Adam Segal
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When did cultural appropriation get cool again?

A deep dive into the hypocrisy of sporting keffiyehs and the malevolent ignorance of accessorizing with bloody hands
Left: Palestinian Aziz Salha seen at a window showing off his blood-stained hands as a mob below beat to death two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, October 2000. (YouTube screenshot); Right: Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, raise their hands painted red, symbolizing blood, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the national security supplemental request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (montage by The Times of Israel)
Left: Palestinian Aziz Salha seen at a window showing off his blood-stained hands as a mob below beat to death two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, October 2000. (YouTube screenshot); Right: Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, raise their hands painted red, symbolizing blood, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the national security supplemental request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (montage by The Times of Israel)

Do you remember when cultural appropriation was intensely scrutinized in Western discourse? Adopting elements from diverse cultures, especially by cisgender, heterosexual, white-passing individuals, was labeled aggressive. Debates raged around braided hair, hoop earrings, and hummus, critiqued through an anti-colonialist lens. The latest round of anti-Israel protests around the world reminds me of the striking dichotomy when it comes to what is appropriate to appropriate.

On one side of the coin, cultural appropriation is decried as an aggressive perpetuation of colonialism. Conversely, certain social movements, self-identifying as champions of resistance, engage in cultural appropriation seemingly without reservation or complete knowledge of the issues in which they stake a claim. The inconsistencies in what is deemed “legitimate” or “proportional” are amplified in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Still, before we dive into that, I’d like to surface a few examples of historical instances where movements embraced the perceived underdog symbols or figures without a comprehensive understanding of the implications.

Take the mid-to-late 20th century, for instance, when the iconic image of Che Guevara became synonymous with several rebellions and resistance movements. The iconic portrait of Guevara may have peaked in the 90s. However, there are still thousands of items for sale on Amazon and other retail websites emblazoned with the bereted, bearded patron saint of rebellion. Despite his revolutionary status, I wonder how many of those who proudly wear Guevara on their shirts are acutely aware of the fact that Che Guevara was not only notoriously racist and homophobic, he was responsible for numerous extra-judicial deaths and sent homosexuals to labor camps. The appropriation of his image should raise questions, and we should seek to understand why cancel culture glossed over his contributions to human rights atrocities.

A 2002 political cartoon by artist Carlos Latuff depicts Guevara wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh in modern-day solidarity. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jump ahead to the early 2000s, and we see two additional examples of the trendy adoption of a cause without a nuanced understanding of its consequences. The impassioned calls for a “free Tibet” emphasize the disconnect between the perceived morality of a movement and its real-world impact. What Western Liberals seem to overlook, despite their good intentions, is the complexities of a “free” Tibet, where the people might have exchanged Chinese government subjugation for feudal serfdom under a god-king. Predicting these events is not my area of expertise and warrants further conversation. Nonetheless, it highlights the potential risks of championing a cause without recognizing the complexities and possible negative consequences faced by those outside the comforts of a liberal Western society.

Similarly, in the early 2000s, there were widespread calls to release Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Kyi, a political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, ironically ended up defending the very people who had once imprisoned her when she represented the Myanmar military’s defense against allegations of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims at the International Court of Justice. Kyi has fallen from grace in the eyes of the Western world and is currently a political prisoner of the Myanmar military once again.

These occurrences emphasize the complexity surrounding collective bandwagoning without knowledge or context. Having learned from the social justice warriors of the 2010s, the activists of the TikTok era display a noticeable lack of nuance and a tendency to form opinions without thoroughly scrutinizing a situation. This highlights the fallibility of the masses and emphasizes that endorsing or appropriating an “underdog” cause doesn’t automatically validate its ethical or moral soundness. Instead, it underscores that righteousness is subject to reassessment in light of new information or evolving circumstances, signifying true enlightenment.

The selective nature of cultural appropriation is a pertinent issue, where certain movements and figures are embraced despite controversial histories or current behaviors. This raises essential questions about the sincerity of concerns for cultural integrity and ethical considerations within these movements. True virtue lies in the ability to admit when one was wrong about a position taken, learn from the pitfalls encountered, and ensure a more discerning and educated approach in choosing sides, if appropriate.

Now, let’s return to the issue of cultural appropriation and the dichotomy we see in the current war that Hamas and Iran are waging against Jews. There is a pattern of selective oversight and a troubling double standard when it comes to the Jews, both in terms of respect for our ethnicity and culture and in terms of appropriating other cultures to propagate Jew hatred.

Cultivation theory suggests that the media, especially TV, shapes our perceptions. In Hollywood, the representation of Jewish culture often lacks genuine respect and sensitivity. Jewish roles are frequently played by non-Jewish actors, depicted as white and pigeonholed into certain socio-economic or religious stereotypes without real depth or complexity. This misrepresentation does not always provoke the same outcry as other cultural inaccuracies. For example, the casting of Gal Gadot, who has both European and Middle-Eastern roots, as Cleopatra sparked accusations of whitewashing, despite the historical Macedonian origin of Cleopatra, contrasting with the modern Egyptian ethnic profile. It seems we have a double standard at play.

Gal Gadot attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition on Monday, May 6, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

On the other side of this double standard, a particular segment of “progressive” and “liberal” Jew-haters have begun to sport the keffiyeh at anti-Israel protests. This traditional Middle Eastern headdress, which itself has been appropriated and is now associated with a history of terrorism and violence (see Yassir Arafat and Leila Khaled), is suddenly exempt from the previously strict rules of cultural engagement. The image of people wearing keffiyehs with their hands covered in blood conjures painful memories of the infamous image of Aziz Salha, one of those responsible for the Ramallah lynching in the year 2000.

