[News] Of Sabras & Rappers: Cultural Appropriation & Orientalism

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Thu Sep 3 18:43:15 EDT 2009

Of Sabras & Rappers: Cultural Appropriation & 
Orientalism in Invincible's "People Not Places"

Post • Sep 1st, 2009 at 10:53

WRITTEN BY Michelle J. Kinnucan

Author's note: This article was started and 
mostly completed in December 2008. Then the 
Israeli massacre in Gaza intervened, followed by 
an intensification of organizing efforts for the 
Dance Company protests After that, it gathered 
dust in the Drafts folder while I moved 
cross-country. An extended, remix version of 
"People Not Places" was just dubbed 
Hip-Hop Song for Palestine Ever" by blogger Will 
on Kabobfest. The text that appears below is 
substantially the same as the one completed last December.

Recently, I got an e-mail from someone about a 
Israeli-American rapper who uses the stage name, 
"Invincible" (pictured at left). The message was 
a forward of an e-mail from the International 
Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) promoting 
Invincible's song, 
Not Places." One of IJAN's points of unity is 
"Challenging the privileging of Jewish voices in 
conversations and negotiations about Palestine." 
It is, at least partly, in this spirit that I proceed.

So, I listened to the song and read the lyrics. 
My first impression was of appropriation of 
Palestinian culture even though Invincible is not 
entirely insensitive to the issue of "Erasing the 
culture." It is said that imitation is the 
highest form of flattery but I wonder. There is a 
harmful, ongoing process of Jewish appropriation 
of Arab 
is what some people call it.

For example, Israeli linguist 
Zuckermann says "Modern Hebrew" is "a 
semi-engineered Semito-European hybrid language." 
He continues, "The formation of so-called 
'Israeli Hebrew' 
 was facilitated at the end of 
the nineteenth century by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda 
further the Zionist cause. 
 it was not until the 
beginning of the twentieth century that the 
language was first spoken." Some words for this 
language were simply invented but others were adapted or lifted from Arabic.

Consider sabr, the English transliteration of the 
Arabic name for the prickly pear cactus. As 
and Zacharia, authors of Palestine and the 

The prickly cactus bush called the sabr became a 
national symbol because it dots Palestine, 
marking the areas of 
villages. In Palestinian folklore it is known as 
a symbol of patience and perseverance. Like the 
enduring cactus, the Palestinians remained 
steadfast (samedoun or samedin) in their struggle 
despite great pressures threatening to separate 
and destroy the people's relationship with their land and cultural heritage.

To many Jews, though, 
sabra (Hebrew for the same plant) is a metaphor 
for the idealized, 
Israeli-born Jew.

On food, 
<http://www.santafenewmexican.com/Food/1022LEDE-Hummus>Jana Gur writes:

The Zionist enterprise brought to Israel Jews 
from all over the world, each carrying memories 
of food they grew up on. At first, the ethos was 
rejection of everything that reeked of Diaspora 
and an eager, almost childish, embrace of the 
Levant. The infatuation with falafel and hummus, 
staples of Arabic cuisine, started there. 
not a single Israeli will claim that this 
chickpea and tahini concoction [hummus] is 
anything but Arabic, the status it has reached in 
Israel is unprecedented anywhere in the Middle East.

Gur's "not a single Israeli" remark is, perhaps, 
not so easy to sustain (see 
Or see the web site of 
<http://www.sabra.com/>Sabra Hummus (yes, that 
"sabra") where hummus is referred to as a 
"Mediterranean" food. (An Israeli company, the 
Group, owns a 50% stake in the company that makes 
Sabra Hummus and, therefore, 
Hummus is being boycotted by people of conscience).

In the aptly titled 
Zionism: an ingathering of the edibles," Eythan-David Volcot-Freeman writes:

When asked to define "Israeli food," Diaspora 
Jews invariably point to hummus, falafel 
national snack"], and shawarma. 
 Presented with 
the same query, a sabra (native-born Israeli) 
would likely describe a typical Israeli meal 
featuring Middle Eastern hummus as a starter 
The early halutzim (settlers) found inspiration 
in their Arab neighbors, whose lifestyle recalled 
that of the biblical Hebrews. Shawarma, falafel 
and hummus soon became "sabra" foods.

