Cultural appropriation has long plagued the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. Such appropriation, which has hijacked Palestinian food, dance, dress and language, is hardly simple intercultural exchange or evidence of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. Rather, it is a crucial component of Zionism’s settler colonial project. Just as Zionist settlers seized Palestinian land, they have also taken central parts of Palestinian culture. This double hijacking aims to erase Palestinians’ ties to their homeland and facilitate their replacement by Jewish Israelis.
A recent example of this process occurred at last week’s New York Fashion Week. At the event, Israeli designer Aviad Arik Herman showcased a dress featuring traditional Palestinian embroidery, called tatreez, made by Bedouin women in the Negev desert. Responding to outrage over his appropriation of Palestinian culture, Herman claimed the dress reflects “all this diversity that we have in the Negev… There is clearly no theft here; if anything, this is celebrating the culture,” according to Al Jazeera.
Following the show, however, reports emerged showing that the OR Movement, a group dedicated to Jewish settlement in the Negev, had sponsored the show at which the dress appeared. Like other settler organizations, OR aims to replace Palestinian communities with Jewish ones and is the antithesis of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
Settler groups, like OR, are dedicated to erasing the existence of Palestinians, a central policy of the Israeli state since its founding. Take the example of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. Home to around 1,000 people, the village was founded in 1956 by Palestinian Bedouins displaced during the Nakba. Since then, the Israeli government has refused to recognize the village’s legitimacy and, in the early 2000s, began legal proceedings to demolish the town. Residents have used civil disobedience to resist continuous rounds of demolition. As it typically does, the Israeli government has responded to this resistance with deadly violence.
In August 2017, Adalah, the legal center for minority rights in Israel, recovered a legal document detailing plans to replace Umm al-Hiran with a Jewish town named Hiran. The document states that only a Jewish Israeli citizen or a “permanent resident of Israel who observes the Torah and commandments according to Orthodox Jewish values” would be permitted to live in the town.
There are thirty-five unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. One of these, al-Araqib, has been demolished over 100 times. The Israeli government approved a plan in 2013 to demolish all unrecognized Bedouin villages and forcibly displace their inhabitants into planned towns. The Prawer Plan, as it was known, was shelved in that same year due to opposition from right-wing Israeli parliamentarians who thought the plan was too generous to those it would displace. A new version was proposed in February 2017 , which has “no substantial changes” from the original, according to Adalah.
The fashion designer, Herman, did not disclose the OR Movement’s involvement in his project to the women’s sewing collective, Desert Embroidery, that made the dress. Since learning about this deception, the collective has accused Herman of dishonesty and is preparing to institute legal proceedings. The collective has also refused to accept payment for its work.
This episode underscores the stakes involved in Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian culture. As scholar Steven Salaita wrote recently in the New Arab, in discussing Israeli theft of Palestinian food, “[I]t’s a project of erasure, a portent of nonexistence, a promise of genocide.”