One of the great things about “multiculturalism” and globalism is that for the first time, many of us have had the opportunity to experience cultures which are different to the one we were born into. We get to enjoy a variety of cuisine – Italian, Indian, Korean, Thai, Chilean, Ethiopian etc etc, as well as to experience different music, art and traditional folklore amongst other things. There is, however, a difference between sharing and experiencing each others cultural heritages and what is known as “cultural appropriation”.
Cultural appropriation is basically the adoption of some specific forms of a culture – music, dress, dance, language, art, foods, folklore, social behaviour, religious iconography -by a different cultural group with the cultural form assimilated by the later group. This adoption and assimilation is usually done without permission and sees the cultural artefact removed from their original indigenous cultural context, stripped of its history and cultural meaning and often take on a meaning devoid of the original cultural expression. In many cases, the artefact is misrepresented, commodified and even sexualised. As such it becomes an expression of colonialism, Orientalism, racism and “othering”.
Cultural appropriation reflects, in most instances an imbalance of power – often between a colonising and imperialist force and those being colonised and oppressed or exploited. This imbalance of power relations and structures under capitalism is why cultural appropriation matters.
Recently, an Israeli dance company engaged in just such cultural appropriation with their production of “Israeli dabke”. Dabke is a traditional Arab folk dance, which is common in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. The world “dabke” means “stomping the ground” and is said to originate from the communal compacting of dirt floors in traditional Arabic houses.
In the promotional material around his production of “Israeli dabke”, Zvi Gotheiner of ZviDance states:
“As a child and teenager growing up in a Kibbutz in northern Israel, Friday nights were folk dance nights, This tradition continues today. One of the most beloved of these dances is a Debka, albeit an Israeli rendition of the Arab Dabke. The Israeli Debka and the Arab Dabke are linked historically. During the first decades of the 20th Century, Jews migrated from Europe to Palestine in large waves. The leaders and intellectuals of this movement made a deliberate effort to create an authentic Israeli culture that differed from the old world image of European Judaism. No longer the meek, the victim, the wanderer, these Jews were viral, masculine, and rooted to the land. Although forever in territorial conflict with their neighbors, the Israelis borrowed elements from Arabic culture that captured the sound, color, taste and rhythm of the Levant. Dabke is a case in point”.
While Gotheiner’s promotional material accurately reflect the appropriation of Palestinian culture by early Zionists, it also whitewashes the settler-colonial nature of Zionist immigration to Palestine. During the British mandate period, while many Zionist settler-colonialists adopted Palestinian dress, food and dance, they also were active in displacing Palestinians and ethnically cleansing them from their homeland. During the Nakba in 1948, when more than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and more than 500 Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionist forces, this cultural appropriation and erasing of Palestinian culture took on new dimensions. As hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were being ethnically cleansed from their land, Zionist militias such as the Haganah and later the newly formed Israeli military, either systematically “collected” and/or destroyed tens of thousands of volumes of priceless works of Palestinian literature, including poetry, fiction and works of history. Today, these volumes are designated “absentee property” and held within Israeli libraries and universities.
In the decades since the creation of the Israeli state, Palestinians have witnessed the Zionist cultural appropriation of both their dress, cuisine and folklore. Traditional Palestinian and Arabic food, such as olive oil, falafel and maftoul, have become “Israeli”, with such items being promoted and sold internationally as such. In all such cases Israeli cultural appropriation of Palestinian cultural artefacts has involved the whitewashing of Zionist settler-colonialism, occupation, war crimes and oppression of the Palestinian people.
In response to ZviDances latest cultural appropriation of Dabke, Palestinian dancers in New York have made a video explaining how Gotheiner’s production whitewashes Israeli apartheid and occupation. While recognising that “culture is fluid”, the Palestinian dancers point out that “so long as there is inequality, there can be no cultural exchange” stating:
“While you [ZviDance], and other Israelis have appropriated Dabke for your own purposes, and no one restricts your free cultural expression, Palestinians have been arrested for dancing Dabke by the Israeli military. Their right to free expression is limited by the Israeli military occupation that governs their lives”.
They go onto note: “We all know that under Israeli law, Israelis and Palestinians do not have equal rights. Like it or not, by appropriating dabke, and labeling it Israeli, you further the power imbalance”.