorosa.
In a brief segment with a map, Bourdain illustrates the 2003 security barrier built along the Green Line, noting that it stretches for 450 miles.
“No doubt the number of suicide bombings fell drastically” with the building of the barrier, Bourdain notes. “On the other hand, there’s this,” Bourdain says, to several shots of footage of the wall, which he says “feels like something out of a science fiction film.”
Bourdain notes that settlers live beyond the Green Line in contravention of international, “and in some cases, Israeli,” law, as he crosses into the West Bank. By the settlement of Eli, Bourdain notes a Palestinian house that has been spraypainted with graffiti reading “Death to the Arabs.” A settlement official tells him that it was probably done by kids. Bourdain suggests having the graffiti removed, and the official, somewhat grudgingly, agrees.
Just outside Ramallah, Bourdain meets with Betty Saleh, a member of a group of Palestinian women speed racers called the Speed Sisters. Saleh says she races in an area near the Ofer detention center, and that she was shot in the back with a tear gas canister. When asked if she would race against Israelis, Saleh replies, “We’re not allowed to go to Jerusalem, and they’re not allowed to go to the West Bank, so how can we race together?”
The camera repeatedly lingers on a wall mural of Leila Khaled, who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969 and was arrested during an attempted hijack of an El Al plane in 1970
Bourdain then visits Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he says his first impression is that there is a “remarkable number of kids.” He is told that two-thirds of the 6,000-person camp are people under the age of 18.
Bourdain notes that children are being taught to recognize, if not venerate, the near omnipresent pictures of hijackers and political prisoners. The camera repeatedly lingers on a wall mural of Leila Khaled, who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969 and was arrested during an attempted hijack of an El Al plane in 1970. The children being exposed to this image, Bourdain points out, is a “recipe for unruly behavior.”
“Here are kids 4 to 5 years old, every day looking at somebody who brought down a plane,” Bourdain asks his host. “I’m not questioning why that is, but do you think it’s helpful?” He is told that it is the mentality of people who have long been “under occupation, under their heels.” His host also claims that Mohammad Assaf, the winner of “Arab Idol,” is more recognizable among area kids than Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) or Yasser Arafat.
Ottolenghi rejoins Bourdain to take him to the restaurant Majda in Ein Rafa, an Israeli Arab village west of Jerusalem, where a Jewish-Muslim couple feed Bourdain fresh vegetarian food reflecting “their common backgrounds and commonalities,” including zucchini with mint and apricot.
Bourdain also visits Gaza, where he notes that Hamas, “considered a terrorist organization by both the US and Israel,” was elected as leaders in 2006. His host is Laila El-Haddad, author of “The Gaza Kitchen,” who currently lives in Maryland (though no indication is given of this fact in the show). She serves him the Gazan dish maqluba, and brings Bourdain to eat fire-roasted watermelon among a gathering of community elders.
The show closes with Bourdain talking to Natan Galkowicz, proprietor of Mides Brazilian Restaurant in the Negev kibbutz Bror Hayil near the Gaza border, whose daughter Dana was killed in 2005 outside her home, three months before her wedding, by a mortar fired by Hamas.
“I know that my daughter was killed for no reason, and I know that people on the other side have been killed for no reason,” Galkowicz tells Bourdain. “Bottom line is, let’s stop with the suffering.”