The Deir Yassin Remembered Blog

Author’s note of 1 Sept 2009: This article was started and mostly completed in December 2008. Then the Israeli massacre in Gaza intervened, followed by an intensification of organizing efforts for the Batsheva Dance Company protests. After that, it gathered dust in the Drafts folder while I moved cross-country. An extended, remix version of “People Not Places” was just dubbed “Greatest Hip-Hop Song for Palestine Ever” by blogger Will on Kabobfest. The text that appears below is substantially the same as the one completed last December.

Author’s note of 2 Nov 2011: This article was published on the Palestine Think Tank (PTT) site on September 1, 2009. Since that time two relevant things have occurred. First, I learned of Phyrecracker’s “10 Reasons to Hate Invincible“, which was published five days before “Of Sabras & Rappers” and is complementary to it. Second, the PTT site went offline. As published here, the piece has some minor revisions, an endnote on food, and I have added some hyperlinks.

Recently, I got an e-mail from someone about a Jewish Israeli-American rapper who uses the stage name, “Invincible” (pictured at right). The message was a forward of an e-mail from the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) promoting Invincible’s song, “People Not Places.” One of IJAN’s points of unity is “Challenging the privileging of Jewish voices in conversations and negotiations about Palestine.” It is, at least partly, in this spirit that I proceed.

So, I listened to the song and read the lyrics. My first impression was of appropriation of Palestinian culture even though Invincible is not entirely insensitive to the issue of “Erasing the culture.” It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery but I wonder. There is a harmful, ongoing process of Jewish appropriation of Arab culture—”theft” is what some people call it.

For example, Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann says “Modern Hebrew” is “a semi-engineered Semito-European hybrid language.” He continues, “The formation of so-called ‘Israeli Hebrew’ … was facilitated at the end of the nineteenth century by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda … to further the Zionist cause. … it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the language was first spoken.” Some words for this new language were simply invented but others were adapted or lifted from Arabic.

Consider sabr, the English transliteration of the Arabic name for the prickly pear cactus. As Farsoun and Zacharia, authors of Palestine and the Palestinians, note:

The prickly cactus bush called the sabr became a national symbol because it dots Palestine, marking the areas of destroyed villages. In Palestinian folklore it is known as a symbol of patience and perseverance. Like the enduring cactus, the Palestinians remained steadfast (samedoun or samedin) in their struggle despite great pressures threatening to separate and destroy the people’s relationship with their land and cultural heritage.

To many Jews, though, the sabra (Hebrew for the same plant) is a metaphor for the idealized, tough Israeli-born Jew.

On food, Jana Gur writes:

The Zionist enterprise brought to Israel Jews from all over the world, each carrying memories of food they grew up on. At first, the ethos was rejection of everything that reeked of Diaspora and an eager, almost childish, embrace of the Levant. The infatuation with falafel and hummus, staples of Arabic cuisine, started there. … While not a single Israeli will claim that this chickpea and tahini concoction [hummus] is anything but Arabic, the status it has reached in Israel is unprecedented anywhere in the Middle East.

Gur’s “not a single Israeli” remark is, perhaps, not so easy to sustain (see here and here). Or see the web site of Sabra Hummus (yes, that “sabra”) where hummus is referred to as a “Mediterranean” food. (An Israeli company, the Strauss Group, owns a 50% stake in the company that makes Sabra Hummus and, therefore, Sabra Hummus is being boycotted by people of conscience).

In the aptly titled “Culinary Zionism: an ingathering of the edibles,” Eythan-David Volcot-Freeman writes:

When asked to define “Israeli food,” Diaspora Jews invariably point to hummus, falafel [“Israel’s national snack“], and shawarma. … Presented with the same query, a sabra (native-born Israeli) would likely describe a typical Israeli meal featuring Middle Eastern hummus as a starter … The early halutzim (settlers) found inspiration in their Arab neighbors, whose lifestyle recalled that of the biblical Hebrews. Shawarma, falafel and hummus soon became “sabra” foods.*

And here is a passage from “The Jewish Keffyieh“:

“I hate the idea” confesses Hasan Nusseibeh, 27, a teacher at Al-Quds University. “They stole our land I guess it’s normal that they steal our Keffiyeh too”, comments his little sister Sahar, a student. Their brother Munir reminds that this country dress is part of the culture of the region and that “Israelis are looking for new bonds with this ground”. He believes that the “keffiyeh” is only another “effort” they’re making in this sense. This young lawyer then enumerates the previous cases of cultural appropriation: traditional dress and embroidery, falafel and hummous. “Soon they’ll claim that the Konafa (Arabic pastry) is Jewish!” jokes Ma’moun M. Kassem, responsible for an Italian NGO, who accuses Israelis of being “arrogant” and “thieves”.

