From Cultural Commodification to Annexation in Occupied Palestine and Indigenous North America

Thousands of Palestinians rally in the besieged Gaza Strip in protest of Israel's annexation plan. (Photo: Fawzi Mahmoud, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

In October 2005, The Forward reported that Directors of Israel’s three most influential ministries met to decide how to enhance the country’s image abroad by moving the focus away from religion as well as glossing over the Occupation of Palestine. In fact, Brand Israel already existed as an effort to reinvent the country’s look as a place where “cool, hip people” live, a modern, progressive state.

Now known as the City Different, Santa Fe, New Mexico underwent a similar change in the early 1920s. During that period writers and artists began flocking to both Santa Fe and Taos, and in the process displaced Indigenous cultures already living there to make room for an image that would attract an increasingly lucrative trade in tourism.

In reality, the European invasion dates back several years. “[It] came to our continent,” explains Evo Morales, President, State of Bolivia, “to take our natural resources, with their politics of exterminating us. It was done through different programs that aimed at taking our identity, our culture and our traditions.”

Annexation, then, is nothing new. “Hundreds of Indigenous nations were consumed by [a] process of relentless westward expansion,” explain historians Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux) and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz. “This is a core feature of settler colonialism,” they continue, “not just the elimination of the Native, but also the naturalization of unnatural settler states built on the annexation of Indigenous land and the genocide of Indigenous people,” a process that could explain, too, Israel’s 72-year Occupation of the land and Indigenous people of Palestine.

Today, “the settler-colonial narratives require the appropriation of the Native aesthetic,” asserts Elena Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh), “while Natives themselves have been completely erased. We must remain one-dimensional, voiceless, like the images in old Edward S. Curtis photographs. This is the ongoing genocide being perpetrated in border towns like Santa Fe.”

As Elena Ortiz explains, Santa Fe has grown into “a smoldering cesspool of white privilege, entitlement, cultural appropriation and racism adorned in faux adobe, concho belts, turquoise jewelry and expensive bikini waxes,” all beneath an exterior that connotes a “spiritual mecca,” but is really nothing more than “a border town that masks its racist soul with art galleries, markets, faux adobe and fake turquoise.”

Indeed, Ortiz makes clear, the region nothing more than a national sacrifice zone because extensive mining has long compromised the health of Native people. As a result, the tribes have borne the brunt of COVID-19 cases in the state.

In what Ali Abunimah has called “Arabwashing,” Israeli corporations have used similar marketing tools in order to sidestep a growing boycott movement. For example, the Strauss Group, makers of Sabra brand hummus, ran a TV ad several years ago that featured a “Sabra World Table” in which ethnic characters from around the world gather at a multicultural feast in suburban America to enjoy this brand of hummus.

In several ways, Abunimah notes, this single commercial exemplifies Israel’s whitewashing of the Occupation. It ignores the Strauss Group’s support of the Israeli army by not mentioning Israel at all. Indeed, it presents hummus as ethnic but free-floating, not a product of any specific culture. In so doing, it is part of Israel’s commodification of Arab foods, in particular hummus, falafel, and maftoul.

Finally, just as Santa Fe is presented as a harmonious city where Native, Hispanic and Euro-American cultures live in perfect peace, this presentation of many cultures enjoying a Sabra treat glosses over Israel’s well-known racism against African migrants in Israel as well as the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, whose traditional cuisine this ad celebrates as Israel’s own.

More recently there has been a spate of Israeli designers, who appropriate the Palestinian keffiyeh, long a symbol of the resistance, in order to turn that design into Israeli haute couture. Nevertheless, as Amani Hassan, program director at the Arab British Centre, notes in an article in The Guardian, what happens is that the keffiyeh then “loses its original meaning” thereby “norma[lizing]” the Israeli Occupation.

Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, a Palestinian fashion designer, adds that this appropriation is not a coincidence, not a “random design … there is a context, there is a power imbalance … there is [a] privilege … you have people who were dispossessed in 1948 and made refugees and they still live in camps in Lebanon and then you use this garment, which carries all that pain, for personal advancement.”

Commodification of items that belong to a communal culture—whether spirituality, food or clothing—in order to gratify the self are at the very core of modern capitalism. In a time when Israel is threatening yet more annexation, and Southwest tribes are fighting fracking on their land, all kinds of appropriation—both of land and of culture—go hand in hand.

In “Stop calling it ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and call it what it is: Colonialism,” Dr. Suzanne Formes-Vierling clarifies the connection between the appropriation of land and culture. “Why is the term ‘cultural appropriation’ so problematic?” she asks. “The term as we know it presupposes that artistic and intellectual expression is separate from the taking of land and the people that toil it.”

Despite suggestions to the contrary by Bari Weiss and others, Formes-Vierling asserts that “colonizer centered” descriptions of “cultural appropriation” do not take into account the “feelings of the group experiencing theft and erasure.” Deep within the “European psyche,” she continues, there is a form of “post-colonial ownership syndrome,” that is “the unchecked reflexive act of taking from whom it believes it still physically owns.”

If the basic definition of colonialism is as Formes-Vierling writes: “The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically,” then land theft and cultural theft are one and the same act of exploitation.

In a recent Facebook post, Susan Abulhawa charged “that’s what colonizers do,” they take what does not belong to them. In this case, Abulhawa writes, “ ‘annexation’ is a sanitized word for ‘theft’ or ‘heist,” actually in much the same way that Formes-Vierling claims “cultural appropriation” is less offensive, but also less accurate, than “colonialism.” Abulhawa suggests that “Israel’s Land Theft Plan” or “Israel’s Land Heist Plan” better describes what Israel has been doing all along.

Where are the fashionistas who appropriate the keffiyeh as their own, the non-Native experts who write books on tribal rituals—where are they when Palestinian and Native people are increasingly under attack?

In Santa Fe, claims Ortiz, they are not “standing behind people of color, centering our voices, as allies.” In Occupied Palestine, too, they are too busy erasing Indigenous culture by appropriating its designs to notice that those very people are in danger of being extinguished.

“We have to decide, are we for the people or are we imperialist?” Morales asks. “Are we for the poor, for the excluded, or for the rich? Are we socialists or are we capitalists?” That question, and how to answer it, bears weight as the American elections and Israel’s desire to annex parts of the Occupied Palestinian West Bank are increasingly coming into focus.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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