And here is a passage from 
Jewish Keffyieh":

"I hate the idea" confesses Hasan Nusseibeh, 27, 
a teacher at Al-Quds University. "They stole our 
land I guess it’s normal that they steal our 
Keffiyeh too", comments his little sister Sahar, 
a student. Their brother Munir reminds that this 
country dress is part of the culture of the 
region and that "Israelis are looking for new 
bonds with this ground". He believes that the 
"keffiyeh" is only another "effort" they're 
making in this sense. This young lawyer then 
enumerates the previous cases of cultural 
appropriation: traditional dress and embroidery, 
falafel and hummous. "Soon they'll claim that the 
Konafa (Arabic pastry) is Jewish!" jokes Ma'moun 
M. Kassem, responsible for an Italian NGO, who 
accuses Israelis of being "arrogant" and "thieves".

Overall, Invincible's rap song 
Not Places" calls to mind Edward Said's critique 
of Orientalism–"A Western style for dominating, 
restructuring, and having authority over the 
Orient." Here, we have Invincible, an 
Israeli-American Jew, using a 
Black spoken word form with the backing of an 
Arab instrumental track to speak out about the 
Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe.

In Orientalism, Gustave Flaubert's representation 
of an Egyptian dancer stage-named Kuchuk Hanem is 
described by Said: "she never spoke of herself, 
she never represented her emotions, presence, or 
history. He [Flaubert] spoke for and represented 
her." Have things changed so much since Flaubert's time?

Today, the Palestinian voice or 'cause' is 
frequently mediated through or represented by 
Jews like Invincible, Ora Wise, Anna Baltzer, 
Norman Finkelstein, Jeff Halper, Noam Chomsky, 
Kovel, Michael Lerner, Gila Svirsky, Phyllis 
Bennis, Susan Nathan, Marc Ellis, Hannah 
Mermelstein, Daniel Barenboim, Uri Avnery, 
Mitchell Plitnick, 
Wesley, etc. (on mainstream representations of 
Arabs/Muslims by the 
Jewish Hollywood, even by Jewish actors, see 
of the Arabs").

The problem is twofold: First, these folks don't 
typically content themselves with bringing their 
message to primarily Jewish audiences; rather, 
they crowd out Palestinian and other non-Jewish 
voices–they disproportionately occupy the finite 
social space devoted to 'Israel-Palestine.' And, 
thus, they enable–inadvertently or not–others who 
are uncomfortable having Arabs represent 
themselves. One result is a self-fulfilling 
prophecy I've personally heard too often: "People won't come to hear Arabs."

Commenting on an earlier draft of this section, a 
friend wrote "
 its high time that more 
anti-Zionist Jews should step up to the plate. We 
always hear about the deep moral failings of 'the 
good Germans' of the Nazi era: where are all 'the 
good Jews'?" The "good German" is, of course, a 
trope for Germans who did not oppose the Nazis in 
the 1930s and 40s. My reply is yes, but the "good 
Germans" should have been working on/against 
other Germans not explaining to the French or 
Swedes that "we're really good people and not all 
Germans support the Reich's occupation policies." 
And, certainly, the "good Germans" should not 
have been displacing Roma/Sinti, Poles, Jews, and 
other victims of the Nazis and lecturing them and 
their allies on the 'proper,' philo-Teutonic way to oppose the Nazis.

Frankly, there is something perverse about the 
prominence in the US Palestinian solidarity 
movement of so many people who hail from and 
identify with the oppressor group, especially 
when one considers that Jews comprise 
than two percent of the US population. Do/should 
we allow male "allies" to so dominate the 
discourse on sexism? How about White "allies" 
controlling discussion of anti-Black racism? I 
know of only one historical parallel and that is 
the early American anti-slavery movement. 
Dominated by Whites, it was conservative, 
reformist rather than abolitionist, 
segregationist, and had no room in it for the 
likes of articulate former slaves such as 
Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth. Needless 
to say, it was largely counterproductive and racist, too.

The second problem is that their presence and 
prominence allow Jews to strongly influence the 
agenda and the parameters of 'acceptable' 
discourse. This often, but not always, means a 
focus on the occupation of 1967 but not the 
occupation of 1948, a reiteration of the 
narrative of Jewish victimhood and the crucial 
importance of combating 
support for the "two-state solution," and a 
blackout of the <http://bdsmovement.net/>BDS 
campaign. This is understandable as we are all 
creatures of our own backgrounds and experiences 
but it is not excusable. To paraphrase Said: For 
a Jew working on Israel-Palestine there can be no 
disclaiming the main circumstances of her 
actuality: that she comes up against Palestine as 
a Jew first, as an individual second. And to be a 
Jew in such a situation is by no means an inert fact.

