“Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep meaning of the culture he is appropriating.” – Amanda Stenberg
Cultural appropriation and dispossession have been present for many centuries in our history. More recently, discussions of heritage have focused on appropriation in the context of mainstream popular culture. For example, the appropriation of Native American designs in high couture clothing or the theft of musical forms of native and marginalized groups.
The Arch of Titus monument in Rome is one of the oldest symbols of cultural appropriation. It depicts the Romans taking a Menorah (Jewish candlestick) from Judea as spoils of war after defeating the Jews, conquering Jerusalem, and destroying its Second Temple in 70 C.E.
With this victory – and as a way to strip the Jews of their nativity and ancestral roots with the land of Israel – their synagogues were destroyed, the name of their capital Jerusalem was changed to “Aelia Capitolina,” and the land of Judea was renamed to “Palestine,” in honor of the Philistines. They were the enemies of the Jews. “Palestinian” or Phlishtim is a Hebrew word derived from palash, meaning “invader.”
History and current disputes have shown that culture and heritage are always most at risk in times of conflict. Thus, we witness how the Palestinian rhetoric appropriates in an uninformed and banal way the speeches and banners of struggle that correspond to marginalized and oppressed groups, leveraging them to seduce with historical revisionism within its narrative.
For example, “apartheid” is a term that comes from the Afrikaans language and can be translated as “separation,” which implies social disintegration based on a legislated racial hierarchy. In recent years, the Palestinian cause has used this label against Israel without any legal or academic rigor, which constitutes an offensive and false cultural appropriation and an insult to the millions of black South Africans who have suffered under an apartheid regime.
In this sense, the opinion of Nkululeko Nkosi, president of the Wits Branch of the Youth League of the African National Congress, is illuminating: “For black South Africans, apartheid was more than just systematic discrimination against our people. It was a project that aimed to rob a specific race of its history, culture, dignity, and humanity. Those who apply the term ‘apartheid’ to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are guilty of perpetuating that same theft, by denying the uniqueness of the racism and hatred that we faced, and which we have overcome with much blood and tears.”
The distorted use of this concept is easy to refute. Israel’s multiethnic and multiracial democracy is self-explanatory. As an example, let us note that an Islamist Arab party in the current government helped form an actual coalition. Likewise, there are Arabs in parliament, the Supreme Court, and the armed forces’ upper echelons. Although the Arab minority in Israel faces challenges similar to other minorities worldwide, they are fully integrated into daily life, with equal civil and political rights.
Another example is the misappropriation of the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” by Palestinian propagandists. In effect, the last decades have left us with devastating campaigns of these crimes against humanity, such as the one perpetrated by the Turkish government against the Kurds, that of Serbia against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, the one operated by the Burmese army against the Rohingya and the massacre against the Uyghurs in China, where almost two million people were subjected to forced labor, torture, and sexual abuse.
Usurping the suffering of others in an inaccurate and sensationalist way not only trivializes the horrors experienced by these groups displaced by their ethnicity but also diverts the honest discussion around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel is a conflict between two nations, not a conflict over equal rights within a nation or the racial domination of one group over another. To disregard the three-decade leadership of the Palestinian National Authority over the West Bank is to throw away years of Palestinian national vindication and peace processes.
Of particular concern is the grotesque narrative of some Palestinian activists, who try to appropriate the term “Holocaust,” equating an international dispute with one of the darkest massacres of our humanity. The Holocaust was a systematic and sophisticated plan to exterminate more than 6,000,000 Jews. The trivial appropriation of this concept, as an effort to relativize the Jewish experience of one of the most tragic episodes in their history, is not only an inappropriate tactic but also openly immoral.
According to a 2021 survey, 93% of Arab citizens in East Jerusalem said they would rather live under an Israeli government than a Palestinian one. It is difficult to understand this number within the context of “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” or “Holocaust.”
The use of tendentious and coarse slogans in the Palestinian cause does nothing more than delegitimize their discourse and close the spaces for real discussion on the fundamental problems that Palestinians are experiencing, harming the critical debate on history, ideas, and possible solutions.
The defamation and cultural appropriation of concepts foreign to the Palestinian cause are offensive, encourage extremists on both sides, demoralize moderates, provoke political polarization, and, above all, damages the hope of building lasting peace through a reliable path with mutual recognition and reconciliation.
A different version of this article appeared in the Spanish-language periodical Diario y Radio Universidad de Chile.
Vanessa Hites is a lawyer, former president of the Jewish Student Federation of Chile, and a 2015-2016 CAMERA Fellowship alumna.