Pictured at right is Naji al-Ali’s character “Handala” in front of prickly pear cacti. Handala and the key he holds are symbols of the Palestinian refugee right of return. This particular image comes from a mural design for display at San Francisco State University. The mural was held hostage to the demands of Zionists that Handala and the key be removed and so they were.

Overall, Invincible’s rap song “People Not Places” calls to mind Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism—”A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Here, we have Invincible, an Israeli-American Jew, using a primarily Black spoken word form with the backing of an Arab instrumental track to speak out about the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe.

In Orientalism, Gustave Flaubert’s representation of an Egyptian dancer stage-named Kuchuk Hanem is described by Said: “she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He [Flaubert] spoke for and represented her.” Have things changed so much since Flaubert’s time?

Today, the Palestinian voice or ’cause’ is frequently mediated through or represented by Jews like Invincible, Ora Wise, Anna Baltzer, Norman Finkelstein, Jeff Halper, Noam Chomsky, Joel Kovel, Michael Lerner, Gila Svirsky, Phyllis Bennis, Susan Nathan, Marc Ellis, Hannah Mermelstein, Daniel Barenboim, Uri Avnery, Mitchell Plitnick, David Wesley, etc. (On mainstream representations of Arabs/Muslims by the predominantly Jewish Hollywood, even by Jewish actors, see “Planet of the Arabs“).

The problem is twofold: First, these folks don’t typically content themselves with bringing their message to primarily Jewish audiences; rather, they crowd out Palestinian and other non-Jewish voices—they disproportionately occupy the finite social space devoted to ‘Israel-Palestine.’ And, thus, they enable—inadvertently or not—others who are uncomfortable having Arabs represent themselves. One result is a self-fulfilling prophecy I’ve personally heard too often: “People won’t come to hear Arabs.”

Commenting on an earlier draft of this section, a friend wrote “… it’s high time that more anti-Zionist Jews should step up to the plate. We always hear about the deep moral failings of ‘the good Germans’ of the Nazi era: where are all ‘the good Jews’?” The “good German” is, of course, a trope for Germans who did not oppose the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. My reply is yes, but the “good Germans” should have been working on/against other Germans not explaining to the French or Swedes that “we’re really good people and not all Germans support the Reich’s occupation policies.” And, certainly, the “good Germans” should not have been displacing Roma/Sinti, Poles, Jews, and other victims of the Nazis and lecturing them and their allies on the ‘proper,’ philo-Teutonic way to oppose the Nazis.

Frankly, there is something perverse about the prominence in the US Palestinian solidarity movement of so many people who hail from and identify with the oppressor group, especially when one considers that Jews comprise less than two percent of the US population. Do/should male “allies” similarly dominate the discourse on sexism? How about White “allies” controlling discussion of anti-Black racism? I know of only one historical parallel and that is the early American anti-slavery movement. Dominated by Whites, it was conservative, reformist rather than abolitionist, segregationist, and had no room in it for the likes of articulate former slaves such as Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth. Needless to say, it was largely counterproductive and racist, too.

The second problem is that their presence and prominence allow Jews to strongly influence the agenda and the parameters of ‘acceptable’ discourse. This often, but not always, means a focus on the occupation of 1967 but not the occupation of 1948, a reiteration of the narrative of Jewish victimhood and the crucial importance of combating ‘anti-Semitism‘, support for the “two-state solution,” and a diminution of the BDS campaign. This is understandable as we are all creatures of our own backgrounds and experiences but it is not excusable. To paraphrase Said: For a Jew working on Israel-Palestine there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of her actuality: that she comes up against Palestine as a Jew first, as an individual second. And to be a Jew in such a situation is by no means an inert fact.

