Antony Wolkovitzky

When NYT wrote about Palestinian culture in Haifa

Street art in Downtown Haifa. Photo courtesy of the author.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was originally published in 2016 on my old (and currently not active) blog “Dead City Radio”. Now I’m reposting it here.

In 2016 the New York Times dedicated two articles to the urban culture of two major Israeli cities: Tel-Aviv and Haifa. Ironically enough, the original headline of the article about Haifa (written by the talented Diaa Hadidwas “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Palestinian Culture Blossoms”(which I highly recommend reading here).

This headline has obviously made some people very upset, namely: Israelis who were offended by the claim that there’s a “Palestinian culture” inside the borders of Israel, and Palestinians who didn’t like to see Haifa described as an “Israeli city”. Yes, welcome to the Holy Land: where people are pathetically touchy and insecure about anything that has to do with their little fragile national identity.

It seems to me that both of the “offended” parts by the NYT headline share something in common: they both are denying reality.

This is not a secret that about 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. In Israel they are being mainly referred to as “Israeli-Arabs”, to stress out the difference between them and the Palestinians that are living in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. But the reality is that many of them are openly identifying themselves as Palestinians, or at least “Israeli-Palestinians” — meaning, Palestinians with an Israeli passport. And why wouldn’t they? After all, they are ethnically similar to the Palestinians inside the green line, they speak more-or-less the same dialect, and many of them even have relatives there. This is perfectly normal, and you can find this also in other areas of ethnic dispute — like for example the ex-Yugoslavian Kosovo Republic, where there are minorities which are obviously identifying themselves as Serbs, even though they have Kosovarian citizenship, and they vote at the Kosovarian national elections, just like the Israeli-Palestinians vote at the Israeli ones. Nevertheless, in Kosovo, at least as far as know, I find it hard to imagine that anyone will cry out: “why are you calling yourselves Serbs and not Kosovarian-Slavs, huh?!”

Unfortunately, nobody listens to me, and that’s why(probably because of Zionist readers’ complaints) the NYT article’s headline was eventually altered from “Palestinian culture” to “Arab culture.

From the Palestinian side, however, harsh criticism about this article actually came from one of the main interviewees in it: Ayed Fadel, the owner of Kabareet nightspot, wrote this on his personal Facebook page:

I actually found this piece disturbing. It refers to certain aspects and neglects so many others that I personally mentioned during the interview, it portrays the modern Palestinian in a ‘Western’ image that comforts white readers and makes them say, ‘Oh, they’re just like us!’ Well no, we’re nothing like them, in fact, we’re very different and deep into the shit, and having to portray us in this image is insulting. On the other hand, I do agree our community has developed and evolved and I love going to the places mentioned in this article, they feel like home, and because they feel like home, it’s disturbing the way they were illustrated. […] Plus on that 90% of the interview we were talking about how the culture of the cultural resistance is growing and taking a place in so many levels, such as music, art, spaces etc. And how the Palestinian underground scene is getting bigger and bigger and full of creativity and how literally it is being a place full of intelligence and rebel agenda.

As it seems to me, his complaint about the exclusion of his political agenda from the article is kind of silly. After all, this was an article about the Palestinian nightlife and culture in Haifa, and not about political activism.

In the same post, he also claims that a quotation of him, where he says “We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them, this is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for” was taken out of context. In his own words:

Yes I did say that, but it was a whole build-up for the conversation until I reached this sentence, and I was actually trying to explain how Haifa became a place where everyone can feel safe and comfortable, so I used one of the most extremist views that our society could accept. Also mentioning the Kooz queer film festival that we hosted without mentioning that one of the most important topics in it was the Israeli pinkwashing- IS MISLEADING — especially when I’ve been totally used as a ‘pink washer‘ with the quote above!!

Now, “Pink Washing” is indeed in frequent use by the pro-Israeli propaganda, and yes — this is amoral and extremely cynical to use this as an excuse for the military occupation. But this is not the case in this article. Nobody says that occupation is ok because Arabs can be gay in Haifa. I really didn’t feel at all that this article is intended to give the Israeli government a pat-on-back for being so liberal and so accepting towards ethnic and sexual minorities, but rather to describe the special and relatively tolerant environment in Haifa city — which is unique for both the Jewish and the Arab societies in the Holy Land, and the Middle East in general. Trying to shun this for political reasons is not that different from Pink-Washing.

Finally, Ayed writes:

it was another trap by the white media, that is always trying to show us as the cool yay hipsters full of tattoos and piercings — far away from the grounded reality that we are facing and fighting every day!

We agreed to do this, thinking the results would be different, but they weren’t. Last chance is given to white media and media in general, next time we’ll be more cautious, and we don’t allow anyone to categorize us under ’Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Palestinian Culture Blossoms’ — dear editor, please liberate your liberalism aspects.

It is funny to see that while claiming that they’re not at all like western hipsters, he responds to this article exactly in a way that a western hipster would react.

The funniest part, though, was when the same guy wrote:

First of all I think that this interview was my last interview ever, I am done with media!! In Arabic we say KHALLASNA !

Dude, I do not doubt that the thousands of “white-press” reporters that were counting on interviewing you would be deeply disappointed! Good luck!

Well, I think that’s all for today, folks! And remember:

All nationalisms are imaginary!

A meme from the Facebook page of the Department of Political Science in the University of Haifa.
About the Author
Born in Soviet Belarus, but grew up in Israel. Graduate of a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Haifa, as part of which also studied International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Lived for about two and a half years in the EU (Poland, France, Greece), and was active in European Students for Liberty.
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