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The slogan “From the river to the sea” or “min il-ṃayye la-l-ṃayye,” which carries a profoundly controversial and violent history, has been co-opted by the masses without much understanding of its geographical or political connotations. Once you know the river and sea called out and the song’s continuation in Arabic, you’d have to be a fool (or a particular South African lawyer) to dismiss it as having genocidal undertones. These activists have similarly repurposed terms like Intifada and Jihad with almost no understanding of their meaning and scant pushback from those once vigilant against cultural insensitivity.

The grotesque nature of this appropriation becomes particularly evident when examining the actions of the South African delegation that brought Israel to court in the Hague. Their audacious entrance into this esteemed institution included the donning of keffiyehs and the propagation of the standard collection of Jewish blood libels. The double standard emanated a foul stench, as Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, the lawyer who defended Julius Malema’s right to sing “Kill the Boer,” paradoxically argued the case that Israeli soldiers singing “no uninvolved civilians” was “not open to neutral interpretation or after-the-fact rationalizations and reinterpretations by Israel.” This irony of this double standard may be lost on the South African delegation but should be screamingly obvious to any sane, rational human being.

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It’s noteworthy, though not entirely surprising, that the once-prominent discourse on cultural appropriation has receded into the background. This shift is particularly striking given recent displays of contempt towards Jews. In the minds of some, Jews seemingly lack the right to live freely in a sovereign state, free from the threats of rape, torture, mutilation, murder, and kidnapping by a terrorist organization committed to eradicating every single Jew.

It’s shocking how quickly the narrative shifts from “speech is violence” to endorsing the complete eradication of a nation. How unfortunate that those with such privilege and influential positions stand on the wrong side of history and disregard their own stipulations, clinging to misguided stances and denial of recorded events, driven by pride and a refusal to acknowledge their faults. These same people who call for the de facto erasure of Israel from the map seem to be willfully ignorant of the fact that an actual genocide occurred on Western soil – a genocide so foul that in the proceeding 75 years, the global population of Jews has yet to reach the peak of 17 million preceding the Holocaust.

The intricacies of cultural appropriation unveil a selectively wielded tool in public discourse, marked by pronounced inconsistencies, particularly evident in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This paradoxical era witnesses fervent objections to cultural appropriation growing strangely muted when Jews and their history are thrust into the spotlight, revealing a disturbing truth. The imperative is clear: Removing the double standards in the context of cultural appropriation is vital to maintaining a discourse that upholds equitable standards for all.

This extends beyond a mere academic or moral oversight, resonating with the darkest chapters of history – a collective amnesia akin to moments when the global community turned away from the annihilation of Jews. For some, cultural appropriation becomes not a means of preserving cultural integrity but a smokescreen for prejudice.

History has shown us the perils of propaganda and the destructive narratives against Israel and Jews, and the events following October 7th echo past injustices that we cannot afford to ignore. We’ve seen the potency of false narratives and the irreparable damage they can cause when left unchecked. Stereotypical portrayals and tokenization in the media have reduced a rich heritage to caricatures, and the chants that once incited violence continue to resound unchecked and unchallenged.

Addressing the double standards and hypocrisy in the cultural appropriation discourse, especially when it involves the portrayal of Jews, is of utmost importance. We must undertake several decisive actions to reshape the narrative into one rooted in truth, understanding, and respect.

First, we must be vigilant and demand accountability from those who spread misleading narratives about Jews and Israel, whether driven by self-interest or for profit. These subtle prejudices and stereotypes must be immediately and unequivocally called out, and any social media platform, academic, special interest group or political entity propagating such ideas should be harshly censured.

Second, we should advocate for authentic representation, calling for media across all platforms to depict Jewish culture and life in its full complexity and refuse to accept oversimplified or incorrect narratives that reduce Jewish identity to mere plot devices. Thirdly, we must confront incitement with determination, standing firm against any actions or speech that endangers the safety and dignity of Jewish communities with the same robustness as we would defend against intolerance towards any other group. This stance includes firmly denouncing the appropriation of keffiyehs and the chanting of slogans like “From the River to the Sea” by individuals disconnected from the culture and conflict.

Last, we must work to eradicate entrenched biases, challenging the outdated stereotypes that portray Jews as a homogenous group of privileged power holders. These narratives should be subjected to the same critical scrutiny and condemnation that protect the rights of other minority groups. Through these steps, we can protect our heritage and ensure our collective voice is heard clearly and accurately, reflecting the rich tapestry of Jewish history and identity.

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This pivotal juncture draws parallels to the crossroads faced by our ancestors in the 19th and 20th centuries. We can either acquiesce to the incessant dehumanization and external definitions of our identity, values, and rights or assertively affirm our collective voice, ensuring it resonates beyond a murmur in the tumult of societal discourse to echo as a beacon of equity and veracity. We may be vastly outnumbered, but we should all be committed to standing up for the truth, dispelling ignorance, transcending mere tokenism, and honouring the rich mosaic of the Jewish experience. We must protect our legacy and ensure our narrative – one of resilience, innovation, and significant contributions to humanity – is recounted with the respect it deserves. We must shield our children from a future fraught with the dangers of bigotry, born simply from their heritage, and we must vehemently reject any misrepresentation that seeks to whitewash our story or usurp our right to self-determination. Educating ourselves and preparing our children for a hostile world could not be more pressing. It may be the only path to peace. History has repeatedly demonstrated that when those who harbor hatred towards Jews act without consequence and when those who are well-intentioned remain silent, the path to atrocity is tragically short. Procrastination and deliberation are luxuries we simply do not have.

About the Author
Adam Segal was born in South Africa and made aliya in 2001. A Communications graduate from IDC and Aspers Fellow, he co-founded the IDC New Media War Room during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, countering online anti-Israel propaganda and misinformation about the goals and outcomes of Israel's military operations in Gaza.
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