Let us now examine Invincible’s lyrics. In the first verse she says:

museum of the holocaust
walkin outside- in the distance-saw a ghost throwing a Molotov
houses burnt with kerosene-mass graves-couldn’t bare the scene
it wasn’t a pogrom-it was the ruins of Deir Yassin

Prior to this she contrasts “a land without a people for people without a land?” with “But I see a man standing with a key and a deed in his hand”. It is clear that she means to expose hypocrisy by contrasting Yad Vashem with the massacre at Deir Yassin but why is it that a pogrom is not a pogrom if it happens to Arabs? As a rapper, words are her medium. Can it be that she does not know that “pogrom,” usually applied to attacks on Jews, can also refer to attacks on non-Jews? Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert referred to Jewish violence against Arabs as a “pogrom.” And since when are rappers bound by linguistic convention? If that is the issue then why not smash that Judeo-centric convention and liberate the word? If that was Invincible’s actual intent then it is by no means obvious.

And why is it that the 1933-1945 pogrom(s) detailed in Yad Vashem are implicitly bearable/revealable but the pogrom of 1948 against Arabs in Deir Yassin is not (“couldn’t bare [sic] the scene”)? Is it because Jews were the perps just three years after the end of WW II?

And as one of my Arab sisters pointed out “ghost throwing a Molotov” is obscure. Why is that? Who’s throwing Molotov cocktails at whom? Is all this, as Edward Said put it in “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” some expression of discomfort with “treading upon the highly sensitive ground of what Jews did to their victims”?

Invincible begins the chorus with “my Ima misses people not places”. Invincible’s “Ima” (Hebrew for mother) is not unknown to me. Although her mother, Tamar, lives in the US now, she is a determined Israeli nationalist who does not shrink from interjecting her opinion at Palestinian solidarity events to support Israel and the “two-state solution” to permanently lock-in the violent theft by Jews of 78% of Palestine in 1947-48.

In an interview last summer, Invincible said, “Recently my mom took a trip back home and her sister kicked her out of the house for protesting the Wall.” But her mom is not above getting her own licks in. Just last month she chastised me for quoting Palestinians who dare to refer to “Israeli apartheid” and said that Palestinian calls for cultural and academic boycotts of Israel are “wrong.” Further, Tamar is a member of a Zionist synagogue that poses it’s children with armed Israeli soldiers and supports a rabbi who gave a justification for torture from the bima.

So, Invincible’s Ima seems pretty committed to Israel as a Jewish place even if she doesn’t “miss” it. It is clear that Invincible does not let her mother’s remark go entirely unchallenged. As she (and Abeer) indicates, the places and the people cannot be so easily disconnected. But, perhaps, one lesson of this is that Invincible should consider focusing even more exclusively on challenging Zionism within the nerve center of Zionism—the Jewish community.

Certainly, as an Israeli Jew, she potentially has entrée to the Jewish community that few, if any, non-Jews, esp. Arabs, could hope to achieve. Anti-Zionist Jews can’t expect gilded invitations from the Jewish mainstream but there are plenty of Jewish communal events to infiltrate and quietly subvert or to loudly protest and disrupt. No doubt this, in part, explains her connection with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network but the organization appears afflicted by many of the shortcomings discussed by Gilad Atzmon concerning a not dissimilar Jewish group (see Atzmon’s “ ‘NOT IN MY NAME’ – An analysis of Jewish righteousness“).

Invincible, again in the chorus, tells us “You’ll never be a peaceful state with legal displacement.” True enough but why not openly and forthrightly interrogate the very “legality” of this “displacement” when in fact all of it violated international law whatever Israeli law may say? “You’ll never be a peaceful state with phony legal displacement” works, doesn’t it? Also, the implication is that the state will be peaceful when the displacement ends but how realistic or desirable is it that “Israel” would continue to exist if Palestinians were allowed to return?

In the second verse, Invincible tells us:

This aint about a Quaran or a synagogue or Mosque or Torah
The colonizer break it into acres and dunums

This denial of religious motivations in invading and occupying Palestine comes just a few lines after Invincible acknowledges performing a profoundly religious act at one of the most important sites in Judaism:

At the wailing wall I’m rollin a wish
Then stick it in between the hole in the bricks

Although in recent decades Islam has become more prominent as an important ideology in organizing the resistance to Jewish occupations of Lebanon and Palestine (Hizbullah and Hamas were both founded in the 1980s), it is true that—on the part of Palestinians—the conflict in Palestine is not mainly about religion. In “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” Edward Said notes, “… Jewish colonizers in Palestine (well before World War I) always met with unmistakable native resistance, not because the natives thought that Jews were evil, but because most natives do not take kindly to having their territory settled by foreigners.”

