Tevlin: From potential food fight to 'Let us break bread together' plan

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 12:01 PM

What happens when three of the biggest names in the local culinary community, two Jews and a Palestinian, get into a debate about the Middle East on social media?

Lots of misunderstanding and anger, 130 characters at a time, threatening to create our own mini Chick-fil-A moment.

That's what happened late last week when Sameh Wadi, co-owner and chef of Saffron and World Street Kitchen, posted on his personal Facebook page a picture of an old map he stumbled across that showed Palestine, but not Israel.

"We need more world maps that are correct, such as this one!" Wadi wrote. When someone commented that Israel was missing, Wadi wrote: "Exactly the way that this should be."

What used to be an inappropriate and unfortunate whisper between like-minded friends has become a shout with a bullhorn on social media, as comments are re-posted, re-tweeted, and misinterpreted into infinity.

Seeing Wadi's post, Andrew Zimmern, star of "Bizarre Foods" and a Twitterverse giant, responded in what sounded like anger: "Do you deny existence of Israel? Or just want it to go away?"

Stewart Woodman, chef and owner of Heidi's and Birdhouse, joined the fray, but then the discussion moved onto Woodman's blog, no doubt out of sight of thousands of people who just caught the initial Twitter feed.

"Needless to say, more than a few people through the course of history have suggested (some have even tried) that removing Jews from here or there would solve their problems," wrote Woodman, who like Zimmern is Jewish. "Such comments are not only disgusting but given the historical reality are simply unconscionable to any educated and civilized person."

But Woodman also expressed sympathy to Wadi: "He's young [28], his family is directly from the region, it must be difficult in a way that few of us can understand," he wrote.

Wadi, whose family had to flee their homes several times because of war, then wrote that he did in fact recognize the existence of Israel.

Then he responded to the blog: "I want to apologize to all the people I offended with my posts and comments. I realize that those postings hurt some people and for that I am deeply sorry. If you know me on a personal level you know that I'm not a hateful person."

But by that time, one local Jewish website had posted an article titled: "Is Saffron Serving Up a Side of Propaganda?" and readers were writing in to say they would not eat at Wadi's restaurants.

As I watched this saga unfold, I began to wonder: Doesn't anybody have a phone?

I know all three of the chefs involved, and like them. So I wish Wadi would have thought about his post before he hit "send." I wish Woodman would have tempered his language. And I wish Zimmern, with his enormous clout, would have sent a private e-mail to Wadi before the public scold. With great success comes great responsibility.

On Monday, Wadi was busy answering e-mails to customers. He called both chefs over the weekend, but had not heard from them.

"I've been in the U.S. for 15 years and I had never seen Palestine on a map," said Wadi. "It was a very exciting thing for me. I became a citizen three years ago and it's the first time I have a home."

"In retrospect, I wish I would have thought about my comments, but I was cooking. English is my second language, I don't always use the right words. There was absolutely no context to the comment and no matter what I say, some people are going to misunderstand me. People disagree on this [a Palestinian homeland]."

Wadi said he was hurt that Woodman had initially compared him to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "C'mon," he said. "I've always embraced other cultures and religions. I wasn't saying death to Israel, I was saying this is a map before the establishment of Israel."

By Monday, the chefs had cooled down.

Wadi invited Zimmern to dinner. Woodman and Wadi are planning a dinner and forum on Jewish-Arab relations in September.

"I feel it was very honorable he has apologized," said Woodman. "I think it was a random, unfortunate comment he made (spontaneously), not realizing he's become an important voice in the community."

"There is a lot of suffering on both sides of this issue," said Woodman. "Nothing would be sillier than to boycott somebody because they don't agree with me. There is way too much of this stuff around. He's a great guy and I'm a big supporter of his restaurant. He does wonderful work and I'll continue to support him."

Said Wadi: "I'm excited about the possibilities coming out of the conversation we had."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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