In the past, pro-Palestinian activists have accused Israel of stealing “indigenous” Palestinian foods such as hummus and falafel.
Now, a small group has its sights on an unlikely target, an Israeli-born choreographer featured this summer at a prestigious Lincoln Center festival in New York.
Their complaint? That Arab culture is being “exploited” and “appropriated” by one of his dances.
“Our cultural heritage is not your natural resource,” dancers from a New York-based troupe say in an online video, wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Dabke” in Arabic.
Zvi Gotheiner, a New York-based choreographer who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, directs the modern dance company ZviDance which last year created a piece called “Dabke” based on a dance that he characterizes as the national dance of Syria and Lebanon. He says it’s also performed by Palestinians as an expression of resistance to Israel.
The new composition is not sitting well with four activists who posted a video on YouTube decrying the theme of the piece. In it, they say, “Like it or not, by appropriating Dabke, and labeling it Israeli, you further the power imbalance. This makes us feel taken advantage of. Exploited. Commodfied.”
“You may not realize it but your cultural appropriation is our cultural loss,” they charge.
The Dabke folk dance seen at many Arab weddings and celebrations in the Middle East is characterized usually by a line of men with their arms linked stomping the ground. There is also an Israeli version of the dance called Debka. (It’s also the name of a popular website that reports on Middle East security issues).
Choreographer Gotheiner told TheBlaze he “was not surprised and actually was expecting a reaction like that” and said he even understands the protesters.
“DABKE (my work) is a contemporary dance, inspired by the amazing dancers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, whom we watch on YouTube and learned the Dabke from. Yes, you could call this ‘cultural appropriation,’ as we borrowed moves from these dancers,” he told TheBlaze in an email.
The work was featured this summer at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival and included no dancers from Israel.
“This act might go unnoticed if Russians would dance the tango or teenagers from Japan would perform hip-hop. But in the Middle East, culture represent authenticity, and being authentic represent a true connection to the land. I was aware of these issues while making DABKE and was aware of the fact that my identity could come to play as an issue in the total perception of the work,” he said.
Gotheiner told TheBlaze he hopes his artistic work contributes to peace and understanding.
“I wish art making could solve territorial disputes (and these will be solved eventually), and although not that naive, I use my little artistic voice to raise consciousness with the hope it will help in the effort to advance this process,” he said.
“I made DABKE with deep respect and admiration for the Dabke dancers, whom we learned the form from. These dancers can teach us all the meaning of coming together – dancing in a circle, linked with a strong grip of the arms, stomping the ground with ecstasy,” he said. “I prefer telling the human story, rather than making a political statement.”
In 2010, Israel and Lebanon engaged in what was characterized as a “hummus war” in which Israel was accused of trying to claim the dish as its own.
The Telegraph reported at the time that Lebanese businessmen had planned to take legal action to patent the dish as Lebanese.
The video of the pro-Palestinian New York Dabke dancers can be seen here: