Anthony Bourdain, the chef and TV personality best known for his CNN show Parts Unknown, has won the “Voices of Courage and Conscience” award from the U.S. Muslim Public Affairs Council, Haaretz reports. The award was for a segment on the Season 2 premiere of the popular travel/food show—which features Bourdain traveling across the world, sampling food, and meeting locals—when Bourdain, who is visiting Israel for the first time, travels to Gaza.
The episode made headlines elsewhere not for the Gaza segment but for Bourdain’s revelation of his own Jewish ancestry. “By the end of this hour,” Bourdain’s voiceover announces at the start of the show, “I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse.” It was the first mention of Bourdain’s Jewish heritage.
While wrapped up in phylacteries, Bourdain wanders around the Western Wall, musing on his own atheism (he is “hostile to devotion” and prefers doubt), yet he asserts that his lack of faith makes him no less Jewish. “I’ve never been in a synagogue. I don’t believe in a higher power,” he says. “But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, I don’t think.”
With his enviable head of hair and tall, un-Jewish stature, Bourdain treats everyone, Jew and Arab alike, to the same compassionate if slightly condescending treatment: Feed me your food and I will ask you if you think the conflict will end in your lifetime. And yet despite the even-handedness of Bourdain’s approach (he asks settlers about price tag attacks, and Palestinians in the West Bank about the hero worship of terrorists) his aversion to the wall separating Israel from the West Bank is palpable. The revelation that Bourdain is half-Jewish, which at first appeared somewhat gratuitous, now makes more sense. It was no doubt a relief for CNN; with Bourdain’s Jewish roots front and center, the network would be less at risk for being declared anti-Israel.
The segment that takes place in Gaza (part of which can be viewed online) is indeed magnificent if only for its commitment to portraying Palestinians as human beings—living, interacting, cooking, influencing, speaking, judging, hanging out, working. It’s a rare portrait for a population viewed almost exclusively as victims or perpetrators.
“I was enormously grateful for the response from Palestinians in particular for doing what seemed to me an ordinary thing, something we do all the time: show regular people doing everyday things, cooking and enjoying meals, playing with their children, talking about their lives, their hopes and dreams,” Bourdain said in his acceptance speech.
“It is a measure I guess of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.
“People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show. A small, pathetically small step towards understanding.”
Kudos, Bourdain, for the Kiddush Hashem. And for that wonderful mane of hair.
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Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.