Hunger-Time

Alma Igra shows how caloric management of Gaza is one of the ways that Israel and the international community weaponize food.

Hunger-Time

WHAT WILL “the day after” look like in Israel and Palestine? Historically, postwar planning—dayafterism—preoccupied not only governments and businesses but also universities, as was the case throughout World War II. Scientists, too, talk routinely of “the day after.” This may, of course, just be a normal human reaction to the dread and grief of war. Or it may be an attempt to counteract war’s inherent shortsightedness, and the blinders that made it happen in the first place.


Hunger, however, which is often a corollary of war, distorts time in ways that make a mockery of dayafterism. Studies of famine teach us that hunger operates on its own timescale, regardless of political or diplomatic units of time. It does not disappear on the day a peace agreement is signed, nor when a siege is lifted. Hunger has a different temporality: it leaves scars on the body, mind, and social fabric of a community that survived starvation. Epigenetic studies of hunger show that it takes people several generations to recover from this kind of trauma. The most famous case study involves the survivors of the Dutch “Hunger Winter” of 1944–45, who struggled with various metabolic issues and heart diseases throughout their lives. Their children, born after the war, lived with elevated rates of eating disorders, schizophrenia, and kidney failure.


Perhaps we should stop indulging in easy chitchat about dayafterism as if it will be a new moment in time. There will be no postwar for Gaza. The children of Gaza will forever be marked by the duration of time they spent in “hunger-time,” when their growth was arrested by starvation, their minds marred by trauma. Their lifespans will most likely be foreshortened. And because hunger-time reshapes politics, this time in hunger-time is ticking away, too, on the clocks where I am writing now, in West Jerusalem.


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The International Criminal Court declared in mid-May that it has reasonable grounds to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu holds criminal responsibility for a variety of war crimes, first and foremost the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.” But an honest consideration of hunger-time in Gaza requires that we reflect not only on the past six months but also on nearly two decades of calculated food control. For the vast majority of Israel’s history, the disastrous reality of the Gaza Strip was created in accordance with—not in contrast to—humanitarian parameters of famine and malnutrition. When Hamas took over the strip in 2007, Israel imposed a siege that weaponized food. They did it not against but through international humanitarian language. The Israeli NGO Gisha exposed the scientific exactness of this strategy, according to which healthcare professionals calculated a “humanitarian minimum” that would keep Gaza’s population above the caloric threshold of starvation while also keeping it alarmingly close to it. Calories were converted into other numbers—like the number of aid trucks and kilos of food that would keep Gaza afloat. For years, Israel dictated every aspect of culinary life in Gaza, from the ability of its people to sweeten their food to their obtaining particular condiments for the holidays. Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch described the awkwardly intimate connection between Israeli officials and the public in Gaza that was forged by the siege: “Should hummus with or without mushroom toppings be banned from Gaza?” “Should butter be available for purchase, or just margarine?”


Caloric management of Gaza is a strategy that allows Israel and the international community to have their cake (by weaponizing food) and eat it too (by making the weaponization legal): pressure millions of civilians by limiting their food on the one hand, and respect international nutrition standards on the other. This is not to advocate against humanitarian aid in Gaza now. Aid is a moral imperative and starvation a crime against humanity. Rather, my point is that we also need to consider the ways in which humanitarian aid and international law got us here in the first place. How were Israel and Western powers able to keep people in Gaza so close to food insecurity for so long?


Food politics is, I believe, just one of the ways in which the current war in Israel-Palestine overlaps with another hundred-year-long process in which international powers and organizations have managed the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. From the creation of the League of Nations’ Mandate System right after World War I through every step of the ongoing displacement of Palestinian people, international organizations and Western empires have had their fingers in this region.


The holy trinity of internationalism, science, and empires was born in the early 20th century when the League of Nations, the first formalized intergovernmental system, enabled “calories” and other nutritional standards to enter the world stage. Part of a new field called nutrition science, it was allegedly unbiased and transparent, and heralded as a great unifier in a divided world. The first cohort of international nutritionists thought their branch of science could and should cross borders with impunity. Like international law, “science” in general saw itself as universal. Belonging nowhere, it was surely applicable everywhere.


The more science was measurable and quantifiable, the more it could “righteously,” as it were, be deployed to do international work. Historians such as Ken Alder describe how we came to think of measurement as connecting places and cultures. He wrote about the Ancien Régime and the metrics of modern connection. When a community switches from measuring a field according to the number of hours of labor required by a particular farmer for its cultivation to measuring it in meters, then this community can work towards a kind of flat sameness. With meters, you can connect your field to other fields cultivated by other farmers or by other methods. You can, in other words, now measure them using the same unit. This takes the particular farmer out of the equation. Units like calories, meters, inches, and even standardized musical pitch enable people to think about the world as a whole pie, as it were. There’s more: we’ve now come to ascribe moral value to measurable things. When we want someone to be good, we say that person should “measure up.” When we want something to matter, we encourage one to “make it count.” The history of humanitarian aid has always gone hand in hand with measurability. When a government defines a “humanitarian minimum” for human needs, it's supposed to resemble not just accuracy but also justice by way of accuracy: the bare minimum of what your body needs and what you deserve.


Nutritionists in this period played a unique role in this scientific-political ecosystem. Working across several technically oriented committees of the League and within the Health Organization, they turned nutrition into a tool of global order. The act of eating, which constitutes one of our most anthropologically complicated, culturally embedded, and locally experienced activities, became an abstract and scientific thing.