Let us now examine Invincible's lyrics. In the first verse she says:

museum of the holocaust
walkin outside- in the distance-saw a ghost throwing a Molotov
houses burnt with kerosene-mass graves-couldn't bare the scene
it wasn't a pogrom-it was the ruins of Deir Yassin

Prior to this she contrasts "a land without a 
people for people without a land?" with "But I 
see a man standing with a key and a deed in his 
hand". It is clear that she means to expose 
hypocrisy by contrasting 
Vashem with the 
<http://www.deiryassin.org/>massacre at Deir 
Yassin but why is it that a pogrom is not a 
pogrom if it happens to Arabs? As a rapper, words 
are her medium. Can it be that she does not know 
that "pogrom," usually applied to attacks on 
Jews, can also refer to 
on non-Jews? Even former Israeli Prime Minister 
Ehud Olmert referred to 
violence against Arabs as a "pogrom." And since 
when are rappers bound by linguistic convention? 
If that is the issue then why not smash that 
Judeo-centric convention and liberate the word? 
If that was Invincible's actual intent then it is by no means obvious.

And why is it that the 1933-1945 pogrom(s) 
detailed in Yad Vashem are implicitly 
bearable/'bareable'(?) but the pogrom of 1948 
against Arabs in Deir Yassin is not? Is it 
because Jews were the perps just three years 
after the end of WW II? And as one of my Arab 
sisters pointed out "ghost throwing a Molotov" is 
obscure. Why is that? Who's throwing Molotov 
cocktails at whom? Is all this, as Edward Said 
put it in "Zionism from the Standpoint of its 
Victims," some expression of discomfort with 
"treading upon the highly sensitive ground of what Jews did to their victims"?

Invincible begins the chorus with "my Ima misses 
people not places". Invincible's "Ima" (Hebrew 
for mother) is not unknown to me. Although her 
mother, Tamar, lives in the US now, she is a 
determined Israeli nationalist who does not 
shrink from interjecting her opinion at 
Palestinian solidarity events to support Israel 
and the "two-state solution" to permanently 
lock-in the violent theft by Jews of 78% of Palestine in 1947-48.

In an interview last Summer, Invincible said, 
"Recently my mom took a trip back home and her 
sister kicked her out of the house for protesting 
the Wall." But her mom is not above getting her 
own licks in. Just last month she chastised me 
for quoting 
who dare to refer to "Israeli apartheid" and said 
calls for cultural and academic boycotts of 
Israel are "wrong." Further, 
is a member of a 
synagogue that 
it's children with armed Israeli soldiers and 
supports a rabbi who gave 
justification for torture from the 

So, Invincible's Ima seems pretty committed to 
Israel as a Jewish place even if she doesn't 
"miss" it. It is clear that Invincible does not 
let her mother's remark go unchallenged. As she 
(and Abeer) indicates, the places and the people 
cannot be so easily disconnected. But, perhaps, 
one lesson of this is that Invincible should 
consider focusing even more exclusively on 
challenging Zionism within the nerve center of Zionism–the Jewish community.

Certainly, as Israeli Jew, she potentially has 
entree to the Jewish community that few, if any, 
non-Jews, esp. Arabs, could hope to achieve. 
Anti-Zionist Jews can't expect gilded invitations 
from the Jewish mainstream but there are plenty 
of Jewish communal events to infiltrate and 
quietly subvert or to protest and disrupt. No 
doubt this, in part, explains her connection with 
the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network but 
the organization appears afflicted by many of the 
shortcomings discussed by Gilad Atzmon concerning 
a not dissimilar Jewish group (see Atzmon's 
IN MY NAME'  An analysis of Jewish righteousness").

Invincible, again in the chorus, tells us "You'll 
never be a peaceful state with legal 
displacement." True enough but why not openly and 
forthrightly interrogate the very "legality" of 
this "displacement" when in fact all of it 
violated international law whatever Israeli law 
may say? "You'll never be a peaceful state with 
phony legal displacement" works, doesn't it? 
Also, the implication is that the state will be 
peaceful when the displacement ends but how 
realistic or desirable is it that "Israel" would 
continue to exist if Palestinians were allowed to return?

