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June 13, 2018 4:09 pm

New York Times Revisits ‘Folkdance Appropriation’ Allegation

avatar by Ira Stoll


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

When we last tackled the topic of Israeli dance and The New York Times, it was to comment on a Times article claiming that Israelis stole folk dancing from the Palestinian Arabs in an act of “cultural appropriation.”

Now the Times has revisited the topic in a way that undercuts that earlier claim.

The earlier Times article, from February, appeared in a question and answer format. It included 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.

The return to the topic came earlier this month, in a dispatch from what the Times describes as “the Bedouin town” of Rahat, Israel. The article, by Isabel Kershner, reports on Israeli tourists taking asix-hour Ramadan Nights trip” that “promised a guided bus tour of ‘the secrets’ of Rahat, as well as traditional debka dancing and sweets-making workshops.” A photo cutline that appeared alongside the article referred to “A dance group performing the dabke, a traditional Bedouin dance.” The spelling of the dance in the photo cutline was later updated to “debka” to make it consistent with the text of the article, though the Times did this as a “stealth edit” rather than by publishing a printed correction.

So, between February and June, the debke, or dabke, has been miraculously but without explanation transformed by the Times from a “Palestinian” dance to a “Bedouin dance.”

Why does that distinction even matter?

Well, for one thing, as Moshe Arens, the former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States, pointed out a few years ago in a column in the Times’ favorite Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, “The millions of Bedouin living throughout the Middle East are obviously not Palestinians. Not the Bedouin in Saudi Arabia, and not the Bedouin in the Sinai. And the Bedouin in Jordan — Jordanians? The first loyalty of Bedouin is believed to be to their tribe. That is also the case of the Bedouin living in the Negev.” Arens wasn’t addressing the dance issue, but his point applies.

The Bedouin, unlike Israeli Jews, are apparently permitted to dance around without the Times accusing them of having committed “cultural appropriation” of a Palestinian dance. Perhaps it’s the Palestinians themselves who are guilty of having appropriated the dance from the Bedouin? Some evidence supports this idea: an event listing for a BDS cell at Vassar concedes, “Dabke is a traditional Arab folk dance that’s been reclaimed by Palestinians as a form of cultural resistance to occupation and state violence.” “Reclaimed”? Or appropriated? The Times dances around the issue, not particularly gracefully.

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

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