Conversely, the Zionist invasion and occupation of Palestine is very much “about” synagogue and Torah. “The colonizer” who broke it “into acres and dunums” was a Jewish colonizer on a self-consciously Jewish mission to suppress or remove non-Jews in order to build a Jewish country. As with the Molotov thrower discussed above, Invincible obscures the identity of the “colonizer”—the power of naming is foregone. This is a pattern Invincible repeats in the third verse:

200 year old Olive trees uprooted the groves
to build a wall now Their future enclosed

Who uprooted those groves? Who built that wall? Again, the power of naming is kept in check.

The ‘secular Zionism’ fairy tale is one that distracts folks from, as Ludwig von Mises put it, “the ideology that generates war”—in this case, Judaism. As noted elsewhere, in The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl, the key figure of modern political Zionism, claimed, “we [Jews] feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers …” and the Jewish “Faith unites us.” In The Origins of Zionism, David Vital writes “characteristically, on the day [in 1897] before the [first Zionist] Congress opened, a Saturday, Herzl attended the morning service at the local synagogue and was duly honoured by being called to the reading of the Law …” (p. 355). Also, Herzl described the reaction of his “only spiritual mentor and intimate confidant,” the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Guedemann, to Herzl’s book, The Jewish State, as follows: “Guedemann has read the first proofs and writes me in rapture. He believes that the tract will strike like a bombshell, and work wonders.”

And as the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Hermann Adler, said in a sermon published in the Jewish Chronicle in 1898: “Every believing and conforming Israelite must be Zionist …” Adler’s successor, Hertz, gave a clear and strong religious imprimatur to the infamous Balfour-Rothschild Declaration before its issuance. After a visit to Palestine in 1925, Chief Rabbi Hertz affirmatively described Jewish colonization there as follows: “Religious zealots and fanatic free-thinkers alike rejoice in the redemption of the soil by Jewish labor, and look upon it as the holiest of human duties.” In 1967, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of Britain, Immanuel Jakobovits, called “upon the Anglo-Jewish community to mobilise all its resources in the defence of Israel” which had just launched the Six-Day War. In 1977, Jakobovits wrote:

The origins of the Zionist idea are of course entirely religious. The slogan “The Bible is our mandate” is a credo hardly less insistently pleaded by many secularists than by religious believers as the principal basis of our legal and historical claim to the land of Israeli … Modern Political Zionism itself could never have taken root if it had not planted its seeds in soil ploughed and fertilised by the millennial conditioning of religious memories, hopes, prayers, and visions of our eventual return to Zion … No rabbinical authority disputes that our claim to a Divine Mandate (and we have no other which can not be invalidated) extends over the entire Holy Land within its historic borders and that halachically we have no right to surrender this claim.**

With reference to Jakobovits’ “credo” above, in 1936, when asked about the basis for the Jewish claim to Palestine, Ben-Gurion told the British Peel Commission: “The Bible is our mandate.” On the matter of Judaism and Zionism see also the 1942 statement declaring Zionism to be an “affirmation of Judaism” and signed by 757 Rabbis—”the largest number of rabbis whose signatures are attached to a public pronouncement in all Jewish history.”

Returning Invincible’s lyrics, am I the only one uncomfortable with Palestinians being likened to slow, passive marine mammals? Granted, it’s not as bad as Israeli general and government minister Rafael Eitan likening Palestinians to “drugged cockroaches” (NY Times 11/24/2004) but, still, it is dehumanizing. From the third verse:

Disguising lies extincting lives like manatees
Callin it a transfer? Please-
More like a catastrophe!
Birthright tours recruiting em, confuse em into moving in

“confuse em into moving in”? Please. This comes across as another example of the victimizer cast as victim. Jewish victimhood of one form or another is a persistent theme and as Norman Finkelstein has observed:

… The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one of the world’s most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a “victim” state, and the most successful ethnic group in the United States has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable benefits accrue to this specious victimhood—in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified.

