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February 8, 2018 2:28 pm

New York Times Accuses Jews of Stealing Folkdances From Palestinian Arabs

avatar by Ira Stoll


The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Israelis stole folk dancing from the Palestinian Arabs in an act of “cultural appropriation,” The New York Times claims.

The accusation is made in a question-and-answer style interview in the Times arts section conducted by a Times dance critic, Siobhan Burke, with a choreographer, Hadar Ahuvia.

The Times article, which is accompanied online by three photographs and a video, includes this passage:

One issue you explore is cultural appropriation, how the pioneers of Israeli folk dance, mostly Eastern European women, drew from social dance forms like Palestinian dabke.

It’s well-documented that these women went to Palestinian villages and watched them dancing and felt they held the steps for what new Israeli dances could be. And so they borrowed steps and wrote new music and created dances that were directly synchronous to the new music, and in this way it becomes a new Israeli dance.

This was their way of participating in the nation-building and what for them was this revolutionary moment. I don’t think that cultural exchange is bad, but I think it’s about the context of whose narratives get told and seen.

This is an old claim. What’s new is the Times letting it slide unchallenged.

In his 1986 book Arab and Jew, David K. Shipler, who was a New York Times correspondent in Israel, quoted “Ibrahim Kareen of East Jerusalem” claiming, “The Israelis have stolen a lot of Palestinian culture…For instance, many dances. The Hora. This is Palestinian. Many dishes.”

Rather than allowing that claim to stand uncorrected, however, Shipler wrote, “Kareen goes a bit far. The roots of folk dance are old and tangled, and while the Hora does bear resemblance to Arab dances, the origins are too deeply buried for any side to make clear proprietary claims.” Shipler’s book won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Jewish Women’s Archive article on the history of Israeli Folk Dance says, “During the Second and Third Aliyah periods, between 1904 and 1923, the halutzim danced only dances that they had brought with them from the Diaspora — the Horah, Polka, Krakowiak, Czerkassiya and Rondo, with the Horah becoming the national dance.”

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes Israeli folk dance as “an amalgam of Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance forms from many parts of the world.” It describes the Hora as Romanian and reports, “Widespread enthusiasm for dance followed, bringing with it the creation of a multifaceted folk dance genre set to popular Israeli songs, incorporating motifs such as the Arab debka, as well as dance elements ranging from North American jazz and Latin American rhythms to the cadences typical of Mediterranean countries.”

It’s a quick step from “Israeli Jews stole Arab dance moves” to “Israel exists on stolen Palestinian land,” which is why this is such a hot topic, and perhaps also why the Times is devoting such extensive and friendly attention to Ahuvia. As Palestinian Media Watch describes it, this accusation of “heritage theft” promotes the claim that “Israel has no heritage of its own in the land and must therefore resort to stealing Palestinian heritage in order to justify its claim to the land.” For example, a 2010 Palestinian Authority television interview included the claim that the Israelis “have stolen many aspects of our heritage: our popular foods, our music, our debka [dance], our popular fashion, and of course, first and foremost, our land.”

The Times article hyperlinks to another interview in which Ahuvia talks about being “a founding member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Artist and Cultural Workers Council.” Jewish Voice for Peace “proudly” supports the demand to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.

If the Times thinks these claims are newsworthy, fine. But readers would be better served by more Shipler-style skepticism, context, and fact-checking, and less credulousness.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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