In the second verse, Invincible tells us:

This aint about a Quaran or a synagogue or Mosque or Torah
The colonizer break it into acres and dunums

This denial of religious motivations in invading 
and occupying Palestine comes just a few lines 
after Invincible acknowledges performing a 
profoundly religious act at one of the most important sites in Judaism:

At the wailing wall I’m rollin a wish
Then stick it in between the hole in the bricks

Although in recent decades Islam has become more 
prominent as an important ideology in organizing 
the resistance of Jewish occupations of Lebanon 
and Palestine (Hizbullah and Hamas were both 
founded in the 1980s), it is true that–on the 
part of Palestinians–the conflict in Palestine is 
not mainly about religion. In "Zionism from the 
Standpoint of its Victims," Edward Said notes, "
Jewish colonizers in Palestine (well before World 
War I) always met with unmistakable native 
resistance, not because the natives thought that 
Jews were evil, but because most natives do not 
take kindly to having their territory settled by foreigners."

Conversely, the Zionist invasion and occupation 
of Palestine is very much "about" synagogue and 
Torah. "The colonizer" who broke it "into acres 
and dunums" was a Jewish colonizer on a 
self-consciously Jewish mission to suppress or 
remove non-Jews in order to build a Jewish 
country. As with the Molotov thrower discussed 
above, Invincible obscures the identity of the 
"colonizer"–the power of naming is foregone. This 
is a pattern Invincible repeats in the third verse:

200 year old Olive trees uprooted the groves
to build a wall now Their future enclosed

Who uprooted those groves? Who built that wall? 
Again, the power of naming is kept in check.

The 'secular Zionism' fairy tale is one that 
distracts folks from, as Ludwig von Mises put it, 
"the ideology that generates war"–in this case, 
elsewhere, in The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl, 
the key figure of modern political Zionism, 
claimed, "we [Jews] feel our historic affinity 
only through the faith of our fathers 
" and the 
Jewish "Faith unites us." In The Origins of 
Zionism, David Vital writes "characteristically, 
on the day [in 1897] before the [first Zionist] 
Congress opened, a Saturday, Herzl attended the 
morning service at the local synagogue and was 
duly honoured by being called to the 
of the Law 
" (p. 355). Also, Herzl described the 
reaction of his "only spiritual mentor and 
intimate confidant," the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, 
Moritz Guedemann, to Herzl's book, The Jewish 
State, as follows: "Guedemann has read the first 
proofs and writes me in rapture. He believes that 
the tract will strike like a bombshell, and work wonders."

And as the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Hermann Adler, 
said in a sermon published in the Jewish 
Chronicle in 1898: "Every believing and 
conforming Israelite must be Zionist 
" Adler's 
successor, Hertz, gave a clear and strong 
religious imprimatur to the infamous Balfour 
Declaration before its issuance. After a visit to 
Palestine in 1925, Chief Rabbi Hertz 
affirmatively described Jewish colonization there 
as follows: "Religious zealots and fanatic 
free-thinkers alike rejoice in the redemption of 
the soil by Jewish labor, and look upon it as the 
holiest of human duties." In 1967, the immediate 
past Chief Rabbi of Britain, Immanuel Jakobovits, 
called "upon the Anglo-Jewish community to 
mobilise all its resources in the defence of 
Israel" which had just launched the Six-Day War. In 1977, Jakobovits wrote:

The origins of the Zionist idea are of course 
entirely religious. The slogan "The Bible is our 
mandate" is a credo hardly less insistently 
pleaded by many secularists than by religious 
believers as the principal basis of our legal and 
historical claim to the land of Israeli 
Political Zionism itself could never have taken 
root if it had not planted its seeds in soil 
ploughed and fertilised by the millennial 
conditioning of religous memories, hopes, 
prayers, and visions of our eventual return to 
 No rabbinical authority disputes that our 
claim to a Divine Mandate (and we have no other 
which can not be invalidated) extends over the 
entire Holy Land within its historic borders and 
that halachically we have no right to surrender this claim.*

With reference to Jakobovits' "credo" above, in 
1936, when asked about the basis for the Jewish 
claim to Palestine, Ben-Gurion told the British 
Peel Commission: 
Bible is our mandate." On the matter of Judaism 
and Zionism see also the 1942 statement declaring 
Zionism to be an 
of Judaism" and signed by 757 Rabbis–"the largest 
number of rabbis whose signatures are attached to 
a public pronouncement in all Jewish history."