So, why is Invincible reinforcing one of Zionism’s most potent weapons? The entire song is a narrative of a Birthright Israel trip. In notes, Invincible writes:

The song takes the listener on a journey through a haunted “birthright” tour where the buried Palestinian significance of each location comes to light. Along the route i expose the process of historic and continued colonization as being even deeper than land seizure and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but one that is invested in erasing the Arabic language, culture, and memory.

Is Invincible or the (at least partly autobiographical) protagonist of the song the only Jew capable of seeing through Zionist propaganda? Is she the only one who can “superimpose the truth”? Do those Jews who emigrate to Israel have no responsibility for their choices, no duty to learn, see, and refuse to become colonizers and instruments of injustice? How can it be that they are just confused?

If the Birthright Zionists are portrayed as passive in “People Not Places,” they are not the only ones. Except in one instance, i.e. “their grandkids is the ones that’s throwing rocks at borders,” Palestinians are merely passive victims, not a resisting people with their own sense of agency.

It’s time to bring this to a close. Some will no doubt object to my critique above. It may be argued that Invincible has the support of some Palestinians such as Abeer, who performs on “People Not Places.” I would point out that even Gone with the Wind had Black actors. It’s not for me to judge Abeer or, for that matter, Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel but I think the comparison bears some consideration.

The Billy Jack movies of the 1970s—starring Tom Laughlin, a White man playing an American Indian—also come to mind. As Amanda J. Cobb (Chickasaw) observes in Hollywood’s Indians, the films:

… say more about white Americans coming to terms with their feelings about the Vietnam conflict than they do about the lives, experiences, or feelings of actual Native American people. These images have contributed to the conceptualization of American Indians not as distinct nations of people or as distinct individuals or even, in fact, as people at all, but rather as a singular character or idea, “the Indian” — an idea that helps whites understand themselves through “play.” … Using the idea of the Indian, especially in terms of “playing Indian,” time and time again is an act of cultural appropriation — an act that threatens the continuance of Native cultures and Native sovereignty.

Summing up, in the first part of this post I examined how Jews and, in particular, Israeli Jews have appropriated or stolen Arab culture. With that background, I situated Invincible’s performance of “People Not Places” in the context of Edward Said’s work on Orientalism. In the second part I took a closer look at the lyrics of “People Not Places” and argued that they validate concerns about cultural appropriation and Orientalism. It is my hope that this article will prompt a larger discussion about Jewish representations of Jews, Palestinians, and the Israel-Palestine conflict and also about the dearth of Palestinian self-representations of their own lives and issues.

* There is also the case of Gil Hovav, a “leading Israeli culinary journalist and television personality.” In response to the question “But is humous originally Jewish or, or Arabic?” Hovav told the BBC, “Of course it’s Arabic. Humous is Arabic. Falafel, our national dish, our national Israeli dish, is completely Arabic and this salad that we call an Israeli Salad, actually it’s an Arab salad, Palestinian salad. So, we sort of robbed them of everything.” In “National Identity on a Plate,” another Israeli scholar, Yael Raviv, states:

Falafel is one of several foodstuffs that were adopted from the local Arab population … Adopting it as a national food matched an ideology that attempted to negate the Diaspora … The adoption of certain practices from the Palestinian population is done not only without acknowledging their source, but is actually implemented through an erasure of these sources. Because of the ambivalent attitude toward the products of the Arab population and culture, these products must be divorced from their Palestinian heritage if they are to play an important role in Jewish-Israeli culture. Since falafel became such an emblem of Israeli cuisine the tendency to erase its Arab ancestry grew. A recent Israeli government publication, a booklet of recipes distributed in the United States by the Israeli Embassy, described the falafel as a dish that became popular in Israel with the growing immigration from Yemen.

** Except as otherwise noted, the source for the preceding three paragraphs is Immanuel Jakobovits, The Attitude to Zionism of Britain’s Chief Rabbis as Reflected in Their Writings, (London: Jewish Historical Society of England, 1981).

Thanks to LH, H. Samuel, LN, Khawla, and Joseph for their pre-publication comments on this post.

Michelle J. Kinnucan’s writing has previously appeared in, Critical Moment, Palestine Chronicle, Arab American News, Electronic Intifada, and elsewhere. Her 2004 investigative report on the Global Intelligence Working Group was featured in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven Stories Pr., 2004) and she contributed a chapter to Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise (Peter Lang, 2006).

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