Stripping food of its culture and local conditions depended, in part, on ways to standardize and quantify nutrition. The calorie—a unit of energy measurement—was invented in the 19th century but entered the language of international governance at the same time as nutrition and other standards. In the League of Nations, “nutrition work” revolved around creating standardized units for vitamin measurement and standardized evaluations for malnutrition. Iris Borowy, who authored the most detailed history of the League of Nations Health Organization to date, noted that the worst years for the League were the best years for its project of medical standardization. This makes sense: talking about blockades was sticky and “political,” but talking about the vitamin deficiencies that emerge in a community under blockade was “technical” and “apolitical.” The harder it was to hold together the political infrastructure of international agreements in the 1930s, the more “science” could come to the rescue. By claiming to produce noncontroversial, unbiased, nonpolitical “truth,” it became the glue keeping the edifice from falling apart.


In the 20th century, the science of nutrition was coded as “apolitical” in another key way. In the League of Nations and later the United Nations, the science was understood as providing a set of tools for “marry[ing] health and agriculture.” They had a troubled marriage, however, and several divorces. With its roots in scientific agriculture, nutritionists sought to measure the productivity of animals and how much land was needed to feed them. It was about calories, obviously—but also about “acres,” and these acres now extended to imperial frontiers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the then-separate imperial dominion of Newfoundland. Most of the nutritionists who led international committees in the field were British, trained in and for the empire. Their aim was imperial productivity—and a long-distance marriage between the stomachs (and health) of their own people in Britain and agricultural lands far away.


Scientists working in this arena were thrilled to bring nutrition to the League of Nations and have a part in securing world peace. But health and agriculture were not all that easy to yoke together for several reasons. First, agribusinesses have their own interests. The kind of industrialized, profitable, animal-based mass food production promoted by international nutritionists in the 1930s—milk, meat and bacon—proved less than ideal for human health or indeed for the health of the planet. Second, the League was more successful in establishing health standards than agricultural standards. Something like a vitamin pill, which looked like medicine, worked smoothly in organizations that already regulated things like insulin shots or vaccines. But agriculture was less amenable to “standards.” Involving state control over nature, territory, and people, agriculture was inherently messy and location-specific. International organizations may have wanted to develop “the rural” in general but had conflicting ideas about what this meant (e.g., development, or education, or new technologies, or the introduction of new species, etc.). But more than anything else, the marriage didn’t quite work out because, in the 20th century, not all peoples viewed as deserving food also deserved land.


Once food was detached from place or culture and abstracted into calories, protein, and vitamins, it could be divorced from land. Food aid was the backbone of international aid, and refugees and displaced persons fell under the purview of humanitarian rights. They had the right to food (“health”), but territory and agriculture were about political rights. And so, if refugees now had the right to food, it did not include a right to land or collective political rights—hence they had a right to calories but not acres. The same scientists who were having conversations about food and land in the imperial—extraction—context were having discussions about food and displacement in the international humanitarian context. British imperialists had their fingers in a very large pie, and now, in the first decades and more of the 20th century, they could measure and disburse it with an aura of “scientific” legitimacy. Nutritionists arrived in Geneva armed with vitamins, minerals, test tubes, and calorimeters—and exploitation and dependency followed, the backbones of empires and colonialism.


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The spectacle of hundreds of aid trucks entering Gaza to deliver commodities is an all-too-perfect representation of how the new food regime works: produce, divested of any origin in land or sea, arrives as bulk calories. Over the past 17 years, Gaza has had no food sovereignty, a proxy for its lack of political sovereignty. It has depended entirely on aid trucks, with tight restrictions on water and agricultural work that could be used to produce food locally. Food is one of the most tangible proxies for illustrating that Gaza is not a political territory but an open-air prison. Political territories eat. States eat. But Gaza does not eat. Gaza is fed. The trucks are like feeding tubes given to a patient at the hospital. Food without sovereignty, and food without land.


This situation has unfolded in various iterations over the past 17 years, largely within the framework of international humanitarian standards. Ever since I began studying the history of scientific food standards, I have continually returned to the idea that some things are unquantifiable. The Mishnah, a written collection of ancient Jewish rabbinic traditions, explains that one is permitted to measure the field, but not the corners of the field: the produce should be left there for the poor. The Mishnah further details a list of things beyond measure: the study of the Torah, the first fruits of the season, and the performance of righteous deeds. We might confuse measurement and standards and numbers with justice, but this is a mistake. Inevitably, we use sets of standards to quantify, evaluate, and measure the disastrous reality in Gaza. That’s understandable. But we ought to think of these scientific standards as conventions and political tools, not as an “apolitical” representation of “the universal truth.” We ought, therefore, to acknowledge the history of how this particular set of standards was created. It is not a “natural” collection of ratios but an aspect of a colonial world in which some collections of people were allowed to own their land and others were not. Starvation in Gaza is part of a longer process of dispossession, displacement, and feeding that promoted a false vision of allegedly “humanitarian”—and internationally justified—occupation. This is when one must remember the corners of the field. A place beyond measure, where you care for others and are moved to engage with something ineffable, unquantifiable, personal, and local.


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Featured image: Franz Marc. Lion Hunt, 1913. Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier. Yale University Art Gallery (1953.6.57). CC0, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed June 11, 2024. 

LARB Contributor

Alma Igra is a historian of science who writes about food, the environment, and imperial politics. Her first book, The Lion’s Share: Scientific Nutrition and the British World System 1870–1950 (forthcoming with University of Chicago Press), explores the science of nutrition and British global order, from Empire to the UN. Alongside her academic writing, she publishes fiction and nonfiction in Hebrew and English, and writes a food blog.

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