Returning Invincible's lyrics, am I the only one 
uncomfortable with Palestinians being likened to 
slow, passive marine mammals? Granted, it's not 
as bad as Israeli general and government minister 
Rafael Eitan likening Palestinians to "drugged 
cockroaches" (NY Times 11/24/2004) but, still, it 
is dehumanizing. From the third verse:

Disguising lies extincting lives like <http://www.manatees.net/>manatees
Callin it a transfer? Please-
More like a catastrophe!
Birthright tours recruiting em, confuse em into moving in

"confuse em into moving in"? Please. This comes 
across as another example of the 
cast as victim. Jewish victimhood of one form or 
another is a persistent theme and as Norman Finkelstein has observed:

 The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable 
ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one 
of the world's most formidable military powers, 
with a horrendous human rights record, has cast 
itself as a "victim" state, and the most 
successful ethnic group in the United States has 
likewise acquired victim status. Considerable 
benefits accrue to this specious victimhood–in 
particular, immunity to criticism, however justified.

So, why is Invincible reinforcing one of 
Zionism's most potent weapons? The entire song is 
a narrative of a Birthright Israel trip. In notes, Invincible writes:

The song takes the listener on a journey through 
a haunted "birthright" tour where the buried 
Palestinian significance of each location comes 
to light. Along the route i expose the process of 
historic and continued colonization as being even 
deeper than land seizure and ethnic cleansing of 
Palestinians, but one that is invested in erasing 
the Arabic language, culture, and memory.

Is Invincible or the (at least partly 
autobiographical) protagonist of the song the 
only Jew capable of seeing through Zionist 
propaganda? Is she the only one who can 
"superimpose the truth"? Do those Jews who 
emigrate to Israel have no responsibility for 
their choices, no duty to learn, see, and refuse 
to become colonizers and instruments of 
injustice? How can it be that they are just confused?

If the Birthright Zionists are portrayed as 
passive in "People Not Places," they are not the 
only ones. Except in one instance, i.e. "their 
grandkids is the ones that's throwing rocks at 
borders," Palestinians are merely passive 
victims, not a resisting people with their own sense of agency.

It's time to bring this to a close. Some will no 
doubt object to my critique above. It may be 
argued that Invincible has the support of some 
Palestinians such as Abeer, who performs on 
Not Places." I would point out that even Gone 
with the Wind had Black actors. It's not for me 
to judge Abeer or, for that matter, Butterfly 
McQueen or Hattie McDaniel but I think the comparison bears some consideration.

The Billy Jack movies of the 1970s–starring Tom 
Laughlin, a White man playing an American 
Indian–also come to mind. As Amanda J. Cobb 
in Hollywood's Indians, the films:

 say more about white Americans coming to terms 
with their feelings about the Vietnam conflict 
than they do about the lives, experiences, or 
feelings of actual Native American people. These 
images have contributed to the conceptualization 
of American Indians not as distinct nations of 
people or as distinct individuals or even, in 
fact, as people at all, but rather as a singular 
character or idea, "the Indian" - an idea that 
helps whites understand themselves through 
 Using the idea of the Indian, 
especially in terms of "playing Indian," time and 
time again is an act of cultural appropriation - 
an act that threatens the continuance of Native 
cultures and Native sovereignty.

Summing up, in the first part of this post I 
examined how Jews and, in particular, Israeli 
Jews have appropriated or stolen Arab culture. 
With that background, I situated Invincible's 
performance of "People Not Places" in the context 
of Edward Said's work on Orientalism. In the 
second part I took a closer look at the lyrics of 
"People Not Places" and argued, implicitly, that 
they validate concerns about cultural 
appropriation and Orientalism. It is my hope that 
this article will prompt a larger discussion 
about Jewish representations of Jews, 
Palestinians, and the Israel-Palestine conflict 
and also about the dearth of Palestinian 
self-representations of their own lives and issues.

* Except as otherwise noted, the source for the 
preceding three paragraphs is Immanuel 
Jakobovits, The Attitude to Zionism of Britain's 
Chief Rabbis as Reflected in Their Writings, 
(London: Jewish Historical Society of England, 1981).

Thanks to LH, H. Samuel, LN, Khawla, and Joseph 
for their pre-publication comments on this post.

Michelle J. Kinnucan's writing has previously 
appeared in CommonDreams.org, Critical Moment, 
Palestine Chronicle, Arab American News, 
Electronic Intifada, Palestine Think Tank and 
elsewhere. Her 2004 investigative report on the 
Global Intelligence Working Group was featured in 
Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven 
Stories Pr., 2004) and she contributed a chapter 
to Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise 
(Peter Lang, 2006). Click 
<http://michellejkinnucan.myopenid.com/>here for 
information on how to contact her.

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